New story: North of Eden

Not gonna lie. This was not an easy story to write. The sources were great and the editor perceptive, but the subject matter itself was challenging: a decades-old architectural controversy that few wanted to go on record speaking about negatively.

But there was another tension at the heart of the piece, the fact that at the University of Virginia nothing escapes the gravitational pull of the ideas of its founder, Thomas Jefferson. That force — constraining or inspiring, probably always both — is inescapable. As I wrote, “University leaders and planners can push toward, pull from, and have a thousand splintered attitudes about this reference, but UVA will never know what it is like not to have it.”

Difference makers

In one byline I’m DeWald; in the other, Dewald. But I’m not complaining. The reason U.Va. got two shots at getting my name right is that they were nice enough to publish two profiles I wrote for their magazine’s “Difference Maker” department.

They appeared a year apart, in the 2015 and 2016 spring issues. The women at the heart of each story deserve the magazine department’s title, but their stories came into my hands very differently.

I saw Lauranett Lee speak on a panel, probably in 2013, about her work combing through slaveholders’ records at the Virginia Historical Society to find details about the people they held in human bondage. She was using these details to build a database that people with ancestors held as slaves could search to begin to reconstruct their lost family histories. I’m moved just typing about it now.

What really struck me, though, was the way Lauranett described how difficult the process was, not technically but emotionally. She immersed herself in our nation’s deepest injustice in order to rescue the names of heretofore unknown victims. Living in those records day in and day out took a harsh toll on her as she turned over the names of men, women and children, and the dollar valuations next to them.

I got in touch with her for an interview and wrote a 1,200-word piece with no idea where it might ever appear, if anywhere. I just wanted to know more, and writing was my way in. At a friend’s suggestion, I pitched her alma mater. The new piece that resulted was very different than the one I pitched, but I was happy with both. Most of all, I really admired Lauranett’s work and perseverence and wanted to get her story out there, even if only a little.

The story prompted two letters (maybe more?) that the editors published in the following issue. A man in Ohio wrote this: “One of life’s pleasures, and a rationale for hoarding printed material, is to reread or peruse a magazine or brochure and discover something you may have skipped or skimmed earlier. So it was for me, after thumbing through and reading much of the spring issue, that the story about Lauranett Lee’s research caught my eye. What a wonderful story! And what an important project, despite its obvious heartache. I salute her and writer Matthew DeWald [sic, argh] for this report.”

A woman in New York, the parent of a 2010 graduate, wrote this: “We still visit UVA once or twice a year, and as we meander along the pathways of the Academical Village we cannot help but wonder and imagine about the many slaves who built this gem of a university. Who were they and what were their stories? Thank you, Lauranett Lee! I look forward to receiving updates on this extremely valuable project.”

In a comment on the online version a story, a man asked about meeting with Lauranett to uncover his own family’s history. It was a gift to me to write about her work.

Months later U.Va. came back pitching me a story. Its alum Nicole Hurd has built a Peace Corps-like program called College Advising Corps that sends recent college graduates into under-resourced high schools across the country to help minority, first-generation college, and students from other groups under-represented in higher ed get to college. Far too many fall through what we politely call the cracks but are more like gaping holes. Something like a fourth of low-income students who score in the top quartile on standardized tests never go to college. I was one of those kids, but I made it to a regional public school thanks to a scholarship.

In Hurd’s story, my familiarity with things Catholic came in very handy; her dissertation research into a Catholic nun turned education advocate a century ago sparked Hurd’s own interest in this work.

The opportunity to write her story was another gift, and I hope it prompts people to reach out to her and the students she serves.

This kid has options

New story for work. A detail I left out was that she spent a year in Paris and doesn’t care if she ever goes back. Ghana? She can’t wait to get back there.


The player

New story for work. The tough thing about being a college basketball player or any student-athlete is that it’s all-consuming and somewhat insular. Your schedules are regimented. You study, travel, live and practice with your teammates. It leaves little time for other interests and opportunities like study abroad and internships, not to mention plain-old wasting time doing nothing at all.

The new leader story

New story for work. Stories about new leaders come with the job; the trick is making them interesting. The incoming provost, a scientist who founded a biotech company, was promising on that front. One detail that didn’t make the cut: She’s secretary and treasurer of a group of researchers called The Protein Society, which prompts the question I didn’t ask: At the society’s annual conference buffet, steak or lentils?

[Twelve bonus points for this post for proper use of two colons in a single sentence.]

In the best interests

New story for work. For some stories, there’s no institutional imperative, no check box to tick off by posting. Some you write for no reason other than the person at the center is a fundamentally good person who catches your admiration and makes you want to be a better version of yourself. That’s Katie.

Everything you’re supposed to do

As soon-to-be new parents, my wife and I knew almost nothing. But we knew enough to know that. So we asked family members, doctors, nurses, just about anyone, “What are we supposed to do?”

And we listened. We listened to obstetricians, read books and magazines, and sought advice from his future grandparents about everything we could think of. What will happen during childbirth? How can the house be safer? How will we know when he’s sick? What should he eat when it comes time for solids? When is that?

As I write, Max, almost 2-and-half now, is no doubt asleep a few hundred yards away at the Bombeck Family Learning Center. He’s had his center lunch and is napping under the quilt his grandmother sewed for his second birthday. At home, we’ve taught him to stay out of the street, to treat the dog respectfully, not to eat food he drops. And we prepare his food carefully, cutting large pieces of fruit into smaller ones, cooking meat thoroughly, doing everything a parent is supposed to do.

On the phone yesterday from Wisconsin, Barbara Buck Kowalcyk ’91 put this age well when she told me, “I fell madly in love with my kids when they were 2.” In the summer of 2001, Barb’s son Kevin was 2-and-a-half. This past summer, he was still 2-and-a-half. Kevin will always be 2-and-a-half. And she’s still madly in love with him.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Barb’s family learned from her county’s health officials that husband Mike ’90 and Kevin’s older sister Megan, then 5, had been infected with E. coli O157:H7. Samples had been taken from the family about five weeks earlier while Kevin was in a Madison-area hospital suffering with the same infection, “crawling around the crib in agony,” says Barb.

In the hospital, they did what the doctors told them to do. Despite his begging, they withheld water or juice for days to aid his treatment. After three days they relented on his pleas for a sponge bath. “As soon as the washcloth came near his mouth,” she says, “he grabbed it, bit down on it, and sucked the water out of it. It broke our hearts.”

In the last eight days I’ve taken Max to the zoo to visit the penguins. We raked too many autumn leaves to count. We went to a minor league hockey game. His grandparents visited. I’ve washed his favorite new cup dozens of times since the penguins. I’ve read him If You Give a Mouse a Cookie dozens of times. One can do a lot in eight days.

Kevin slipped away from his family slowly over eight days. Through sedation, dialysis, tubes in his lungs, his doctors tried to keep his body alive to fight HUS, a syndrome that sometimes develops when dying E. coli O157:H7 cells release poisons. Still, when Kevin’s large and small intestines failed and he died, his family felt “like he had been hit by an invisible truck.”

Barb and Mike wanted answers. They learned that the E. coli that infected Mike and Megan and killed Kevin probably came from contaminated meat, perhaps from ground beef. Barb insists that she never fed her family undercooked meat, always cleaned surfaces carefully and did all the things consumers are told to do to handle meat safely.

What she learned only after Kevin’s death was that if there is E. coli in ground beef, it has likely come into contact with cow manure. Cow manure can be introduced into meat any number of ways — by the knife that cuts the carcass or from the digestive track spilling its contents during removal. A slaughterhouse can process 400 cows an hour; the meat from one tainted cow can contaminate tens of thousands of hamburgers. Food-borne illnesses caused by E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens take 5,000 lives in the United States a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some dispute the number. Rosemary Mucklow of the National Meat Association, quoted in the May 13 issue of Food Chemical News, a publication for food producers, asked to know “where the bodies are buried.” Kevin wears a white ring bearer’s suit in his grave. Barb sent Mucklow its picture and address. It’s what a mother does.

The USDA cannot close plants that consistently fail tests for certain potentially lethal pathogens. A bill in Congressional subcommittee called the Meat and Poultry Reduction and Enforcement Act of 2002, better known as Kevin’s Law, authorizes the USDA to set and enforce tough limits on food-borne pathogens, allowing it to shut down plants that repeatedly test positive for salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens. Congressional co-sponsors have been difficult to recruit.

Night comes early in the late autumn. It’s time for me to walk down in the twilight to pick up Max, put his coat on and take him home. I’ll get a slip of paper telling me how long he napped, what songs he learned. I’ll read what he ate at snack time and lunchtime, and I’ll wonder if we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do. I’ll wonder too if the people producing his food and assuring its safety are doing what they’re supposed to do.

(Essay by author; reprinted from University of Dayton Quarterly, Winter 2002-03; Barb has gone on to get a doctorate in environmental health at University of Cincinnati (Go Bearcats!) and establish the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention at N.C. State University.)