Monday, March 30, 2009

Rooting for the 'Cats with eyes on a Tar Heel

Like many Philadelphia area residents, I'm a Villanova basketball fan. They're always the team with the heart, the spark, the special quality that makes people smile when they win. While I don't join in the March bracket-Madness, I think college basketball is one of the most entertaining and unpredictable sports, and Villanova with Scottie Reynolds doesn't disappoint.

But Saturday night's upcoming matchup will be a little tricky for some people in this area. We want our Super Nova to blaze, but there is a particular North Carolina starter that we also claim as our own.

Tar Heels Number 22 Wayne Ellington grew up in Amity Gardens and played for Daniel Boone Area High School as a ninth grader before transferring to Episcopal Academy, where he shone in the classroom as well as on the court.

With this week's appearance in the Final Four, I am reprising a blog entry I wrote a year ago.

Saturday night brings the best of both worlds: Favorite Philly college team plays favorite hometown high school hero. That's why they call it madness.

Like every sports mom, I have sat through chilly spring evenings watching T-ball, on hard bleachers cheering through basketball, bundled against the fall winds during football, and idled away the time against a wall during gymnastics and ballet classes.

My sons both dreamed of being NBA stars until they stopped growing several inches shy of 6 feet. They have long since moved on to pursue other dreams.

While that is the case with most sports moms and future sports stars, there are some right here in our own backyard that keep growing and keep honing their skills until they're on the way to superstardom. One of the starters in the Saturday night Final Four showdown is one of those young men, an NCAA star who once ran up and down the court at Amity Elementary School, then just another player on a youth sports team, albeit the tallest kid on his team and the highest scorer.

Wayne Ellington is introduced when he takes the floor as number 22 for the North Carolina Tar Heels from Wynnewood, Pa., a graduate of Episcopal Academy and one of the most promising prep players in the national class of 2006.

But long before moving to the Main Line, he lived here, went to Amity Elementary, and then started showing his basketball potential in Daniel Boone Middle School and as a freshman starter for Daniel Boone High School before transferring to Episcopal.

Ellington was in fifth grade and my son Scott in fourth, playing on the same team. He was already a class act, playing with grace and talent, and their team under Coach Ferris was undefeated that year.

But, sports moms have seen lots of class acts give up the game or discover other pasttimes or move on to other things in life. It is still rare to know someone who played with your own kids to reach the elite group of Final Four teams or the NBA.

When Ellington is introduced at the start of a game, when he scores at a crucial moment, I have a proud flashback moment.

He was the tall 10-year-old playing forward when my scrappy 9-year-old brought the ball down the court and passed it to him. Inevitably, Ellington would pass it back and give the little kid a chance to score. Like I said, a class act that we will be watching Saturday night against a classy team. Plenty to smile about in this Final Four.

Friday, March 20, 2009

True-crime novel brings back memories

“You should write a book.”
As a former courthouse reporter, I have heard those words more than once when recounting news events I have covered.
There was the murder trial for a babysitter who scalded to death the child of an up-and-coming Philadelphia TV broadcasting personality in Phoenixville.
The Spring City teen who set her family’s house on fire and then watched while flames raged, killing her parents and brothers inside the home.
And, there was the gang of thieves who stole tractors in southern Chester County, fenced them in the Pottstown and Boyertown areas, and along the way, murdered six people to prevent them from testifying.
The news story of Bruce, David and Norman Johnston was book material from the beginning.
Thirty years after covering the murder trials, my friend and former reporting competitor Bruce Mowday has finally written it. “Jailing the Johnston Gang” is a 252-page true-crime story that includes “how a stream of stolen goods and a gnawing fear of law enforcement grew to envelope the Pottstown area in a saga of five murders.”
I wrote those words in February, 1980, as part of a news story in The Mercury that focused on the northern connection of the Johnston gang. The story was part of six weeks of trial coverage in Ebensburg, Cambria County, where the case was moved because of too much publicity here.
The Johnstons’ story first made headlines in regional newspapers in late August, 1978, when young Bruce Johnston Jr., 19, and his girlfriend Robin Miller, 15, were shot in an ambush at the Miller home in southern Chester County. The story had Bonnie-and-Clyde drama and made headlines in the city papers and The Daily Local News of West Chester, where Mowday was the courthouse reporter.
At the time, I also covered Chester County courts for The Mercury, a reporting concentration mixed in with Pottstown schools and general news writing assignments.I traveled to West Chester one day a week to cover county commissioners meetings and pick up on any juicy court news or lawsuits. If a trial involving a local person was going on, I shifted into everyday coverage for the duration.
I recall reading every word of other papers’ coverage of the Miller murder, looking for a local angle to tap. I didn’t have to wait long. A few weeks later, I answered the phone in the back row of the newsroom receiving a call from Lt. Richard Weimer, commander of the Avondale barracks of state police, asking for The Mercury’s help in getting information to the public about a Pottstown area fencing ring linked to the Johnstons.
“The area we are investigating is like a wheel with the borough as the hub,” a state police investigator told me. “We are going into the townships around Boyertown, Oley, Birdsboro, Limerick and in northern Chester County.” Investigators had already recovered $90,000 in farm implements, and police wanted people to know they were knocking on doors of area residents, looking for more.
The Johnston brothers used the Pottstown area as a market in which to sell their stolen goods. Edward H. Otter, formerly of Douglass (Berks) Township, testified at the Johnstons’ 1980 trial that he had been fencing stolen goods for them for about 10 years. They first met at a Stowe auto body shop and had in common a love of fast cars and easy money.
The Johnstons used a group of teen-agers they called “the kiddie gang” to steal lawn tractors out of barns and garages in the rural area of southern Chester County, and the older brothers then transported the tractors to Otter and others, who sold them to neighbors and friends. One of the fences worked at the former Firestone plant in Pottstown. It was common knowledge around the area that if you wanted a good deal on a John Deere tractor, Otter and his associates could get it for you, Otter testified.
After the Miller ambush murder, state police investigators, the Chester County detectives and the FBI formed a task force and closed in on the Johnstons. A team from the task force spent weeks tracking down stolen goods around the Pottstown and Boyertown areas, recovering tractors from homeowners throughout the region.Mowday’s book, published by Barricade Books and available in area bookstores, is not the first mass-audience account of the Johnstons’ story. A movie, “At Close Range,” was made in the years after the trials, starring Christopher Walken as Bruce Sr. and Sean Penn as Bruce Jr.
In one of the first hearings I attended on the case in 1978, I witnessed a helicopter landing in the parking lot of a courtroom delivering the witness Bruce Johnston Jr. from the federal witness protection program. Johnston was brought into court with a coat over his head, flanked by armed federal marshals to protect against a hit. That scene opens the movie.Mowday’s book follows the concentrated effort of police and federal investigators that resulted in the unraveling of the Johnston gang. The story is more than a great crime-solving yarn, Mowday says. While the crimes committed by the Johnstons are captivating, the parallel story of how the law enforcement community worked together to bring them to justice is the greater message, according to the author.
Mowday conducted interviews over several years before writing the book, and he said every person involved remembers the Johnston investigation as the high point of their careers and the most interesting, involving work they have ever done.
I would say the same about my reporting career, a sentiment I share with Mowday. He was closer to the action than me, called out late at night by an unidentified caller, who said,, “They have one body out of the ground and hope to have three more by morning,” referring to a cooperating witness directing investigators to places where murder victims were secretly buried.
Mowday was such a fixture at all the trials that he had his own nickname to distinguish him from the two criminals with whom he shared a first name. There was Big Bruce, Little Bruce and Local Bruce.
I was just the girl form the Pottstown paper. My stories took a different angle, starring the local people and places on the northern front of the Johnston gang activity.
Details often hit close to home. Otter and another of the fences, David Schoenly, lived on the same road where I grew up. At the hearings and trials I was covering, witnesses described murder threats and plots that took place at the kitchen table of a home a mile from where my parents lived at the time.
Testimony that the payment for shooting a 16-year-old boy between the eyes was getting the killer’s car fixed “at a Gilbertsville body shop” was unnerving. David and Norman Johnston were convicted of killing five witnesses. Both are serving life sentences in Pennsylvania prisons. In 1999, Norman Johnston escaped from the state prison at Huntingdon, using tools smuggled into him from the outside. He was on the run 18 days before being captured back in Chester County where it all began.
Bruce Johnston Sr., the gang ringleader, was convicted of killing six people. He died in 2002 while an inmate at Graterford prison.
The personalities and the timeline of the Johnstons’ crimes were great fodder for news stories – perhaps not the most important, but certainly the most captivating I have ever written.Great fodder for a book, too.“Local Bruce” took 30 years to get it done, but he still beat me to it.
That’s what good reporters do.

“Jailing the Johnston Gang: Bringing Serial Murderers to Justice” is available in area bookstores or from the author Bruce Mowday at or 610-873-0727.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Notes from the blogosphere

Sunday, March 8, 9:37 a.m., Joe Zlomek, who is prolific in his blogging on Lower Pottsgrove and Limerick, writes an e-mail to me: ... "just a personal note to say your column today was eloquently written and very well said. Keep up the terrific work!"
Wednesday, March 18, former Mercury reporter Mike Hays comments on his last day in the newsroom with a blog post on What' "One of the last things I read on Sunday, March 15, was the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News. The paper’s goodbye to Denver served as a sobering reminder of what this region stands to lose if its major daily paper suddenly folds."
Both comments were in reaction to my recent column about the closing of The Rocky Mountain News, the Denver, Colorado, tabloid shuttered due to falling revenues and competition from the Web, and my personal feelings about the ongoing importance of The Mercury to the Pottstown area.
Joe Zlomek and Mike Hays are both former colleagues, one my boss and the other my employee, and both are refugees from the newspaper business who are channeling their passion for newswriting into blogs. Both admit they are not making any money on the Web and acknowledge that they come from print journalism backgrounds and remain fans and advocates of journalists writing in print as well as online.
The dilemma here, for people like Zlomek, Hays and me, is that newspaper owners failed to think through the quandary of providing online information free on the backs of more profitable print products. Online news needs the credibility and financial stability of print to survive, but as free competition for readers, it erodes that stability.
The online medium is not self-sustaining. A stellar year in online advertising sales will barely pay the salaries for a handful of reporters. Hence, people like Hays and Zlomek work for nothing. Lots has been written lately about this dilemma. Some folks think newspapers should sue Google and Yahoo every time our independent reporting is hijacked. We could be like the music industry and win large anti-pirating settlements while changing the industry to a subscription service for online news, much like online music downloads services followed when the music industry drew a line in the sand.
But the future hasn't happened yet.
In the here and now, people like me, Zlomek and Hays are all rooting on the same side, even if we come at it in different ways. The importance of local reporting is critical to democracy. How that is accomplished may be evolving, or it may be just settling into a viable but scaled down business model. Who knows.
Regardless of the outcome, I find the examination of the importance of this business refreshing.
I now get letters that begin with "I know you have a lot on your mind, but would you consider ..."
or "I know how important your newspaper is to this town, so I would like to ask ..."
I received many comments, many e-mail messages and many sincere compliments on my recent all-Mercury Opinion page on Sunday, March 8. The reaction to my column and to other postings on this blog reinforce those strong sentiments.
Whether online or in print, this business is a gratifying, worthwhile venture. You can trust us -- all of us -- to keep the faith in local reporting alive.

Getting a kick out of life

Kochise, who lives with his owners Rob and Katie of Pottstown Karate Club, is an intelligent, well-behaved and wonderful dog. And, he knows news.
Thanks, Katie, for sharing this photo with your friends at The Mercury.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Telling your stories is our privilege

I expect not to cry at work. As a female manager in an office with glass walls, it’s important to keep emotions in check.

On Tuesday I broke this rule, and sat here, tears welling up in my eyes and spilling onto my desk. I was reading the final edition of The Rocky Mountain News, the Denver, Colorado, tabloid that was founded in 1859 and closed last Friday. The final edition, 120 pages of newspaper lore, opinions and tributes tugged at the chords in my heart already strung a little too tight from recent events.


On Saturday, Feb. 21, the news was revealed that the company which owns The Mercury had petitioned in a New York court for reorganization under Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy laws.

The mood here was not as somber as I would have expected. In contrast, we learned that the reorganization plan acknowledges the value of our community newspapers as ongoing businesses. No one wants to shut us down.

“We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” said President Barack Obama a few days later. Substitute “name of company” for “name of country,” and the message was pretty much the same.

But before the weekend was over, the owners of the once-venerable Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News also filed for bankruptcy. And, before the week was out, in a city halfway across the nation, a bastion of journalism ended with the final edition of The Rocky Mountain News.


The final edition of what Denver readers call “my Rocky,” was brought into our newsroom by business editor Michelle Karas whose sister lives in Denver.

The paper touched me emotionally because it is similar in many ways to The Mercury in its personality, emphasis on compelling photos, and spot-news courage. My tears did not spring from a fear that the same fate awaits my newspaper. Rather, they came from a place shared with Rocky columnist Tina Griego, whose final column was headlined “This is what has called my heart.”

“I’ve never forgotten that teacher’s question: ‘What calls your heart?’ ” wrote Griego as she explained to readers what had brought her and sustained her in a business that has become less rewarding as years have gone by.

Her column, like many of the words written by The Rocky’s last and loyal writers, emphasized the breeding of newspaper people, offbeat and unusual, first and always storytellers. They call it “ink in the blood,” or “something in my DNA,” but whatever it is, when I read the headline: “Rocky staffers jolted by the news; then there was a paper to put out,” I understand the moment in a way that people outside this business cannot.

We live in a different world, and yes, while it is trying and stressful some days, it remains a world of great privilege. This honor, this opportunity to tell the stories of our communities, to be the watchdog of wrong and sneaky actions, the chronicler of children’s achievements and adults’ tribulations is what drives us.

This privilege is a theme that echoes through The Rocky’s last 120 pages. The paper’s storied history offers tributes to journalists whose names are no longer on the roll call of final employees -- the photographer who died in a plane crash while capturing the gold of aspens on film, the young reporting talent killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver, the sports columnist who wrote volumes during a long career.

The edition highlights the photos and words that brought the paper four Pulitzers in this decade and ends with the musings of an editor whose only regret is that he will have no successor.

A full page advertisement from competitor The Denver Post is blank except for the words “Today Denver is at a loss for words” and “– 30 – ”, the symbol known to old-school newspapermen as signifying the end.


Since the news of our parent company’s Chapter 11 filing became public, many have asked us at The Mercury how we’re doing. Phone conversations, e-mails, acquaintances at the coffee shop inquire, “Is The Mercury okay?”

In reply, we explain that the financial reorganization of our corporate owner is separate from the day-to-day business of this newspaper, but that doesn’t answer their questions. They just want to know that we’re not leaving town. (We’re here to stay, thanks for asking.)

Their queries, couched as if checking on the health of an old friend, are warm and welcome reminders of our place in the lives of the communities we serve.

An architect or a homebuilder will influence a choice you make once or twice in a lifetime. An automaker or your investment advisor may attract your attention a dozen times or so. But a newspaper – this newspaper – is invited into your home every day.

This creative piece of work shaped daily by The Mercury staff is read, treasured, and enjoyed in more than 20,000 homes and businesses every day.

Every single day.

The privilege of participating in that daily experience is no less humbling for me than when I first walked into work in this building some 34 years ago.

John Temple, the editor of The Rocky for the past 11 years, writes in his final farewell that above all else he was honored to have been part of a newsroom of professionals, to have joined in a collaboration that rose above the norm, to have been afforded the opportunity to tell the stories of the city of Denver.

I hope to never write a Final Edition editorial. I plan for The Mercury to be around a long time. I expect not to cry in my office.

But, this is what has called my heart, and I am here for the duration whatever that future brings. Rest in peace, Rocky. Your community will miss you.