William Donald Schaefer shakes up my world

It was the end of a long Monday, after a long weekend, a long week, and several long weeks before that.

My kind husband ordered a pepperoni pizza and we kicked back to watch the Orioles pregame show.

As I made my way through slice No. 2, I picked up my phone to check my Twitter feed for any last-minute O’s news before the game.

I didn’t see any exciting O’s news, but my heart skipped a beat when I saw this: “RIP, William Donald Schaefer.”

My colleagues/competitors at The Baltimore Sun and elsewhere were taking to Twitter to spread news of a big, big story — former governor, comptroller, Baltimore mayor and all-around interesting guy William Donald Schaefer had died.

I told my husband and took a deep breath. “Let me finish this slice of pizza and figure out what to do.”

RIP, William Donald Schaefer. Our special section, with photo by Paul W. Gillespie and design by Dave Marsters.

This is the biggest political news story of the year — perhaps the biggest story of many years. I’m not really a political reporter; I cover the environment. But I’m filling in on the state government and politics beat for our short-handed news staff. That meant the story is my responsibility.

I knew Schaefer had been in poor health; he had a recent stay in the hospital for pneumonia. But was hoping I’d have a little more time to prepare.

I mulled this over as I chewed through the pizza. I took a swig of Coke, gave my husband a kiss and announced: “I have to go to work now.”

I retreated upstairs to our guest room, which doubles as my office. My first action was to call our online editor, to make sure my story could be posted on our website — after all, what’s the point of writing a story if there’s no way for people to read it?

The Associated Press had issued a one-sentence bulletin announcing Schaefer’s death. I took that, added a few paragraphs with background about Schaefer and sent it off for the editor to post online. This was about 7 p.m.

The next five hours were kind of a blur.

There was a frantic e-mail I sent to my co-workers enlisting their help. Two came through with phone numbers that proved to be crucial. My colleague Eric Hartley was the biggest help. He first volunteered to do some phone interviews, but when I learned the current governor was about to make public remarks — and I wouldn’t be able to get there in time — Eric went to do the interviews and got great stuff.

There were phone calls back and forth with editors, phone interviews with people who knew Schaefer well. I dug through the newspaper’s archives and the website of the state archives.

I stopped calling people at 10 p.m. — even though this is a big story, I didn’t want to be rude. We posted a more extensive story at about 11 p.m.

I wrote through 1 a.m., then got up at 5:45 a.m. in order to be at the newsroom by 7 a.m. to go at it again, to make an even better version of the story for Tuesday’s website and print edition.

I’m explaining all this not to toot my own horn — you do what you gotta do — but to explain that when you’re a journalist, you never know what’s going to happen next, which direction your workweek is going to take.

One time, I was filling in as the cops reporter and as I drove down I-97 on my way to police headquarters, the traffic report on WBAL radio warned me to stay away from BWI Airport. Why? There was a plane crash.

I happened to be right by the airport at that moment, so of course, I took the next exit and started dialing airport and fire department spokesmen. I ended up standing in the hot sun for eight hours covering the crash — a small plane came tumbling down between two homes in Ferndale, killing the pilot but miraculously not harming a soul on the ground.

Sometimes, these crazy shifts to huge stories can be a bit maddening. But it’s something most journalists love about the job — the uncertainty, the chance to be the one to tell the story to people who care, whether the story is good, bad, tragic, heartwarming. And this is why I can’t have a normal job.

***

On a side note, for anyone reading this on Sunday, April 24, I urge you to go out and buy The Sunday Capital. The news staff at The Capital has been working all week on a four-page commemorative section on the life of William Donald Schaefer.

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