Help me with this Empty feeling

Donnie Douglas Contributing columnist

The No. 2 most-oft-asked question of me since I left The Robesonian on March 27 has been: “Donnie, how are you enjoying your retirement?”

The answer has drifted into a much more positive direction, from a COVID-induced “bored out of my (expletive) mind” to “beginning to enjoy it, now that I am back working.” But what has not changed is that I miss the people, fellow employees with whom I worked, newsmakers that the job connected me with, and the public for whom we toiled. That has not only endured, but has grown.

What I have not missed, and this has surprised me, is the job itself. The ink does mix with your blood, but I know now more than I did on March 28 that 36 years was plenty, and that the last few, because of all the forces colluding against the newspaper business, had become too arduous. I had become overwhelmed by the demands of a newsroom that had contracted by two-thirds in what is a county abundant with news, the timing of which had no regard for my attempts to squeeze a life into the gaps. The occasional hurricane didn’t help.

I felt that burden more intensely once it had been lifted.

The other day while reading I had an empty feeling, realizing what else I missed about being the editor of this newspaper. That is having the privilege of shaking down the community for contributions to the Empty Stocking Fund, the 6-decade-old effort to provide a modest but merry Christmas for the many children in this county who otherwise would have to do without because of life’s sometimes cruel circumstances.

It was a joy each year watching the Empty Stocking Fund grow, even if it remained rare that it would check off all the children on Santa’s list, which was compiled by those who do the real work for the Empty Stocking Fund, and they are the folks at the Department of Social Services. As I have said often — and it is the truth, not false modesty — my job was easy because I rarely encountered any resistance in efforts to get contributions to the fund. Robeson County residents, despite our differences, have always been willing to rally to their neighbor’s side.

I will take credit for this however: When I arrived as editor in November 1996, the Empty Stocking Fund had raised just a few thousand dollars the year before, and had been assigned a spot on the periphery, not one of prominence. My task was to bring it front and center, which we did so in a variety of ways. Since then, my best guess is about $1.6 million was raised to provide Christmas for about 32,000 children.

The record total, just more than $87,503, was raised in 2018, and the newspaper this year will try again to push that bar higher. The coronavirus makes that pursuit more difficult, but also more essential. There will be families this year who struggle to provide Christmas for their children, not because of their own failings, but because they have been told to stay at home and wait this thing out.

This would be incomplete without a nod to those who established the Empty Stocking Fund in 1978 when reporters Harvey Burgess and Scott Bigelow were typing up Letters to Santa. According to Bigelow, one letter was a “plea from a boy for Santa to bring Christmas to his brothers and sisters. He said he needed nothing, but his family was on hard times because his father was in jail.”

The staff stepped up, publishing the letter on Page 1. Donations were received, a family enjoyed Christmas and the Empty Stocking Fund was born.

It was revived in the early 1980s by Bob Horne, then editor, and the keys were handed to me when I arrived in 1996.

I am sure that the fund will continue to thrive because the support that it has enjoyed remains, even if it is no longer my charge to pester people into giving. But since we are talking, I might as well suggest a donation from those who bother to read this to help me with this empty feeling.

For another record to be achieved, new donors are needed and those who have given in the past will need to dig a little deeper. So I hope you will pitch in.

Now you might be wondering what is the No. 1 most-oft asked question I have fielded since my retirement.

It’s: “How you hitting it?”

Not bad.