I recall the day I decided I wanted out from the broadcast media industry like it was yesterday. My morning co-host, Mark Nicholls, and I had been called in to the boss’ office and had a ‘talking to’ about a complaint that was received about me. Apparently, I had condoned police brutality by suggesting that if all cops acted like Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue, we’d all be too scared to commit crime. It was then and there my decision was made up. I don’t care how boring I become because I get paid the same amount of money no matter how interesting or uninteresting I am to listen to. It’s not worth the stress of wondering what minor offense will get me in trouble; so I’ll be as vanilla as possible. Of course, I knew I wouldn’t be happy doing this for very long and I was fortunate that an opportunity to stay in Yorkton and work at a job I really enjoy (sales at Source Embroidery) came along. When I walked out of the building just prior to Christmas in 2008, I was fully prepared to say good-bye, forever, to working in an industry I had wanted to be a part of for as long as I can remember.
Fast forward a few weeks to January 2009 and I was still trying to find my way at my new, unfamiliar, job at Source when Yorkton This Week General Manager Neil Thom stopped in for a visit. Neil lived across the street from me on Circlebrooke Drive and I had come to know him quite well over the years although we never ever really talked about anything work related. Neil’s purpose on this particular day was work related. He wanted me to write a column in his paper. I wasn’t a writer at all but after a brief conversation about the parameters he was setting forth I was intrigued. There would be no censorship on his part and I would accept no money or payment on my part in exchange for having 100% control of the content. I didn’t need the money, but I did want an outlet where I could express opinions freely and not have to worry about getting called in to the boss’ office. Would I be interesting enough for the general public to want to read what I have to say?
Didn’t take long to find out as I got more feedback (95% of it positive) within the first year than I ever got from tip toeing issues on the radio for the previous eight. People were engaged. I also discovered I had a passion for writing and my interests expanded, greatly, from sports (which was going to be my main focus when I began writing columns).
This is a long way of saying I owe Neil Thom quite a bit. I don’t think I’d be on the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors without him coming into my office back in January 2009. I, obviously, wouldn’t have an outlet to share my views with folks in the Yorkton area and I, probably, wouldn’t even care to since I needed that push from an outside person to keep me interested in the media world.
On December 23rd, Neil passed away after an awful, but courageous battle with cancer. His eulogy was the best that I’ve ever heard, and it was delivered by his daughter, Sarah. She sugarcoated nothing as she spoke, passionately, about her dad and his impact on everyone and how he looked cancer in the eye and went toe to toe with it as if it were a heavyweight boxing match. Her own bravery to go 45 minutes or so, fighting back tears for almost all of it, made me proud and I don’t even know her.
I mentioned Neil lived across the street from me and contrary to popular belief because I’m such an outgoing person (so was Neil), I am not what you call a neighbourly guy. I mind my own business at home because I socialize enough through work that it’s nice to just not be around people sometimes. However, circumstances that I won’t go into here had me get to know Neil and his wife, Julianne, fairly well. He never knew this, but he and Julianne taught me a lot about unconditional love and their son, Kristian, also ended up teaching me quite a bit as well. As regular readers may know, my opinions on a lot of issues are solid. I’m seldom a fence sitter. But, when it comes to mental health I have come to understand a lot more than I used to and I’ve discovered a form of compassion that I never knew existed inside me. I’ve also been exposed to holes in the criminal justice system when it comes to mental health that are shocking when it comes to helping those who are facing desperate times and are unable to help themselves. I don’t know if there even is interest in fixing it and, for me, that brings a great deal of sadness and disappointment because there are a lot of folks who use loopholes in our system to benefit themselves while others fall victim to those same loopholes.
I’ll close with a poem Neil wrote that appeared on the back of the program at his funeral on Friday. He’s a much better writer than I’ll ever be. “First layer, second layer, then the bare bones. Take that outer shell off and it’s just you that is underneath it all, isn’t it? You know the inner voice, the one you’ve talked with all these years, even wrestled with, that very final thing living inside of you. Funny thing though, you can go along life’s way (your choice of course) and forget to check in with your real self for days and for some of us, even decades. And, when you do that ‘little ole’ reconnect it’s because either you or someone in your life has a heart hurdle, and that’s where the real-life conversation begins’.