“I find myself on a bit of an odd errand these days,” the email said. It was from John McNamara, a newspaper veteran who had recently been assigned to cover Bowie, Maryland for the Bowie Blade-News, a small weekly newspaper published by the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. John needed background information for a story, and he reached out to me after seeing a post on my Bowie Living Facebook page. It was the beginning of a friendship that ended Thursday when he was shot and killed along with four others in his Annapolis office.
After reading that email again three years later, I realize it was quintessential John – thoughtful, witty, cynical and self-deprecating. Throw in a huge love for sports and a few other traits, and you have John.
John’s odd errand that day was to try to understand the local folklore behind a 1960s era concrete turtle named Tommy. The turtle sat for two decades in the courtyard of the Belair Shopping Center in Bowie, and kids played on Tommy while their parents were shopping. The turtle disappeared during a renovation, and speculation about Tommy’s fate was rampant. A cult-like following developed on social media, and new owners of the shopping center offered a $5,000 reward to the first person to produce a suitable replacement.
One might think that a veteran reporter like John might chafe at having to cover such a story, but he seemed to relish the assignment. It was an outlet for his wit, and it was a break from the more mundane and controversial stuff.
“A lot of folks think Tommy – like Elvis – lives on, despite all evidence to the contrary,” John wrote.
Bowie was new territory for John in 2015, and he sometimes needed background information and contacts. I helped when I could, and I made story suggestions from time to time. John would often call and say, “What do you know about….? Who can I talk to about.…? How do I get in touch with….?”
John had the impossible task of single-handedly covering news stories for a city of 55,000 people – a responsibility that was once divided between four reporters and a dedicated editor. It’s the new normal in the local newspaper business.
John dug in. He cultivated relationships. John made it a priority to attend city council meetings, debates, community forums and sometimes PTA meetings. The Silver Spring resident was frequently in Bowie late at night, and he was often writing stories in the early morning hours. Despite his efforts, John expressed on more than one occasion that he wished that he could do more.
John was such a personable guy – to the point that I know he struggled when he had to write articles that were critical of others. When those times came, he would put on his reporter hat, write a fair piece, and people understood. Despite any anxiety he had about it, John always found a good balance. It’s a real testament to the excellent journalist and person that he was.
I last talked to John on Wednesday afternoon. “What’s up, mon?”, he said when I answered the phone. The weekly publication deadline for the Bowie Blade-News had passed, and John was in a good mood. That was typical for John on Wednesday afternoons.
John was looking for story ideas for next week’s paper. The July 4th holiday meant an extra day off, but it also meant that he had to come up with a week’s worth of content in less time. Neither one of us realized at the time that John would be next week's headline.
Now three years after John and I first met, I find myself on a bit of an odd errand – writing a tribute to a friend who was taken too soon, and the words aren’t coming easily. I’ll miss you John McNamara!