Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Craig Durrett: A cool refreshing beverage for you and his other thirsty friends

So Craig Durrett, daily protecting the public trust, a man in charge, a journalist who wrote about important things like roads and schools and whether or not a politician might be trying to slide a greedy hand into your pocket, would stop before walking out the door of the oversized closet that housed two or three other ink-stained wretches of The Times editorial department.

"So," he'd say, jingling change en route to the snack room machines downstairs by the dirty presses, "can I offer you a cool refreshing beverage?"

Every time.

Craig, Shreveport's Mr. Editorial Page Editor, there in his Windsor knot, his dress shirt and either pressed Dockers or knit slacks, leaning on the doorjamb, his back to the newsroom, a silly smile and a daily question and what military reporter/buddy John Andrew Prime called "that halo of curly blonde hair."

Stanley Nelson, a recent Pulitzer finalist for his work as editor and writer at The Concordia Sentinel, was one of Craig's roommates at Ruston's Royal Crest Apartments when the two were students of Wiley Hilburn's at Louisiana Tech in the mid-1970s.

"I was in his wedding," Stanley said this week. "You should have seen him fix his hair in the morning. It was amazing."

Craig's funeral is this afternoon at 1 at First Presbyterian Church of Shreveport, the town he served so well, personally and professionally, since he and his family set up camp with a purpose here in 1991.

He died this week from complications from the zoster virus. He was only 60. It was ridiculous, really. He'd overcome multiple bouts with cancer years ago. Regardless, shingles came at the end of last year and grew complicated. About 96 people die per year of disseminated zoster virus; estimates are .028 to 0.69 per million population.

You can have more success banging your head against a wall than you can trying to figure out why it was Craig who drew those odds. So there's that.

The cold hard truth is, people die every day.

With age, we get a bit immune to it. Good thing, because about 107 hearts stop beating each minute. We come to accept it as part of the privilege of living.

People die every day.

But when a good man dies, when you worked with him most days for 25 years and saw how the rubber really met the road, when you were close to him, a person with energy and wit and wisdom and a ministry of dishing out the good stuff, when it's a person you've long known you should be more like, well, I don't know … that sits you down for minute.

The paper has given us some space today for Craig, but mostly for you. These words are a collaboration from friends who worked with Craig day after day, grinding it out in a job you could never get ahead in. It was like a family, with laughs and feuds and frustrations and triumphs.
But we know Craig. All of this is so you might know him better.

Craig was your friend. He'd been a couple of other places, including his home state of Arkansas at the Little Rock paper. But once he came "home" to Shreveport, he knew he should stay. He could have run his own newsroom somewhere else, but this is where he felt he should make a difference. Like a minister who decides to shepherd That One Flock come hell or high water, no matter that it might be more lucrative to leave, Craig and Miriam, his high school sweetheart and wife of 38 years, dug in.

It's a blessing and a curse, being a newspaperman as Craig was. You can be a mediocre anything and get by. But if you start caring, about teaching or picking up trash or writing for the paper, it's a bit of a different ballgame. To do it right in news, you just about have to live it. Craig did, but what made him rare was that he still paid close attention to his family, his church and his civic responsibilities.

Craig wrote about senior citizen issues or Meals on Wheels, and then he and Miriam signed up to deliver boxes to the home-bound elderly and, through their church, were regulars on the Meals on Wheels circuit. They did this for years. He talked more with his hands and feet than he did with the keyboard.

Day after day, he was duking it out for you, taking apart the fine details of The Big Picture to see if you were getting the shaft or getting your due. You'd have liked him, I'm fairly certain. He'd have probably liked you, although that's not the point. Like you or not, he knew he had accepted the challenge of making Shreveport-Bossier better, that that was his job, and he was going to work for you and have your back. He made a decision to love everybody, so then he could put the messy business of whether or not he liked you on the back burner.

Craig didn't get angry unless he felt a public official was withholding something from citizens who had a right to know, or unless a colleague dropped the ball out of sheer laziness. He was trustworthy, he respected people, and he didn't pretend to know all the answers – although he knew most of them.

He had a way of speaking to the reporters he managed – phrasing, tone, timing – to make what would have been an insult from someone else encouragement from this gentle man. You knew he was making you better.

His biggest asset to the newspaper and to the community was just in being around, and this is why. When a publisher asked Dan Turner, who ended up being Craig's editorial page assistant, who the editorial page editor should be back when that job opened, Dan said the obvious choice was Craig. But why?

Dan, speaking for us all, told the publisher this: "To lessen the chance that you would make a really bad decision." Craig kept you from hurting yourself. And he knew more going on in our community at any given moment than anyone.

Like me, Dan could be about as crazy as a road lizard. But no question, he and Craig were the smartest guys in the room, a perfectly balanced journalistic dynamic duo. But we all concede that Craig, Mr. Important Newspaper Person, was the funniest, and maybe, because of his smarts and wisdom and neckties and willingness to attack everything with energy and enthusiasm, the silliest. A survival mechanism-type deal.

After Craig edited a series by Don Walker, another Tech graduate and The Times' best meat-and-potatoes reporter for more than two decades, the two tried to think of a writing-oriented tombstone for Don, who Craig was sure would be remembered for his writing. A tombstone headline, so to speak. Craig finally hit it. "Sucked Less Than Others."

"Coming from Craig," Don said, "that was probably the nicest compliment I've ever gotten from an editor."

His emails were little off-the-cuff comedy riffs. When he first took the job of assistant news director at KTBS-TV three years ago, he wrote me to say he was still trying to figure out what a "voice over" was and did I know where he could buy a cheap compact mirror. He'd make intentionally odd-ball statements, was never mean spirited, and usually what was most funny was in the way he said it. I'd give money from my wallet to have sat on one of the nearly two-dozen political panels he worked with former local TV reporter Rich Masters, just to hear their comments about some of our political princes, brutal honesty softened by comedy.

You had to be on your toes because Craig's sense of humor was one that didn't wait around on you to catch up. Being funny and smart and hard-working, in there every day taking fly ball after fly ball before the game, that example of his allowed him as a city editor to successfully manage a cast of egos and underpaid wild personalities. He got the best out of what was basically a circus cast armed with ink pens and a will to "get out there and newspaper."

Laura-Ashley Overdyke had the pleasure of working with him on this final run, in television. It took her about 20 minutes to figure out "his ability to see B.S. from truth, his exceptional talent as a writer, and his goodness as a person."

Amen, sister. In this business, that's the holy trinity.

What about all those people he had to "boss" around? Day after day, news would happen and he'd have to foul up your day with this story or that when you were already working on this or the other. But the people he "bossed around" loved him.

Curtis manned the night desk, a prime location for emotional flash fires. Curtis saw Craig handle joy and accolades with humility, and strife with resolve and dignity.

"Because Craig did, I can too," Curtis said. "Or I at least must try. I owe him that."

When Curtis's father-in-law died, Craig was at his door with a tray of food. When Curtis's mother died, Craig was at her funeral.

Mary Sharon often heard Craig talking on a newsroom phone to "Little Chris," the adolescent boy he mentored, asking him about his grades, his goals, the next time they could get together. When Mary Sharon had to go to the emergency room after a freak accident, Craig was there. One Christmas she gave him a CD compilation of The Chi-Lites, just because it was hard not to notice when he'd start crooning the '70's ballad "Oh, Girl" from time to time, right there in the middle of crafting a sentence about millage rates.

On and on it goes. His newsroom friends talked and talked about newsroom things and then, as Kym or Louise and Scooter did, you're just left to shake our head and say, "He was just a lovely man."

Preach it.

Kathie and Judy showed up at The Times about the same time as Craig, all of them trying together to find the paper clips and the bathrooms. And both said that while his unique sense of humor and his intelligence and news sense and dedication to getting the story right were all reasons to respect him, the fact that he was a truly good man was their reason to love him.

"Good people: there aren't many," Dan said. "It hurts me to think I've outlived one. For as well as I knew him and for as long as I knew him, now all I can think of is how much better I wish I knew him and how much longer I wish I could know him."

Craig wasn't perfect. Dan says he was "beautifully imperfect." I like that. "Magnificently flawed," is what I say. Maybe he was late with homework in the ninth grade. Maybe he could get upset with some things better left alone, but his calling was so acute that he just couldn't bear for something with his fingerprints on it not to be as good as it could be.

Ultimately, he was a devout Christian who didn't pound his chest about his faith but instead lived it in quiet and loving ways every day. You could count on him, sure as you could count on seeing him and Miriam on Friday nights at Tacomania, their standing date.

And so, a man of civility and grace was a brother to us because we worked with him. But he was a friend to anybody who read the paper or watched the news or lived in town, because he really did care. It wore him out. But it's the only way he could operate. Our man could never just mail it in. He had too much pride in the gifts he'd been given, too much heart to let people and his town down. He was a beautiful man, and God, wickedly funny.

That's why we wanted to share with you today. We're not the poets we need to be when it comes to Craig. But we had to try, because your friend died. And we're as sorry as we can be. We grieve a good man gone. That's the way things are.

But it's just as true that Craig never left a man down on the field. Couldn't do it. He was there for you; we know this. We honor and love him for it.

So today, maybe buy a brother a cool refreshing beverage and crack a joke to somebody who needs it, which is anyone you'll see. Encourage. Make somebody's load lighter. Dish out the good stuff. That's what your friend would do.