A letter worth framing

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 29, 2013

I often refer to Joe Thomas as my best newspaper friend.

For a couple of decades, Joe, who was the sports editor of The Star-News in the early 1980s, has worked at The Tri-City Ledger in Flomaton. In 2002, when Joe was to have surgery to correct a disk problem in his neck, he gave me an assignment. If something went wrong, I was to write his obituary.

I never read the note he said he was leaving in his safe, but from time to time, I’d ask him if it were still there. Last weekend, he handed me an envelope.

On the front, it says “for Michele Gerlach.” On the back, he had signed it across the seal, and added two other messages: “Don’t open unless you are Michele,” and “Roll Tide.” Then he covered his words with Scotch tape.

Inside is the letter he wrote me in 2002. I swear I’m going to frame it.

“I hope you are not reading this letter,” he began, “because if you are, things went south in Mobile Wednesday morning. I remember one of my first journalism classes when the teacher made us write our own obit; he said that would be the story we never get to write.

“If I happen to die during surgery, I would imagine this office full of women will be freaking out. That’s why I’d like you to write the story – be a good, late-breaking lead for the paper, don’t you think?”

He went on to say that he believed I could hold my emotions to get the story done, even though he hoped I’d be sad if he were dead.

And that’s where the humor began.

“Please don’t call (a certain prominent politician). I don’t want him mentioned (don’t like him, he doesn’t like me, anything he says good about me is BS),” he assured me.

“As for the others (those you have to call, like Mayor X and Mayor Y), don’t let the *** or *** say all good things about me because they really don’t mean it. Make them tell you some bad stuff.”

That’s one of the reasons I love Joe so much. He always wants the questions to continue until the truth comes out, no matter what, He put his own kid on Page 1 when he got in a little trouble, and people whose own children had appeared in that space called to thank him for being fair. A stranger stopped him in the coffee shop and asked him if his sofa slept well.

In the letter, he gave me some background information, then added some more instructions.

“Please don’t let (aforementioned politician) or (the sheriff) sing at my funeral – I will turn over in my coffin and haunt you for the rest of your life,” he assured me.

Like I could stop them: Those two politicians never missed a funeral opportunity.

Yes, his would be a great story, but it’s one I hope never to write.