Throwback Thursday: My best friend at work


Five years ago this week my spouse, the lovely, talented and now long-suffering Roselee Papandrea, announced she would be leaving the newspaper business and the Burlington Times-News for a position at Elon. I wrote this on her last week but thought today might be a good time to share it again. The newspaper business still misses her writing, dedication and heart but I think at this point Elon would miss her just as much. And since I started working at Elon earlier this year, I have a best friend at work again.

Every so often corporations roll out touchy-feely programs based on the premise of enhancing satisfaction in the workplace. The idea is that a happy worker is a more productive one.

The sad part is, those things often fail mainly because the corporate executives aren’t interested in what really makes its labor force happy. No, what they want to find out is whether the people who work for them can be satisfied by something besides money.

So really, it’s about finding a reason not to give raises.

Years ago, Freedom, the company I worked for over the past three decades until the Times-News was sold over the summer, brought in a program called Q12. It was a Gallup survey geared toward proving that American workers have absolutely no interest in U.S. currency at all. It used several pages of questions introduced on video by a British narrator named Marcus. The staff at the Daily News in Jacksonville made fun of Marcus like he was the last kid chosen to play dodgeball.

Anyway, one question furrowed the brows of nearly all who took the survey. They talked about it for years after. It was this: “Do you have a best friend at work?”

People shook their heads, muttered and collectively rolled their eyes like a ship in a typhoon.

Not me, though. I completely got the question. A best friend at work is someone trusted, someone who will stand and listen to a rage-filled rant and not make judgments. It’s someone who doesn’t call in sick when things go south and hang others out to dry. It’s someone who never speaks badly of you when you leave the room. It’s someone who stands tall in times of turmoil, triumph and tragedy. It’s someone who helps talk through the toughest decisions.

It’s a partner pure and simple.

I know all about this best friend at work thing because I actually have one.

And Monday, I won’t.

ROSELEE PAPANDREA got into the newspaper racket in a highly unusual way — by initially running from it.

I met her for the first time early in the spring of 1995. She was applying for a job at the Jacksonville Daily News. She did so after leaving journalism behind for a time to work with the homeless in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. She had her reasons. She had witnessed the merciless ravages of pack reporting run amok while a student at Syracuse and wanted no part of it.

Now, drawn to North Carolina to look after her just widowed father, a newspaper looked like the best job option available.

My boss, Elliott Potter, brought her in for an interview. He had me speak to her as part of the process. I liked her right away, but she seemed aloof, hesitant. Later I understood why. Add in that she was a Syracuse grad and it’s a miracle Elliott and I had the good sense to hire her. There’s a lesson here about not basing key decisions on college basketball.

As it turned out, the smartest move Elliott ever made was hiring Roselee to cover the city of Jacksonville, a job that evolved into writing about schools then features then crime. It was a strange evolution for someone who used to pray before starting her weekend shift that nothing bad would happen so she wouldn’t have to deal with it. Then again, that ultimately made sense, too.

Two years later I did something even smarter — I married her.


FOR THE LAST 17 years — minus a couple of months in 2007 when we first arrived in Burlington — I haven’t entered a newsroom in which Roselee Papandrea wasn’t the best reporter there. Actually, she’s not really so much a reporter in the way people usually visualize one. She isn’t that snoop who doggedly follows a winding paper trail until lo and behold a government is toppled or a politician is forced to leave office in disgrace.

Not that she couldn’t do that. After all, she writes about the worst sorts of crime and excels at providing accurate and balanced information. She’s about the best at that I’ve ever seen.

No, what Roselee does is far more complicated. In fact, it defies simple definition. Yes, she reports about the worst sorts of crime but with an eye toward educating readers, not inflaming them while also keeping in mind that where there is crime, a victim is usually involved. And if a victim is involved, then that person and his or her family deserves respect and compassion.

She made me understand that. It’s not a traditional point of view for journalists and it should be.

In the newsroom we like to say that she writes tales of unbearable sadness and lost dogs. But her true gift is listening for hours to the words of people altered in some immeasurable way along life’s winding and potholed road then writing their stories honestly with complexity and compassion. Her readers appreciate that. I suspect her subjects do even more. It’s part of the process of becoming whole again.

MONDAY, MY best friend at work will start a new job. Roselee is leaving the Times-News to write about academic news for Elon University. It’s a great opportunity for her — and our family. In this economy the idea of drawing two paychecks from the same place has been scarier than the presidential election. It’s the smartest move she could make.

But that doesn’t mean watching Roselee go is easy. It’s no simple matter for her either, either. Working in newspapers is a curious addiction that comes to define who you are. Let’s just say the Times-News will miss her. Readers will miss her. Journalism will miss her. And I will miss her. She’s my moral compass and the arbitrator when my darker angels lurk. In many ways, we’re a perfect match professionally and personally. We balance each other out.

I truly believe, though, that while she’s going to a new job, Roselee’s career path will remain unchanged. She will continue to find interesting people and find some way to write about their struggles. She may even turn things she’s written about into a book.

That’s my hope anyway. I plan to help her get there.

Once an editor, always an editor.

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