Life at Elon: Heading into year four of this experiment

Today I enter my fourth year of working as a development writer at Elon University. To say leaving newspapers for higher education radically changed my life for the better is still a massive understatement.

In fact my first day on the job was a clear indicator of just how different life would be. On the weekend before I was to start on Jan. 9, 2017 — after walking out of the Burlington Times-News in November of 2016  — it snowed several inches. The university sent an all-faculty and staff email the night before alerting folks that Elon would open at noon on Monday. The following day, the delay was two hours. It was day three before I actually had to show up at 8 a.m. for the normal workday.

Madison first day

My first day on the job.

It was, in a word, great. During my 34-plus years in newspapers a snow day was like any other only much more difficult. We had to fight our way into the office, deal with the elements or the occasional power failure, wade out into the muck for stories and photos, then compile it all into a newspaper on an early deadline in order to give carriers a chance at successful delivery — which was often not successful at all. Then people had to travel home on treacherous roads refrozen at nightfall.

It was a bitch, and then some. So I knew I was going to like working at Elon right away, at least on snow and ice days.

Then I found I liked it most every day. For example, there’s a big difference in getting home at 5 p.m. every day as opposed to 8 p.m. or later. Having 49 of 52 weekends free a year is nice. A week-long winter break at Christmas makes the season bright. And I no longer get nasty phone calls, or enraged emails. These days I receive about 15 to 20 emails a day as opposed to the more than 100 a day that filled my Times-News in-box. At the newspaper, I left the office to take a walk in order to burn off negative energy and stress. These days I walk around one of the most scenic campuses in the nation to get exercise and enjoy the view.

By comparison, every day at Elon is a relief and a constant reminder of how fortunate I am that my boss Jim Piatt reached out to me in October of 2016 and asked if I might be interested in a position with University Advancement. It seemed like a stretch at first — writing proposals asking donors for money. Then it seemed interesting. After all, making the university better and improving the number of scholarships available for students could be rewarding and personally fulfilling.

It is.

So I have enjoyed interacting with students, professors and staff. I learn something almost every day in one way or another. I write about subjects I believe in for an organization I’m happy to represent. For the past 18 months my work has centered on the biggest “what’s next” for Elon in a long time — an Innovation Quad that will be the home of engineering and physics as well as a dynamic link connecting science, arts, business and other parts of campus. It’s exciting to be at the start of something that will make a new footprint at a national university.

Meanwhile, the Inn at Elon is opening on Saturday (Jan. 11, 2020). My first construction proposal was about this facility that will serve as a gathering place on campus and a way to generate revenue for scholarships. Over my first three years, dozens of proposals for scholarships or equipment and construction crossed my desk. I also had the great fortune to write features about campus venues and programs. As a side project that isn’t really a job requirement, I produced a few stories for the Magazine of Elon on subjects ranging from Elon’s Odyssey Scholarship Program to the number of Elon baseball players now on professional rosters. I just completed a story for the February magazine about a group of Elon alumni who created a football scholarship in memory of their friend who died too young at age 44.

Best of all, my office is in the building next door to that of my wife. I visit her multiple times a day. We have lunch together regularly. Her building is full of former journalists like our longtime friend and former Times-News colleague Keren Rivas, who is my editor — and a great one — for the Magazine of Elon.

Yes, there are occasionally so-so days at Elon, but few truly bad ones compared to the stress and hours of the newspaper business. It’s a job after all. No workplace is perfect. There are headaches, disappointments, struggles and tragedies.

But there are usually reminders that offset those days when things aren’t so good. The other day I was at a meeting outside of Elon for Alamance Achieves, the group in Alamance County dedicated to better early childhood education. As an ice-breaker I was asked to state what I liked most about the organization I work for. It was an easy question to answer. “At Elon,” I said, “the idea is to do things the best we possibly can. Not just good enough.”


This is how I announced my plans to join Elon University written on Jan. 1, 2017, a little more than a week before a started the job.

These days mom is usually the last one to know. It’s not intentional. I don’t aim to keep her out of the loop. That’s just how it works out. It’s nothing new. She always got information about our lives when I thought she needed to know, usually during a phone conversation. She probably wasn’t even aware that she was the last to find out those little highlights or lowlights that happen every so often.

But that changed. Blame social media.

Usually it happens like this: I post something on Facebook, a piece of news about stuff going on. It’s not usually earth-shaking but on the Facebook news stream a few hundred people might see or take note of it. And then, of course, news travels as it always has.

But now it moves warp fast. Back when I wrote things about our lives in print, she rarely saw it. Every so often, someone might clip something they happened to read and send it to her from my former newspapers in Burlington and Jacksonville. But that might take weeks or months when it happened at all. In Jacksonville it sometimes occurred when people were at the beach on vacation and happened to read something. Weird, right?

Now, though, she receives news about me or Roselee from my aunt Mary Moon in Charlotte, who is a Facebook friend. She might hear something from my longtime friend, Brad Dunlap, when she bumps into him at the Danbury Post Office. I’m in touch with him via Facebook, too. Or she might get something from my brother, Spotswood, who isn’t on Facebook, but sometimes finds out things when he visits Tuttle Hardware and talks to my cousin Bill Petree, who is on social media.

This could take a matter of minutes, hours or a day or two. As a result, when I call she’ll tell me right away that she bumped into Brad who told her one thing, or she got a call from Mary Moon who mentioned something else. She’s not angry at all but wants to confirm what she’s been told and get more details. That’s the journalist in her.

So over time I’ve learned to change how I approach this business of personal news. If it’s something big, real big — like a truck full of gold coming through town or something — I make sure to call before posting it on Facebook.

Then the matter becomes how I define “real big.”

For example, I wanted to make sure in September that my mom got the news directly from me that I was leaving the newspaper business and looking to find something else as a career. I thought this fell into the category of “real big” news she needed to know ahead of the online world. So I called before posting it on Facebook or anywhere else. In contrast, all the very nice things that have occurred since my retirement from print journalism do not meet my criteria as “real big.” So not long ago my mom asked if I had recently received some kind of “Man of the Year” award from the city of Burlington. She heard about it from my aunt Mary Moon and, of course, needed confirmation, details and some clarification.

“It was the key to the city, mom,” I said. “It was very nice. I’ll tell you all about it when I come home for Christmas.” And I did. Roselee even took the thing to Danbury for her to see.

And to be clear, I’m glad my aunt or my friends tell my mom this kind of stuff. It saves me the embarrassment of saying, “Hey mom look, somebody gave me an award!” That’s a bizarre thing to say. I don’t care who you are.

Anyway, several days ago I received a piece of news that I also considered “real big” – gold shipment through Mayberry big – I waited to post it on social media because I wanted to tell a few people first. I told those who were mentors over the years, close colleagues and, of course, my mom.

“Mom, you’re getting this news before anyone on social media,” I told her. “I have a new job.”

I buried the lead again.

Yes, I was offered and accepted a job at Elon University. It’s a new position called “development writer.” It’s in the university’s Advancement office — the administrative branch that handles fund-raising for scholarships, endowments, new buildings, fellowships and anything else that moves the university forward. I will help craft proposals to potential donors. It’s a job I never considered before it was proposed to me. The more I talked and thought about it, the more excited I became. It seems like an excellent opportunity to write stories about scholastic life at Elon that will make a difference for students, faculty and the university.

I couldn’t ask for a better work environment or subject to write about. And, as some who know have pointed out, I can have lunch with Roselee who works in the building next door. I’ll note here that in all the years we worked in the same newspaper office we probably ate lunch together five times, tops.

In addition, I hope the hours, which will be far more manageable than the newspaper schedule, will afford time to write other things. I’m working with some friends to help set up a website where I can continue to post book reviews, essays or slices of life. I’m interested in writing about subjects I choose. We’ll see where that leads, if anywhere. Just last week I spoke to photographer about collaborating on a book project.

If all the paperwork goes smoothly, I start at Elon on Jan. 9 – a great beginning to 2017 and the best possible Christmas present we received in 2016.
And if you see my mom, she already knows.

Postscript: I haven’t regretted it.



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