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My new home, where good roads lead to giving hearts

POSTED: January 16, 2011 1:00 a.m.

I scanned the opening paragraph, shut the book quickly and gulped back a couple "uh-ohs." Journalist Millard Grimes' passage appeared like a warning for the state's reporting pool: Swim for stories at your own risk.

"Georgia's Northeast Lake and mountain country was for many years isolated from the rest of the state, both because of poor roads and culture," he said. "It was hard to get there and the welcome wasn't always warm if you did get there."

Sure, Grimes' words captured in "The Last Linotype: The Story of Georgia and its Newspapers since World War II" described my home-to-be a half a century ago. But I couldn't read any more. Images of famous, albeit fictional, newcomers thrust into odds with locals jumped to attention.

First in line: James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, lawyer and supposed gunman in the 1962 film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?" Paul Newman as accused barn burner Ben Quick followed in the Faulkner adaptation "The Long, Hot Summer." Dorothy's whole house landed on somebody in "The Wizard of Oz." Even Superman's unassuming alter ego baffled da boss.

"Lois, Clark Kent may seem like just a mild-mannered reporter, but listen," editor Perry White admonished, "not only does he know how to treat his editor-in-chief with the proper respect, not only does he have a snappy, punchy prose style, but he is, in my 40 years in this business, the fastest typist I've ever seen."

Inspired by the perfect fallback, I entered The Times and then the community. So began my discovery of a place where genuineness quietly exists everywhere.

My first brush with it came in a courtroom. There, a judge congratulated people who finished a program aimed at improving lives. Each person received an award, wooden plaques featuring plastic dome lights. The court's staff members signed the pieces, handmade by a Hall County deputy, I was told. His lights alone could be what illuminate lives on the verge of darkness.

Days later, I met Dr. Ed Burnette, a retired dentist and 14-year volunteer at Good News Clinics. Exhausted, the 79-year-old sat down having eased strangers' toothache pain for six hours straight. He pictures a future when clinical work is no longer part of his weekly routine. But, with cries only a room away, he keeps going.

That same day I witnessed a dining hall filled with men, mostly, who appeared worn down by life. They arrived hungry and didn't seem to give a flip about the politician who promised a better future if they gave more of themselves.

But when a guitar player began a familiar tune, the audience enlivened. Some stood. Some raised their hands. All, it seemed, added their voices to one verse, in particular.

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."

This is when I realized my new home as a place filled with hope, heart and a natural willingness to merge the two on behalf of neighbors.

"I think what you'll find," Cheryl Christian said, "is that Gainesville is a community that cares."

You can't ask for more, I thought, and soon found my fingers flying through this column, my first for The Times.

I'm a newcomer, yes. But I don't own a cape, won't fight crime, start fires or try cases. And forget chasing tornadoes or, for that matter, any kind of attempt to outdo well-known broom riders. I know my place. See, I'll be covering these subjects as a staff writer.

What that means is no more flights of fiction. I'll stick with what's real, beginning with the legendary Grimes. Turns out his second paragraph was a great transition into quite a newspaper story built on a special place.

"The welcome has changed considerably in recent years," he wrote, "and the roads are getting better."

And I can't wait to travel them all.

Erin Rossiter is a reporter and columnist with The Times. Her column will appear weekly on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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