Karen Sampson Hoffman

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An obit for a friend

Posted on August 7, 2013 at 1:20 PM Comments comments (1)

Pamela Mercer

I have written obituaries before, and I have written them for people who were friends and acquaintances. But this obituary for a friend is different.

Pamela deserves an obit. We all do, but those of us who pledge to seek the truth and report it deserve this one last time for our names to appear in print, for this one time to have our stories told. Pamela was always very guarded with her story, she shared some of it with me and the rest was just a sly smiled that always seemed to say, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” I’m not even sure how old she is, though the earliest published story I can find by her is from 1993, making her about mid-40s.

Pamela had a way of putting words on paper that took you to the news – interviews with drug lords, survivors of massacres, ordinary people quietly living extraordinary lives. She was compassionate to the one who was oppressed – whether they were the marginalized of Florida, the family trying to survive in a land ruled by narco-terrorists or the caller on the telephone whose child is affected by ADHD and the school won’t help her. She also had a sharp tongue and typed her thoughts too quickly, not always thinking through what the results might be (I know this personally, as I paid a price for some of her actions at work). She could be loving, and she could be unforgiving.

She believed whole-heartedly in the mission of CHADD, though she could not find happiness at the National Resource Center on ADHD. It hurt her to walk away from her work in helping people affected by ADHD but it was something she needed to do; I know she was happy at her new position for many months before her cancer returned.

She has three sisters, I believe, along with her mother and several nieces and nephews. Some of her sisters live here in the States, while her mother lives at the family home in Colombia. Again with that sly look, she said her father had been some type of diplomat from the United States, which made her a U.S. citizen. She was brought to Florida for dangerous open heart surgeries as a child – surgeries that in the high elevation of Colombia would have killed her. I remember when CHADD’s conference was at Disney a few years ago. She was so happy because, for her, that was as close as she could get to going home because she had spent so much time there a child during that period of surgeries and recovery. It was the happiest I had ever seen her.

As a child she was educated in Europe and moved with her parents in diplomatic circles. She lost her father at some point in young adulthood. She attended Tufts University where she earned a degree in English and Political Science. Starting in Latin America and her Colombian home, she used that degree to expose drug violence, political corruption, human rights concerns and poverty. She was the voice for the voiceless.

Pamela freelanced for The New York Times and the Associated Press. She wrote on the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald and later for the Orlando Sentinel. In Miami she covered minority and Hispanic affairs, Spanish-speaking peoples and business and community. In Orlando she covered education and community. Again, she sought to be the voice for those who were not heard in Florida.

She came up to Washington, DC, to better herself and her career. She campaigned for President Obama because she believed he would help to improve people’s lives. She believed it was her responsibility to help improve people’s lives.

When we first met, we didn’t always get along. I remember storming out of one meeting when we had clashed about education and tradition. But I was married only five months I experienced health issues that, thankfully, were fully resolved. As I explained to my colleagues what I was going through, she said something that to my own reporter’s ear meant that she knew a lot more than she let on.

From that day forward, Pamela was my friend. She always signed her personal emails to me “Love you” and she sent email to my cat, Luca, in her persona of a lioness. She offered me strength when I was weak and support when I was afraid. She shared information with me and guidance. She didn’t always agree with my decisions but she stood by them. She told me more about her health than she shared with anyone else but she never told me the complete story. There was more wrong than a Stage II or III diagnosis or childhood open heart surgery. I knew something was seriously wrong when she said she didn’t expect that it would be cancer that would kill her.

Pamela last emailed me two months ago and I dragged my feet in replying to her and then wondered why she didn’t reply to me. I thought she was ticked that I had taken so long to reply and that she was giving me a dose of my own medicine. But in her last email she wrote that she had been ill. She didn’t tell me it was a return of the cancer. I wish she had. Our Editor in Heaven, I wish she had!

Pamela did not have a personal faith in God, but she respected mine. She knew I prayed for her and was gracious about that. When she would shout “JESUS CHRIST!” out of frustration at the computer or some new policy, I took to warning her that is she kept calling out for Jesus, he would come into her life.

In my personal theology, God is the Great Editor and we are all the writers of the story of our own lives. My hope and prayer now is that the Editor has called her into his office and she is the latest member of the Great Newsroom among the Communion of Saints. That in her new role, where ever and however it may be, that she continues to be a voice for the voiceless.

A selection of Pamela’s work:

Letting Pamela have the last word:

Hello, everyone,

Just wanted to say a huge good-bye before I officially turn into a pumpkin….. thank you all for the great send-off yesterday! I will miss being part of this wonderful project that is CHADD. The human capital is by far the most important thing we have to offer. It was gratifying and humbling to reach out to so many people in my daily dealings with the public as an NRC specialist. As many of you know who also deal with the public on a daily basis, there is an enormous amount of suffering, need and lack of information out there by people who live with ADHD. Thank God we are here. May CHADD remain and grow to reach everyone and give the best of its people.

I won’t miss my commute, although thanks to my trials and tribulations I am now acquainted with the excellent blog unsuckdcmetro.blogspot.com – which I highly recommend. The saxophonist who plays there is one of the worst buskers I have ever heard, but the coffee served by the ladies at the New Carrolton Metro station is absolutely decent and fresh!

I will miss many of you, especially my colleagues at the NRC, with whom I shared so many laughs and interesting discussions. I am SURE they will miss my bad jokes, “permissions to rant” and the animal pictures in our weekly phones timetable. (Wishing there were a wink/sarcasm emoticon here).

PS: I won’t miss the office coffee either – Seattle’s Best is brewing as I write (black pot) – aquamarine bag with more is in the fridge. Enjoy!


The Lioness

Paula Deen and the Bad Word

Posted on June 25, 2013 at 11:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Sometime during the 1980s, a man walked into a southern Georgia bank and threatened the teller, holding a gun to her head and demanding money. Frighten beyond her wits, the teller complied, handing over the cash.

That night, she went home and told her husband. The man who robbed her was black; the woman was Paula Deen. Telling her husband about the gun placed to her head, Ms. Deen used a word that is considered to be so abhorrent that the Food Network has not renewed her contract even though the context of use of that word by Deen was reveled in a court deposition.

Understand, Deen answered truthfully while under oath, when asked, if is she had ever used the word and she answered yes, she had, when describing a robbery to her husband in which she was the victim.

It is a Bad Word. Other than academic use, such as in this blog or by those teaching what words mean, their history and how they affect other people, it is a word that had no place in our society – but it is a word bandied about by various artists and racists because of the illusion of power to seems to hold.

Why did she grab that word that day? I cannot see into Ms. Deen’s mind, but I will guess it was because she was angry and hurt and afraid and when people are angry, hurt and afraid they will grab anything that gives them a sense of security or power or is just the worst possible insultive word they can find. A man held a gun to her head and she called him a name.

Was the use of the word wrong? Oh, yes. Ms. Deen has said, repeatedly, that she regrets the use of the word as a younger woman living in the South during the 1960s and ‘70s. She has said she no longer uses the word and finds it to be repulsive.

For this use of the word, Ms. Deen is being attacked by some forces in the media.  She has apologized. She is being dropped by her sponsors. Her fans are outraged. Her sons are coming to her defense.

Her message is lost entirely.

What happened?

One word – a Bad Word – continues to have a life of its own and wrecked the superstar cook’s life because she admitted to uttering it 30 years ago when a man held a gun to her head. That word is never, ever right to use – but is it right to use it to destroy a businesswoman who used it privately to her husband in a moment of fear and anger?

Did she use this word more that once? She has implied she did as a much younger woman, growing up and as a young adult in southern Georgia. Was it right? No, it wasn’t and she has said that, too.

Who among my readers has never, ever used a Bad Word? A word that shames us and would either make our mothers cry or have them reaching for soap to wash our mouths out? We can be foolish, insensitive people, especially when pushed to limits of anger or fear. The word that we used then was a horrible word but should we be judged on the use of that word, in that context, at that time?

Or should we be judged on our growth and our ability to put away that word, to turn our backs on it and say that it holds no power over me and I will not use to it to hold power over another?

Food Network and Smithfield are running fast, rather than sticking by Ms. Deen. With so much money at stake, they can’t be associated with someone who has a Bad Word in her past. With so much anger and revenge that is popular in our culture, they won’t take a risk on a successful businesswoman who was once a bank teller with a gun to her head.

What happened is this: the Bad Word has a life and a power of its own. It has a message of destruction all its own. It has been given such power – because it is a powerful word – so that it can have power over us, from use as a weapon to degrade to use as a tool to destroy. Words – all words – can be used as fine edged weapons and once uttered can never be drawn back. Our friends will use our words to support us. Our enemies will use our words to destroy us.

Paul Deen used a Bad Word and

lost control of her message

Moore, Okla., and Cleveland Hill, N.Y - A tale of two school disasters

Posted on May 23, 2013 at 9:30 PM Comments comments (0)

On Monday, May 20, a tornado hit Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla. Seventy-five children and their teachers hunkered down in hallways and bathrooms, with books over their heads, the loving words of their teachers and a community’s prayers attempting to shelter them.

Seven children died when the tornado took the roof off the school. One little girl described it as looking up and seeing the sky as a brown swirl.

In the days since that horrible moment the question asked over and over again is why weren’t these children in the basement? In a school in a Great Plains state, why weren’t they taken down to a storm cellar?

The answer, to this Western New York girl, is enough to make your stomach sick: The school didn’t have them. They are considered too expensive to build. In tornado alley, they are not required by law.

“Most of the schools in Oklahoma do not have shelters. It's because of the cost,” Moore Mayor Glen Lewis told CNN. “The new ones that were hit in the 1999 tornado, they do have built-in shelters.”

I cannot imagine not having the storm cellar. I cannot imagine a school not prepared for a disaster. I cannot imagine that the adults of the community put dollars before the safety of children.

I am a graduate of a New York State schools. I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo and we all knew the story of the school that burned and the children who died. I started kindergarten in 1978, 24 years after a coal dust explosion in the wooden annex of the Cleveland Hill Elementary School became the fire that changed how all schools in New York State would be built, most especially the windows.

How could they not know to build storm cellars where there are tornados? But there was a time when the windows of schools were like the windows of factories, small panes of glass between metal support brackets. It took that fire to make New York State rethink windows in schools and offices.

On March 24, 1954, every fire alarm in the Cleveland Hill hamlet of Cheektowaga, just outside of the city of Buffalo, sounded. The alarms started to ring in nearby Snyder, where my mother and her family lived, and rang throughout Cheektowaga and Amherst.

My mom described it to me this way: The alarms rang through the neighborhoods and fire trucks rushed down Main Street, which is at the foot of the street where she and her family lived. Everything was in commotion and my grandmother heard that “the school was on fire.” She ran down the street with her neighbors, too far away to see more than smoke from the direction of Cleveland Hill Elementary but close enough to my mother’s school in the other direction to know that her children were safe.

My former brother-in-law's mother was one of the students caught in the fire. I was told that she still has scars from the burns she received that day. She has never worn a bathing suit out of worry that people will see those scars.

Many years later, my mom was a teacher at this same school. The location of the wooden annex building is now a parking lot with a near-by plaque remembering the fire and the children. By accident of fate, I have stood on the site where those children died.

Coal dust had collected in the space above the classrooms of the music annex and the air became superheated due to a faulty furnace. The coal dust exploded in the trapped airspace and burned, setting the wooden annex on fire and trapping a classroom of students.

The teachers broke the glass in the windows with their hands and the older students shoved the smallest ones through the small frames. Some students managed to run past the flames and into the main school and parking lot.

The picture below is during the fire, while firefighters work to put out the flames. Look at that window below and I will tell you what the photographer didn’t know at that moment:

Children were dying below that window right then because they couldn’t get out.

Ten children died in that fire. Five more died from their burns during the next week.

New York State collectively said never again would children die in a school fire because the windows would not open. The law changed regarding school windows and is strictly enforced:

NYS Education law regarding windows:
(6) Required emergency egress windows shall be of a size and design, including hardware and, in appropriate instances, steps or ladder to high sills, that will permit and facilitate emergency egress. Such windows shall be free of obstructing screens or storm sash.
(i) The minimum clear opening area for such windows shall be six square feet, with a minimum dimension of 24 inches, unless otherwise approved by the commissioner.
(ii) At least one such window in each space of pupil occupancy shall be marked with an appropriate sign identifying it as an emergency egress window.

Now it is 2013 and seven children have died from a tornado in an area that was flattened in 1999 from a “monster tornado.” Yet the school did not have a shelter, either above or below ground.

I’m not a resident of Oklahoma, but I do hope that this will be the moment when their state, the people of that state, come together and say, “No more children will died in tornados.” New York knew that no matter how good the fire code, there will be more school fires. But the windows will open and the children will escape. Oklahoma has to know that there will be more tornados – the other Plains states must know the same thing – but they can make sure their children are in below or above ground shelters made to withstand tornados.

We lost 15 children because the windows didn’t open. Oklahoma has lost seven because there was no safe place to go. New York learned. This is Oklahoma’s, and every other state with severe weather risks, opportunity to learn and do better. Every school must have shelters, without exception.

The Kitten in the Newsroom

Posted on May 14, 2013 at 10:15 PM Comments comments (0)

I regularly write with our cat, Luca David, fitting his full-size cat body into the undersized space on my desk between the computer and the stack of books next to my in-box. His tail will occasionally thump-thump-thump across the keyboard, adding more fur to the collection beneath the keys.

If you check Sampson Media, you will see that he is listed as the administrative assistant. He’s not very good at it.

Luca isn’t the first cat in my newsroom, though. That distinction goes to a small visiting kitten that found her way into The Journal Register one afternoon as deadline approached. She was probably about six weeks old, too young to be away from her mother and certainly too young to be a cub reporter.

Our production assistant, Jim, had come across her in the roadway between our building and the Erie Canal. She was dirty and crying pitifully when he scooped her up and took her into the news building, looking for his girlfriend who worked in circulation. They had just moved in together and Jim knew she was looking for a pet to fill their home.

Well, she had already left for the day (at a newspaper, no department works the same schedule as the other throughout the day) so Jim came to find me, knowing I already had a cat (this was Sha’Ori, my first cat), and hoping I would know what to do.

Oh, she was a darling little thing, sleek and grey with little blue eyes! She didn’t seem to be undernourished but she was hungry, so I bribed another reporter to go out to the store for cat supplies, canned kitten food and a box of kitten milk (this is a special milk in the pet food aisle for cats – do not give cats regular milk, despite what all the TV shows say, because it will upset their tummies and you do not want to deal with that mess). In the meantime, we took one of the cloth hand towels and I showed him how to dampen the towel and gently give the kitten a bath, mimicking the way a mother cat grooms her babies.

We spent about a half an hour grooming the little cat and my colleague returned from the store. Since Jim had to get started in production (we were doing a cross between pagination and paste-up at that point) I ended up being the kittensitter for the evening.

I set up a food dish for Lady Grey (her nickname until Jim could take her home) on my borrowed desk and corralled the space with some books, making a little nest for her with another one of the towels. I thought she’d eat a little bit and take a nap – it had been a busy day for a small cat. But Lady Grey had other ideas and climbed over those books to my keyboard. She watched my fingers clicking away as I started my articles for the night and decided she could best help me out by climbing onto my shirt and up to my chin. There she proceeded to mew and purr.

I scooped her up and nestled her on my shoulder, just as I had done with Sha’Ori as a kitten and I would later do again with Luca. Grey flexed her claws into my shirt for stability and settled in.

This is the point where the managing editor, Mike, came in for his first stop of the night. Mike started as a sports writer and preferred sports to managing the newsroom. While he is a good man, he was also humorless in the newsroom.

Mike came in, watched me typing away for a minute, and glared. The other reporters were also coming in after dinner to pick up their messages or notebooks before heading out to meetings. They stopped to play with Lady Grey and joke about the kitten being the newest reporter.

As they filtered away, I caught Mike’s glare.

“What’s wrong, Mike?” I asked. “Haven’t you seen a kitten in the newsroom before?”

“Cats don’t belong in a newsroom,” he barked. “I hope you’re not planning on keeping that here.”

I repositioned Lady Grey to my lap. She stretched and turned around before settling across my legs.

“No, she’s not staying,” I told him. “She’s an orphan who wandered in here.”

Mike grumbled something and said, “We have enough orphans at this paper. Make sure that cat goes home with someone tonight.”

I really expected he would finish his sentence with “…or I’ll call the pound.” But he didn’t, just finished with his computer, pulled out his camera and head out to some high school sports game. Maybe basketball, which he headlined with “Cagers” or wrestling, that he used “Grapplers” across the page.

Lady Grey did go home with Jim and she was a much loved family cat. Later on, while I was there, we would have various children and visitors come the newsroom, a few birds, a bat and a couple mice. There was a ghost who followed us around. But no more cats.


Robins outside my window

Posted on January 25, 2009 at 5:51 PM Comments comments (0)

One of the marvels of Maryland I am still coming to understand is the one of robins in January. As a Buffalo gal, I can't imagine a robin in the January snow, let alone the bird at the very beginning of the year. Robins don't return to New York State until March and their entrance is heralded as the beginning of spring.

The flock of full-bellied, red-breasted birds outside my window doesn't seem at all concerned with the my wonder and surprise. I guess for them this just part of the flight plan.

(My grey cat only seems concerned with his ability to catch one of the birds. He continues to be thwarted by the window and 30-foot drop between him and the robins.)

A few springs ago, I was walking up the long driveway at my former home and I heard the first robin rather than seeing him. It was early March and there was still snow and ice on the ground, though the day was warm enough for me to run around outside in a sweatshirt. The familiar call - chee-chee-chir-chir-chir - caught me by surprise. I scanned my surroundings, searching for bird. He was hiding in the bush at the edge of the driveway, singing either to let me know this was now his turf or to warn his mate up on the wire that possible danger was nearby.

It was a perfect early spring day. This bird coming home just made everything seem even more alive! The call of the robin on a spring day, the relaxing song during summer's sunset, the last whisper of the robin's presence at late fall - the song reminds you of all things good and hopeful. Robins bring summer on their wings and return it to the south when they leave in November.

Since robins travel ahead of the warming of the seasons, the early arrival of robins usually means an early spring. In the cold and snow, we especially welcomed them, but here in Maryland I have my own hopefulness at seeing robins. Generally, Maryland winters are mild and spring is naturally earlier at the lower latitude than in Buffalo. So, wrapping my head around the dozen or so grey and red birds in the bare tree outside my window is a bit tough for me. How can it be spring in January?

If there are robins, then it is spring. Warmth and longer days are arriving. We can open doors and windows soon and there will be flowers and soft pussy willows. They are newness and hopefulness and the memory of good things.

In the cold of January, we all need the reminder that robins bring: Spring is never truly far away.


A post script: Two days after I posted this blog it has begun to snow in Maryland. So my lack of imagination at robins in January snow has been helped by the birds now huddled beneath the bushes below my window while snow gently falls above them. I can't help wondering what they are currently thinking: perhaps which is the fastest way to get back to Florida for the next couple of months?

A New Adventure

Posted on January 19, 2009 at 12:43 PM Comments comments (0)

The current estimate is that 11 million employees have been laid off or otherwise released from employment since the beginning of the current recession. This is the most people out of work - and counted as such - since the Great Depression and more people than the during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s. My grandparents were familiar with the Great Depression, when one of my great-grandfathers lost everything following the stock market crash. I remember the recession when teachers didn't return following the summer break and our family made weekly trips to Canada where gas lines were shorter and gallons were cheaper.

About two weeks ago I joined the 11 million United States employees who have been laid off due to the economic downturn. When I worked with college students, I remember telling them, as they individually hit their first rocky paths, that life is an adventure. Each challenge or opportunity presented to us is an adventure. But it is also true that some adventures are better than others. For a time in the first few days I considered my recent "job-free" employment state to be one of those other adventures.

Now that I'm a bit more settled - and cleared a few of the early hurdles - I am beginning to think forward. This is definitely a new adventure; one of finding meaningful employment in an economic situation that the TV pundits say won't be alleviated soon. My options are pretty good though: I have the skills, experience and background that make me a good candidate in several fields. I have a love of words and language and the ability to use both for a good story that delights my audience.

I also have a leadership style that values those I work for and those who have worked for me. Leadership is by example and confidence, both of which I regularly demonstrated with my employees and students when I worked at the Fredonia Newman Center. During my time with CHADD I came to appreciate the style of my supervisor, who had an open door and was quick with praise and fair with constructive criticism, and who valued his employees, rising to our defense and seeking our improvement.

As an adventurer, I expect difficult days ahead, but I also look forward to exciting days. There are new opportunities for personal and professional growth ahead of me. The chance to write and to design, both of which I love, are present and beckoning to me. As a resident of the Washington, DC, and Baltimore corridor, there are many companies, organizations and agencies that I can believe in, and that could offer me the opportunity to bring good into the world and continue to grow professionally.

I am looking forward to this new adventure, be it what it may.