Why there aren’t enough hours in the day for anyone trying to practice this profession we call journalism in the era of instant communication:
Exhibit 1, this issue, page 35, a preview of a photography exhibit at Gallery 14 in Hopewell. The exhibit includes photographs by Joanna Tully of a woman named Julia, who fell into a coma at age 32, came out of the coma able to move her eyes but little else, and then spent 14 years blinking her eyes feverishly, trying to make the outside world realize that she had a conscious life. She eventually succeeded, met a man who became the love of her life, and wrote a book about it.
What a story, I think. But who is the woman, what’s the title of the book, and why haven’t I heard about it? Is it a book still waiting to published? And, for that matter, who is Joanna Tully? In the old days, I would have made a mental note to follow up on the story in another issue. But now I feel compelled to make a few phone calls and do a little Internet checking.
In an hour or so I have my answers. The woman is Julia Tavalaro of Inwood, Long Island, who lived in this paraplegic state for more than 30 years. The man who entered her life was Joe Filipone, who had gone to grammar school with her. The book she wrote was entitled “Look Up for Yes.” It was published in 1997 and Julia Tavalaro’s remarkable story has been told by Katie Couric, among others. Tully, a veteran photographer for the New York Daily News and other publications who was brought to Princeton in 1991 by her “two little boys,” was introduced to Julia by a producer at NBC.
This story seems to have been told, with Tully’s photographs the final chapter. Julia died in December, 2003, at the age of 68. I do a little editing, and move on.
Exhibit 2, the letter to the editor in my E-mail inbox, that might otherwise have appeared on page 2 of this issue. The letter is in response to our story about the 9/11 rescue worker and his dog, Bear, published September 7 in advance of their appearance at a Barnes and Noble booksigning. The author and rescue worker, Scott Shields, shared heart-rending stories of his volunteer efforts at the World Trade site, and of his dog’s efforts to smell out victims amid the debris. Moreover, Shields was interviewed even as he and his new rescue dog (Bear died a year or so after 9/11) were preparing to leave for New Orleans.
Good story. Or was it? An E-mail letter to the editor arrived a few days ago, challenging the credibility of Shields and alleging that at best he is a search and rescue groupie, not taken seriously by the professionals, with whom he has no connection.
The correspondent’s identity — “Phil on the Job” — was pretty vague and we had no way of telling what axe the writer may have been grinding with this letter. Was it from a search and rescue professional, tired of seeing Shields and his dog getting laurels for visiting rescue operations?
I was struck by this part of the letter: “It’s sad that his dog died, but he killed Bear. Bear was not a trained Search and Rescue Dog, and had no business being at that site. [Shields’] actions were criminal, and he should have been prosecuted.” It’s from a hell-bent animal lover, I thought, recalling my reporting on the death of Jessica Savitch in the D&R Canal outside Odette’s restaurant in New Hope in 1983. The story had generated a slew of letters to People Magazine, but many of the letters had nothing to do with Savitch’s demise, but rather lamented the loss of her dog, Chewy, stuck in the back seat of the car. If you google “Jessica Savitch Chewy” you get 184 references.
One of our editors contacted Shields, who since 9/11 has moved from Connecticut to Canal Pointe in West Windsor, to see if he would respond to the charges. Perhaps mindful of the material that gets slung around the Internet anonymously, Shields said he would respond — if we could show him a real letter from a real person.
So began the search through the virtual haystack. A google search of the letter writer’s E-mail address brought up a promising connection to a retired New York fireman named Phil who has been involved in water rescue efforts with the Coast Guard auxiliary. A search of argali.com (an online telephone book) brought up two people by that name, which led to a disconnected number and a telephone answering machine. I then tried to E-mail our original correspondent, encouraging him (or her) to pick up the phone and call. But the E-mail led to a “transient delivery failure” — another deadend.
Since Shields speaks proudly of his affiliation with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and since our letter writer may have some affiliation with the Coast Guard, as well, the next step might be to contact the Coast Guard and see what parts of Shields’ involvement can be verified.
Might be the next step. And would be, if only there were more hours in the day.