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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Coming home

by Mike Masterson | April 20, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

During the coast-to-coast career years in cities ranging from San Diego to Phoenix, Chicago, Ohio and New Jersey, I frequently would lapse into longing for the charms of my native Arkansas.

Sure, the palm trees and pine barrens held their own appeal. But they weren't nestled deep within my spirit like the towering oaks, dogwoods and elms back home. At times I longed to return as a tree hugger and flop down again in a spring-fed creek in mid-July and allow waters to surge around me.

I share this because, in the acknowledged and unacknowledged mysteries of GodNods that affect our lives, this beyond-unlikely opportunity to come back home ranks high on my list of such inexplicable events.

In 1994 I completed the prescribed term as the Kiplinger professor at Ohio State and returned to daily journalism as the investigative editor at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.

Having been away in classrooms for five years, I felt fortunate for the chance to step back into the daily journalism role I'd held at the Arizona Republic immediately before assuming that endowed chair at OSU.

I should have had an inkling what life in "Joisy" would be like when the executive editor asked me during our interview if I "had a problem with moving here."

It didn't take long to understand why he'd asked. I found the rudeness factor was baked into the cake in that intensely overcrowded state.

Driving the Garden State Parkway to Asbury Park each weekday meant throwing cash out the window at toll booths every few miles, each way. If I drove 10 miles over the speed limit there still were plenty of honking, lights flashing, love-sign-flipping motorists speeding around me.

While we lived just 10 minutes from the nearest beach, a weekend trip took more than an hour each way in such dense, stop-and-go traffic.

After a year in such an unfamiliar and often hostile environment, I found myself again longing to return to my home state, a longing I believe many Arkansans who venture away share.

I badly wanted to again hug a tree, appreciate the verdant Ozarks and hook another 17-inch brown bass in Crooked Creek.

So one night I offered a simple yet emotional prayer that went something like this: "Dear Lord, I'd like to go home to northwest Arkansas and hopefully make a difference doing what I do there rather than here. If that's your will and you open that door, I'd be eternally grateful."

I hoped my prayer was heard. Yet I also appreciated what "they" say about unanswered prayers. All I could do was ask.

At that time, the journalism industry relied on the weekly Editor and Publisher magazine covering national media happenings and classified advertisements.

So when the latest issue arrived five days after my prayer, I flipped to the listings for job openings. My eyes widened when I saw an Arkansas daily paper was seeking an executive editor with experience. My stints in that role at both Newport and Hot Springs fit that bill.

So off went the resume on a wing (with that prayer) to the publisher of The Courier newspaper in Russellville.

Several days later the phone rang. Sure enough, the next thing I knew I was on a plane back to Arkansas for an interview with The Courier. A day later I was offered the job and began making plans to see my prayer come true.

Things quickly become even more interesting. George Smith, a career acquaintance and colleague who was publishing the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville, happened to contact me. I told him of the Russellville job offer.

He said he wished he'd known I was looking and asked if I'd still consider coming to Fayetteville for an interview before making a decision. The next thing I knew, I was back on a plane, this time to Fayetteville to be offered the executive editor's job there.

After that fervent appeal to be saved from all the East Coast ugliness and turmoil, my prayer to return had been answered within days and with choices to boot.

On the return flight I remember marveling over two positions coming open with days of my prayer. Why hadn't these jobs come available a month earlier, or six months later?

I wound up moving to Fayetteville in 1995 and stayed five years before becoming an opinion columnist for the paper in 2001, writing four a week for the first two years then dropping back to three. (At this point I figure you're probably reading somewhere around column number 3,375.)

In the ensuing decades, I've landed scores of bass and trout in the creeks and rivers, enjoyed lifelong friends that date back to junior high and returned to my hometown of Harrison, population 13,000, where neighbors caring for others is a way of life.

Sure, there are the naysayers who believe the unlikely scenario that finally brought me home was mere coincidence. That's their prerogative. I'll not "cancel" them because we disagree, which is a natural part of adult co-existence.

Instead, I regularly find myself frequently smiling while standing waist deep in Crooked Creek as a red hawk screeches overhead, or enjoying the magnificent Buffalo, or occasionally hugging on a hardwood.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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