Letting Go: An editor says goodbye
Shortly after I was hired as editor of Emory Magazine, I flew into Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport on a Friday morning, with plans to spend the weekend looking for a new apartment. When I returned to the airport two days later for my flight back to Providence, the taxi driver dropped me off not at the aquamarine high-rise terminal with its scalloped, 1960s-era portico, but at its sleek—if soulless—replacement, the big beige box now known as Hartsfield-Jackson.
When I checked in at the Eastern Airlines ticket counter that day, I received a souvenir luggage tag, a strip of white plastic emblazoned with the words “First-day flight, September 21, 1980,” in purple and orange lettering. Lest it get lost, I did not attach the tag to my luggage for that flight—indeed for any flight, ever—but kept it as a talisman of my good fortune at being among those flying out of my new hometown’s gleaming new airline terminal. The promise of adventure was in the air.
Twenty-six years later, Eastern Airlines is long gone, and my excitement at the symbolism of flying out of the world’s newest and largest airport on its first day of operation has been replaced by the anticipation of shuffling through the maze-like switchbacks of the post-9/11 security checkpoints, preparing to shed my jacket and shoes prior to enduring the scrutiny of a TSA employee.
And that cherished first-day-flight memento? It sits in a box with other sentimental keepsakes, awaiting the mover who will haul it to Nashville in early August.
I am, you see, “Leaving Atlanta,” as a prominent sign in the eastbound lanes of Ponce de Leon near Fernbank announces. And on this occasion it is for no quick lunch in Decatur or a brief holiday visit with a friend in Stone Mountain. This time it is for good.
I was twenty-nine when I took this job, my face uncreased, my waistline somewhat more slender. I am now nearly fifty-five, already half a decade past my first shockingly premature (it seemed to me) AARP membership solicitation—an entreaty I have so far managed to decline.
It seems impossible that I have spent more than a quarter century in this chair, having served as editor a decade longer than either of my two predecessors, each of whom held the reins for sixteen years. My tenure spans nearly a third of the magazine’s eighty-two-year history; and for the vast majority of Emory alumni, I am the only magazine editor they have ever known, since by far the bulk of them has graduated since 1980.
The process of leaving has provided me with several insights, some more profound than others and most having to do with the process of letting go.
My first intimation of how wrenching this change would be came not from a work-related situation but rather from the real estate agent who is helping me sell the Midtown condominium I have owned for fifteen years. The unit needed some “freshening,” including new hardwoods and a coat of paint, and I had dutifully collected paint samples that more or less matched my existing colors—“Whirlpool Blue,” a dark teal that gave the living room an elegant air; “Canyon Mauve,” the soothing rosy hue of my home office.
“No need for those,” my agent said. “We’ll paint it beige. It will make the rooms look bigger.”
Though I felt disenfranchised—my home was no longer my own, it seemed—I acquiesced. Beige it is; sleek, if soulless.
Another such “bump” came when I observed the magazine’s two creative and capable associate editors, Paige Parvin 96G, who I am pleased to say has been named interim editor of the magazine, and Mary Loftus, sitting in our small blue conference room eagerly evaluating plans for the autumn issue, the first in more than a hundred issues that will not bear my name. They were quite intent on their task, and I suddenly felt . . . well, superfluous.
There were lesser insights: I own too many books, more than I could ever read before I die, and I needed to find new homes for them; I am a collector of somewhat morbid media artifacts: a 1983 issue of Newsweek observing the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK, newspapers from the weekend the slain president’s son disappeared on a flight to Martha’s Vineyard, a Time magazine with a cover story about the loss of the space shuttle Challenger (all now, I am pleased to say, recycled).
And finally there was the realization that even though I have spent some twenty-six years at Emory—more than enough time to have earned six bachelor’s degrees back to back—I will not have the same formal connection to the institution that any graduate carries with him or her, that tie to alma mater.
I officially marked the end of my tenure as editor of Emory Magazine in mid-June with a celebration at the Miller-Ward Alumni House (such an alumni center was barely a gleam in the eye of Emory administrators when I arrived in 1980). Before positioning myself in Governors’ Hall, I made my way upstairs to the office of Dean of Alumni Judson C. Ward Jr. 33C 36G. In addition to being an alumnus, Jake Ward has been an administrator at Emory in some form or another more or less continuously since 1948, including terms as vice president and dean of faculties and executive vice president. He has been dean of alumni since 1985 and is, of course, the “Ward” in Miller-Ward.
On my last day at Emory, I enjoyed some private time with Jake and then asked him if he was coming to my party. He said he would come downstairs “long enough to have a Coke.”
When we arrived in the cavernous hall downstairs, I noticed a tall, slender figure towering over some of my colleagues and friends: Alec Young 03Ox 05C, who served as an intern at Emory Magazine his senior year. I knew instantly that I wanted Alec to meet Jake, and vice versa.
Jake Ward is ninety-four, having been born a few days before the RMS Titanic sank in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Alec Young is twenty-three. At fifty-five, I am not quite precisely in the middle, a shade closer to Alec’s age than to Jake’s. The two made polite small talk about Emory and Oxford, from which Alec graduated and where one of Jake’s sons had met his wife. And then they went their separate ways.
It was not until much later, as I replayed various scenes from that farewell party, that it struck me: in the moment that Alec had reached out to shake Jake’s hand, I had served as a bridge—a bridge between the past and the future, between the Emory of the 1930s and the Emory of the twenty-first century. Whatever that means—whether it somehow buoyed Jake and reassured him about the future of the institution he had served for some seventy-five years, or whether it somehow inspired Alec to go forth confident in the knowledge and values that Emory had instilled in him—whatever it means, it was as good a way as any to observe the end of a career.