A 25-year column in a former student’s newspaper
In 1984, I returned from maternity leave to my sixth-grade classes in the red brick building on Vine Street. Though it was difficult to leave my son, I was excited to see to my social studies students. I loved sharing my love for the United States and revealing the uniqueness of our country’s past to them. Unfortunately, the required outlining for homework each week stuck in the craw of one of my students; a highly intelligent guy who knew as much about the Civil War as I did.
Now some students antagonize a teacher out of malice or for entertainment, but this lanky kid was a thinker who wanted to delve into the subject matter deeper than most of the other students could handle. I walked a fine line between debating with him on the root causes of succession while helping other students just grasp the basic concepts of the Civil War.
One night as I balanced a colicky baby in one arm and used a red pen in the other to correct outlines, I came upon one that interrupted the assignment midway with words to the effect, “Why are you making us write these outlines? I bet you aren’t reading this.” I often wonder what would have happened to my credibility if I hadn’t read that comment, but I did and wrote in red, “You lose!” The next day I saw a glint in his eyes and a smile of approval. I knew then we had a special bond.
The boy grew up, went on to college and I may have bumped into him once or twice, but we hadn’t kept in touch. In 1997, I was librarian in the brown brick building on Central Avenue when that same boy strolled into the library, put his foot up on a chair, grinned and asked for my help. As delighted as I was to see Gabe Donio, I couldn’t imagine how I could help him. Well, for the next hour he told me of his dream of starting a newspaper. He mentioned his respect for my father’s homespun style as editor and columnist for The Hammonton News and asked if I would write for the new Hammonton Gazette.
My father, Joe Wilson, was editor of the only Hammonton paper for decades and even after retirement he continued to write columns on local history and personal observations about the town, nature and life. Gabe suggested I follow in his footsteps, and I couldn’t resist.
My only problem was that I had two young sons, a husband working on his doctorate and too many responsibilities to even think about giving up family time to write a weekly column. Then I had an epiphany.
The Hammonton Middle School was a wonderful school filled with dedicated teachers, various programs, clubs and activities, yet its reputation in the town was less than stellar. Hammontonians took pride in the Warren E. Sooy Jr. Elementary School and bragged about the Hammonton High School programs, but the Middle School was just an afterthought. Our budget was stagnant, and moral was low.
I thought if I focused my writing for The Gazette on the internal workings at the middle school, I could manipulate the public’s view and perhaps increase the funds that were being held back from our students. I had long thought that we needed a public relations campaign, and a column entitled “At Central and Vine” just might do the trick.
I wrote weekly of basketball games, class trips, library aides, social studies projects, science fairs and anything else going on at school. At first, I was mocked by some who never thought the new paper would last six months, but as time went on I began receiving positive comments from readers. Soon through his arduous work and insight Gabe’s dream was a success.
When I retired, I began writing a local history column, “The Way It Used To Be,” and “Between Us,” an opinion column where I noted the snowdrops blooming, pontificated about politics and shared my memories of growing up in Hammonton in the 1950s and ‘60s. Columns about the “Old Days” always bring the most responses from our readers and they often share their memories. I’ve had a few people who have adamantly disagreed with my views, but at least they’re reading what I write.
It has been my pleasure to write for The Hammonton Gazette since its infancy. I have honored my father’s passion for writing. I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts and in a small way I have helped a beloved student with his vision.
The best way to describe a young Gabe Donio, standing in the middle school library, is with a quote from musician Bob Dylan, “Destiny is a feeling you have that you know something about yourself nobody else does. The picture you have in your own mind of what you’re about will come true.”
Donna Brown is a former Hammonton Middle School librarian and a columnist for The Gazette. To reach Donna Brown, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.