by Tracy Thompson, Author and CCJ Trainer
CCJ Traveling Curriculum trainer Tracy Thompson, an author and former Washington Post and Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter, shares memories of famed editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette, a friend and former colleague who died July 10 in an automobile accident.
The last time I saw Doug was not long after I’d had our first daughter. I had decided to leave the Washington Post because a) I was burned out and b) the hours demanded by a reporting job meant too many hours away from my baby. Fortunately, my husband made enough money that I could afford to not earn a paycheck for awhile. Yet despite my relatively privileged circumstances, I was still managing to feel sorry for myself. About this time Doug came through town and he met me and my husband for dinner. “I’m having a hard time giving up my identity as a Washington Post reporter,” I moaned. “But Tracy,” Doug replied, “Now you’re a former Washington Post reporter, and that’s even better.”
That was Doug: unimpressed with important institutions, able to deftly poke a hole in even the slightest tendency toward putting on airs—such as, for example, being the kind of person who expects folks to be impressed with where you work. The only enemies Doug had were cant and pretension, and he did not much care what end of the political spectrum they came from; Bible-thumpers and leftist radicals all got the same treatment. When we worked together in Atlanta, we had a colleague (I will call her Adele) who was known for wearing her social compassion on her sleeve. Adele was a friend to all minorities; nothing made her happier than discovering a new group of the oppressed. We knew she had discovered the disability rights movement when she began bringing a friend who was confined to a wheelchair to the office every day (and if you happened to be in the ladies’ room “handicapped” stall when Adele and her friend came in, you could expect a sermon). One morning Doug stopped by my desk in the newsroom to chat. “Saw Adele this morning,” he said. “Here she comes, down the hall, and whiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiingggg”—he made a high-pitched noise, imitating a small electric motor—“here comes Adele’s friend.” He had an unfailing sensor for self-righteousness, even when it was cloaked in “my-best-friend-is-in-a-wheelchair” armor. I had not seen Doug in years, but somehow that didn’t matter. I kept up with his work, of course, and like a lot of his friends, I knew that the next time we met we would pick up right where we’d left off—that within minutes, he’d be telling me some hilarious story or the other. I was alone, driving into Baltimore when I heard of his death. I happened to turn on the car radio at the precise instant the NPR announcer said, “Doug Marlette was killed today—“Oh!” I said to the empty car, as if somebody had just punched me, and for a few minutes all I could say was “Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh.” I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that he is gone, and that I won’t be hearing that hilarious story he would have told me the next time we had a beer. I will miss him, and I will miss seeing his work. And if there is a heaven, and if there are saints and popes and martyrs up there, all I can say is: watch out.