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A little over four years ago, I was wrapping up my first Minnesota winter when I got the call the Brainerd Dispatch wanted to hire me, which made sense, since I harassed then editor Roy Miller every day until he finally gave me an interview.
At the time I was working as a freelance writer, churning out stories about biodegradable bicycles and global warming from the freezing basement of my first Brainerd home.
I was a fairly recent college graduate, a transplant, and a former teacher with a business degree living in a strange town without a real job.
One thing I wasn’t was a journalist.
I liked to write and I am naturally pretty inquisitive, so I figured I could fake the rest until I really figured it out. I’m a millennial and I think by nature that makes me overly optimistic about my abilities.
A lot changes over four years.
The first story with my byline had a typo in it. It was a story I wrote about Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Crosby.
During an all church meeting, I sat huddled in the corner of the church’s sanctuary feverishly scribbling notes about the church divided on principle and facing a split. I had my recorder tucked in my jacket like I was on an undercover mission.
Though it was a difficult topic to cover, I was super proud of that story — my first one in print. It was actually pretty good.
That was until I saw the first inky copy on my desk the next morning — “Loves never fails,” read the lede.
I still shake my head remembering it.
Over four years, I’ve learned to double and triple check my work — sometimes I still miss stuff, but never in the lede.
I’ve also learned that lede and lead are kind of the same thing, but cool people say, “lede.” I had to Google both to make sure.
I’ve learned reporting news is sometimes hard and sometimes requires laying personal opinions aside, but that reporting news is always important.
I’ve learned the real power of the pen and the incredible freedom that is provided and protected by a free press.
I’ve become intimately familiar with a community that I was a stranger to not so long ago.
Since I started at the Dispatch, I’ve become a wife, a mom (twice), a better writer, a voice for the community in which I live and dare I say — a journalist.
Starting Monday, I’m taking on a new and super important role working full-time for two very demanding, but adorable little ladies — my girls, Ellis and Meredith.
I packed up my desk this week as I wrapped up my last few days as a Dispatcher.
Looking over some of my early stories and proudest editions I’ve saved in the bottom drawer of my desk, I smile.
There was the time, my first summer in Brained, that I was handed the task of covering the Crow Wing County Fair and went to meet an FFA family at their south Brainerd farm. I pulled up in my little VW Beetle and hopped out in my flip-flops. I learned quickly that being a reporter requires quality and close-toed footwear.
I think all of my most memorable stories involve rethinking my choice of shoes.
There was the time I interviewed a boy who had saved a one-legged chicken, only to learn she would eventually become dinner.
I met Rabbi Frank Dell, the Messianic-Jewish singing cowboy.
There was Eleanor Gustafson, a first generation American, who served in the U.S. Army as a combat nurse during World War II. She invited me into her little apartment to share cookies and tea while she told me her stories. Eleanor was in her 90s, but recalled her younger years as if they were fresh memories. She was so proud of all of her photos and letters and experiences.
I met Gordy Huff who fought hard to reopen the Care-and-Share food program in Emily despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars of renovations required by the state to get his tiny church up to code. Gordy called me every time another grant came in making the re-opening possible.
Emily Care-N-Share continues to serve hundreds of people every month.
One of my most memorable interviews was with Stephanie Zappa, whose brave battle against Huntington’s disease caused me to close my notebook, put down my pen and just listen with tears stinging my eyes.
I covered the story of Byron Smith, a quiet man from Little Falls whose murder conviction has become the center of a national conversation about the limits of self-defense in one’s own home.
I’ll never forget that cold December day just a week after Smith was arrested for shooting Nick Brady and Haile Kifer when the pair entered his home uninvited. I stood, in inappropriate footwear, on the side of Haven Road in Little Falls and watched as teenage pallbearers carried the caskets of their friends who died so tragically.
I went home that day and held my then 5-month-old daughter so tightly, understanding in a small way how fragile life is and how permanent loss must feel.
It was the biggest story of my reporting career and one of the hardest I’ve ever had to tell.
I’m incredibly grateful for my time at the Brainerd Dispatch and what it has shown me about this community.
I’m grateful for an amazing group of colleagues who feel more like family and have taught me how to be a better writer and a better reporter.
I’m grateful for my first editor Roy Miller who would read over my earliest stories with me and taught me to write a lede that made people want to keep reading.
And I’m grateful for our readers.
Thanks for sharing your stories and your lives. I’ve spent time in many of your homes, hearing your stories and doing my best to share them in a way that makes people want to know you more.
It is the people of Brainerd that make our community great and our newspaper something I’ll always be proud to say I was a part of.
SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER will now be going by Sarah Katzenberger or Mama. You can try to reach her at 218-855-5879, but she will not answer. The person who will pick up will most likely be referred to as the “new Sarah.” And the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org is being laid to rest. Forever.