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Crocker Stephenson crafted his award-winning journalism career, in part, on his acute observation skills.
Whether he was covering crime or public affairs, writing features or just filling in on a holiday, his stories for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel were filled with lush descriptions, painting a picture of a scene, person, or situation.
“My style and my skill is in noticing detail,” says Stephenson.“I’ve always said the job of a journalist is to stop and pay attention and to tell the truth. To the degree you are able to do those two things, you’ll be a good journalist.”
But two years ago, his vision suddenly started to deteriorate.
“I now no longer am able to drive,” he says. “I’ve got some special glasses for watching television so I can watch the Brewers’ games, but the world is sort of fuzzy. It’s like looking through a glass of water, unfocused, like an Impressionist painting.”
As his vision dimmed, Stephenson had to adjust his life, and he had to rely on other people.
“So many people step forward to help everyday,” he says. “People open the door or help me with the cash machine, and clerks help me type in my password at work.”
With that reliance, Stephenson began to notice other things.
“It’s like when you change the lens on a camera, other things come into focus,” Stephenson says. “As I become less and less able to see the world around me, other things have become clearer and clearer, and among them, the kindness and decency of people. I’m 62 years old, and it’s not a bad thing to learn to look at the world differently.”
So, with that realization, Stephenson proposed to write a short series of experimental columns to George Stanley, the editor in chief at the paper.
“I really thought what we need to do is pay attention to our capacity for kindness and compassion,” Stephenson says. “George thought it was a good idea so I wrote five experimental columns. I just thought we’d keep going until it ran out.”
Two years later, Stephenson isn’t running out of ideas.
“I think Crocker just has sort of created something in the right place in the right time,” says Thomas Koetting, deputy managing editor for news at the paper. “We live in such a polarized world, and Crocker’s work reminds everyone of the angels that walk among us, sometimes really quietly, without much attention.”
Earlier this year, Stephenson wrote about Cindy Bentley, one of the most decorated and award-winning Special Olympians in the world. She suffered terrible burns and abuse as a child before sports, specifically Special Olympics, saved her. Today, Bentley gives away her medals to people who need encouragement.
“The thing about her that’s so remarkable is her insistence on being recognized as part of the spectrum of life, not of being special, but being normal, and she’s just so spectacular, and such a pleasure to meet,” Stephenson says. “A lot of people I meet…this is just what they do, and they’re surprised that someone wants to write a story about them.”
Stephenson has written dozens of columns, and though some of the themes resurface occasionally, they’re all about unique people — like the group who paints positive messages on rocks and leaves them around the city; or the injured blimp pilot who returns to Milwaukee every year from his home in Atlanta to help raise funds for Kathy’s House, where his family stayed while he was hospitalized; or the caretaker who not only got her charge out of her room but out of the house, dancing and going on adventures.
Since he started his column, people send him tips, though not every tip turns into a story. Sometimes, he will write short pieces on Facebook.
“Those are my favorite,” he says. “This nurse sent me an email. She had been working a late shift, and a police officer came in with a homeless guy he had found in a park, with just plastic bags on his feet, no shoes or socks, and he was afraid the man might have frostbite. When she went to check on her patient, he was wearing a pair of brand new shoes and socks.
“The policeman had stopped on the way to the hospital and bought him the boots and socks, and he just left. That’s just kind. It’s just a small thing — just a tiny, small thing, but it’s really quite beautiful and human.”
Stephenson couldn’t write a story about this policeman — he couldn’t track him down after the fact, but by sharing it on Facebook, the story got out, and “there’s a whole community sharing these stories,” he says.
And there’s a whole community of people out there, doing kind things. “The people who do kind things really aren’t looking to have their kind acts publicized – these aren’t the people yelling and screaming about what they’re doing,” he says.
Sometimes, the same people show up in his stories. “One of the first stories I wrote about was this group of people, who, at the beginning of winter, take clothes and put them in plastic bags with notes of support like ‘You matter’ or ‘You are loved,’ and they hang these bags on trees,” Stephenson says.
“Months and months later, I was writing about a group of people who take rocks and paint kind things on the rocks like, ‘Hope your day goes well' or ‘Hello.’ While I was interviewing them, there was a woman who approached me. I said, ‘You look familiar.’ She wasn’t the main person organizing this, but she said, ‘Yeah, you wrote about me in the story about people hanging clothes on trees.’”
Koetting says while groups doing interesting or amazing events are covered in Better Angels, most of Stephenson’s columns are about just one person.
“What we’re really trying to focus on are individuals who go out of their way to make the world a better place,” Koetting says.
These columns, Koetting says, have inspired some people to take action.
“What’s great is that these are not some acts of super-human kindness that no one else could do,” Koetting says. “It’s the little things that people might say, ‘Hey, I could do something like that,’ or ‘My church or my synagogue could do that.’ These ideas are not out of reach.”
These ideas have also transformed Stephenson personally.
“I think some people are just, by nature, nice people, and kindness just flows from them,” he says. “I’m not that kind of person. I have to be intentionally kind. It just doesn’t naturally happen for me. I have to practice kindness like you have to practice music.”
Koetting notes that Stephenson isn’t the only reporter or columnist chronicling everyday goodness, but he is in a unique place to write about them.
“His columns come from a special place because of his own disability,” Koetting says.
“He approaches his stories differently, and he gathers information differently. People will hand him something and he really can’t make out the distinct features, so he’ll ask them to describe it, and in the process of describing it, they become more open to him because he needs their help.”
Both Stephenson and Koetting hope that by writing about these stories and especially sharing them on social media, they can elevate the public discourse.
“You know how we are what we eat? We also become what we write,” Stephenson says. “One thing about sharing these stories is that they’re a blessing to me as well. To think about these things, these are good things to be thinking about. This has made me a happier person. Writing these stories has been a gift in and of itself.”
Koetting says more publications, not just newspapers, should write about these stories. “We sure could use them,” Koetting says. “It would shed a little light in the darkness.”
Jeanette Hurt is an award-winning writer and author of ten books, including the critically acclaimed Drink Like a Woman and most recently, The Passive Writer: How to Earn Money in Your Sleep. When she’s not working on her two latest books, she enjoys walking along Lake Michigan with her husband, their son, and their new rescue pup.Learn More
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