A couple of weeks ago when we first heard that the quarterback at Williams High School had fallen critically ill, the best reporter to write the story was on duty that weekend. That would be my spouse, Roselee Papandrea.
Not that I’m biased or anything. I just know she’s accustomed to handling tough stories in sad situations. No one on our staff has more experience in this area. The truth is, few on any newspaper staff anywhere have written more stories of what I call “unbearable sadness” than Roselee.
I’ve worked with Roselee, a graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications, since 1995 (we married in 1997, the best day of my life as it turned out). Through that time we’ve covered hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and too many military tragedies to count. She’s written about children with cancer, organ transplants, traumatized veterans of the Beirut massacre in 1983, families in distress over the murder of a loved one, families in economic arrears and ordinary people overcoming overwhelming odds. She’s also written about a lot of lost dogs, mistreated animals and rescued pets. She’s chronicled unspeakable tragedy and mind-numbing pain.
She doesn’t seek out these situations, the stories find her. As a reporter she takes no joy in writing about them and in fact, the toll for doing so is substantial. Absolutely no reporter wants to write the story about a seemingly healthy 17-year-old who passes away without warning leaving family and friends distraught.
But she succeeds because she takes the time to listen, is engaged in what people are telling her, asks exceptional questions, has empathy for those she’s interviewing and wants to tell the story as completely and accurately as possible.
All of these factors came to a head on Monday when we received the death certificate for Williams student Harry Cohen, who passed away on Aug. 29 after being rushed to the hospital the previous day unresponsive. The 17-year-old fell fatally ill a little more than 24 hours after playing the high school football game of his life on Aug. 27 against Southern Alamance.
Early in our coverage we fell upon a policy I developed while working with the Jacksonville Daily News where military deaths were frequent in connection to Camp Lejeune — especially after 9/11. No matter what, it is not our style to harass families who are under duress. We do not go to their homes and camp out. We do not make incessant telephone calls. Other media outlets might do so. National media most certainly will. We won’t. It’s that simple.
We do reach out to them, often through a third party. This is because frequently families want to talk to the media so the story can be told completely and in the best way possible. For some, it’s a catharsis to speak to a reporter.
But many decline — especially when living in the moment of tragedy. Frequently, they will come to us later when their thoughts are collected, and be interviewed.
So our contact with Richard and Jennifer Kaffenberger, Harry Cohen’s stepfather and mom, has been limited to their interactions with our office involving their son’s obituary or them giving thanks to our sports writer Stephen Schramm for his stories about Harry over the past couple of years.
Monday when we obtained the death certificate and saw what it contained I told Roselee we would have to talk to the family or at the very least let them know that we were planning to do a story. A plain article stating the cause of death as accidental — cardiac arrest brought on by methadone toxicity wouldn’t be enough, not in this case.
Because no immediate cause of death was given at the time Harry Cohen passed away, speculation in the community about it ran pretty wild. People considered that it could be anything from a football injury to some reaction to an over-the-counter pain medication to something more sinister. I had three different emails about the subject and all pleaded for the newspaper to stay on top of the situation because public interest demanded it.
The Kaffenbergers understood this. Their son was a beloved figure and a hero to many. They also knew their son’s death was more complicated than a methadone overdose. There was a larger story that needed to be told to put his death into context.
Through the school system, we got word to the Kaffenbergers that a story was planned and we would like to speak with them. They contacted Roselee late in the afternoon and asked to come by our office. Roselee spent more than two hours talking to them in our conference room. It was an emotional interview for all three of them. Roselee returned to the newsroom at around 8 p.m. and filed her piece before 10.
The result was an astonishing story of unbearable sadness and the tragic result of one mistake. There are lessons to be learned from Harry Cohen taking his grandmother’s pain medication because he thought he could handle it. The Kaffenbergers know this as well, which is one of the reasons they wanted to tell the story to us.
They are to be saluted for doing so at this time of tremendous grief.
Roselee put it best.
“Early in the day, all paths were leading to places I didn’t want to travel. Then suddenly, a door opened and a couple of really amazing people welcomed me in. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop being in awe of people willing to share their lives, especially during the darkest of times.”
And I’m in awe of the reporters who can take those stories and tell them well. Roselee is among them.
Not that I’m biased or anything.