There she sat, on the passenger side of a souped-up Mini Cooper, going 140 mph through the Illinois night. She liked to go fast, and her Steve was obliging. A friendly trucker — adept like Steve at the light-dimming, hand-gesturing language of the highway — was acting as lookout. Steve had open road.
Though cut short, it had been a long trip out West. Maybe Steve didn't care about the danger, or maybe he just didn't feel it. She was at his side, as she had been for 32 years, keeping him on the road and on kilter, as best she could. They hadn't made it to the Pacific, and unthinkable circumstances had them returning to Indiana early, but damned if they weren't going to enjoy this little rocket, their first brand-new car.
Steve eased up, slowed down. They had made it this far from Ely, Nev., and he really had to get her home. He didn't know where home ultimately would be, though. Maybe Indy. Maybe Florida. Maybe somewhere back out West, where they had dreamed of retiring. Like all the other decisions cruelly heaped on those grieving the most, this one would be his. He looked at the urn sitting in the passenger seat, bewildered about where to take it.
Sorry, but this story couldn't avoid the ashes-to-ashes part very long. The numbing reality is that she is gone. And so many folks just can't handle it. Like Steve, they don't know what to do. Roxanne Morgan meant that much to so many people — and they just don't know what to do.
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There she sat, for 31 years, keeping The Indianapolis Star copy desk on kilter and saving the ass of reporter after reporter after reporter, not to mention protecting the suits from libel suits.
She came to The Star without much professional experience; she had served short stints as a copy messenger and copy editor in Florida, and she had done a little writing there. Though quiet and shy, she didn't need long to establish a reputation at The Star. They quickly noticed this unassuming little gal could edit. Yep, back then, in the early '80s, there were still a few old-school guys who called women "girls" and "gals" and "honey." Rox, or Roxanne (people at The Star called her both with equal endearment), didn't care what some old guy called her. She knew all kinds of people in all kinds of places. She just figured people are who they are. Besides, there were stories to edit, headlines to write, and deadlines to meet. No time for P.C.
She always came to work in jeans — don't even think designer — and a plain long T-shirt, most of them with a little pocket. (One time, a long time ago, a co-worker or two allegedly saw her in a dress at a wedding.) Her blondish hair was long and straight, parted in the middle, never, ever styled. She was short, really short, fire-plug stocky, and had a cute pug nose. Her eyes were blue, misty and mesmerizing. God, was she beautiful.
She always came to work — to work. Back when the Pulliam family owned The Star, and in the early days of Gannett Company ownership, when newsrooms were bustling instead of hunkering down, animated journalists were everywhere. Lots of reporters. Lots of editors. Lots of simultaneous conversations. With the shifts of day and night journalists overlapping, Rox would walk stealthily past the chatter to her desk and start editing local, national and international news. And when she edited, she did it better than anyone ever.
Soon, she was a "slot editor," a person who reads everything that goes into the newspaper. Individual "rim editors" send their work to the slot editor. That slot editor is the last line of defense. Soon again, she was assistant copy chief of the entire news desk. And soon again, in the mid-1990s, she was named news copy desk chief. The copy chief — who doubles as a slot editor — gets a lot of crap when there are problems, but little glory when things go smoothly.
There she sat, training copy editor after copy editor, fixing their mistakes and their psyches.
The little girl from Tarpon Springs, Fla., head filled with facts and wonderment from reading all those books, was now an important woman, chief of the news copy desk, but certainly not a Boss. (Rox could never be a Boss — she wasn't from their tribe.) Though she'd hate a war analogy and remove it from a story every time, she was "in the trenches." Her nighttime co-workers appreciated that. They revered her for her talent and her steely, steady resolve on deadline. She handled the biggest workload of anyone, and she did it better than anyone.
"From time to time, I would go up to her with questions about grammar or punctuation or sentence structure, and she'd quietly give me an answer," recounts Brett Halbleib, a former member of Roxanne's copy desk and now a copywriter at a Carmel-based marketing firm. "When I was new at The Star, I'd look at a rule book after hearing her answer, and every time, she was right. But there'd be no know-it-all in her response. It'd always be, 'Well, I think the rule is this.' The amazing thing is, even though people would come up to her continually with questions and she'd always answer them, she did way more actual editing than anyone."
Thrust into her copy chief role because of her talent, she was thrust into the role of therapist because of her compassion. As much as Roxanne avoided crowds and parties and speaking at meetings, she could handle one-on-one. Co-workers at The Star saw that, and they approached her. With editing concerns. With funny and sad stories of family and pets. With petty disputes. As much as she wanted to concentrate on her editing, she never turned people away.
"I always felt I could have gone to her with anything," says Star copy editor Bill Huddleston, long regarded by Rox as a kindred spirit and one of the best copy editors she ever supervised. "I knew whatever it was, she would always have my back, and I think almost anybody who worked for her knew that, too. Her compassion made you do your best work, and her talent put you in awe. I never feared her disapproval, but I always tried to earn her respect."
Rox, who attended a year of college before running out of money, had no degree. But she indeed was the resident psychologist on The Star's copy desk. She always spoke softly; that's the only tone she had. And since one-on-one was her thing, that's all she needed. She soothed feelings. She solved problems. She settled those petty disputes — and her decisions were accepted as final. She was the Don Corleone of the nighttime newsroom, except she sent people home to sleep with smiles, not the fishes.
She also had folks smiling, sometimes laughing riotously, at her irreverent quips and sometimes bawdy sense of humor. A few years ago, a manager had some serious business to discuss. She stood by Rox's desk, blouse unexpectedly opened by a couple of rebellious buttons. A lot was exposed — and the manager was oblivious.
After the manager walked away, Rox quipped to a red-faced male co-worker: "Talk about a wardrobe malfunction." And back to work.
If you wanted to get her goat, you could say something nice about W. She didn't like Bush. She called him "Shrub" when she wanted to use a nice name for him.
If you wanted to make her glow, you could say something nice about Bill Clinton. She loved him. The Monica stuff, the inquiry stuff ... it really pissed her off. She believed in Bill Clinton and wanted him left alone — by Republicans and the media — to do his business. She sent money to his legal defense fund. (Always the professional, her political leanings never affected her editing.)
And if you wanted to make her glow a passionate red, you could mention George Clooney, or the Aerosmith guys, or dogs. She thought Clooney was so handsome. She thought Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were so sexy. She thought dogs were God's greatest creatures. She never completely got over the loss of her beloved Jumbo ... or Snoopy ... or Squirt, Jumbo's sister. They died many years ago.
There she sat, a little girl in a little house in Tarpon Springs, getting lots of love and reading lots of books. Her brother and sister were 13 and 11 years older than she, so her upbringing was much like an only child's. Roxanne Clark's mom and dad had misgivings about how they had raised the first two — though they grew into fine adults — so her parents treated her differently, ensuring she had a steady diet of love and nurturing. To that end, Roxanne's mother was always there for her, teaching compassion and life's lessons.
Her stay-at-home mother read to her, almost from the day she was born. When Rox was 3, she could read to herself. And read she did — everything she could get her hands on.
Steve thinks 3 also was the age when Roxanne's special connection with dogs began. As Clark family history has it, the toddler was reaching for a coral snake in her yard when Sarge, the family's boxer, pounced in the way, taking the bite and quite possibly saving her life. Sarge died from the bite.
Heroism and hard work were staples in the Clark household. Roxanne's father, who had been a pilot in World War II, was a bowling alley mechanic who never cheated a day's work. He didn't earn much, so he moonlighted, doing lettering on offices and vehicles. To make up for the time he didn't see Roxanne during the week, he took her to the bowling alley on weekends. While he worked, she loved keeping score for the adult bowlers — it was done on paper in those days. And they loved having her do it. The little girl was cute, but more importantly, she could do it fast and she never made mistakes.
The Clark family had far less money than most folks in their little Gulf Coast town, known for the sponge trade and ostentatious Greek-style houses. But the Clarks had Roxanne, who read and got all A's ... who played the drums and the piano ... who hardly ever caused them grief ... who would grow up to be the best copy editor ever.
Rox spoke only fondly of her childhood and early adult years. She remembered everyone from school as nice. She wasn't in the Cool Crowd, but she was cool with its members. "The cheerleaders were like the Queens of the School," she said, not resentfully, but in admiration. Roxanne was the Queen of the Go-Getters. She helped start her high school's first newspaper, where she held the title of News and Exchange Editor. After graduation, she worked for The Clearwater Sun newspaper, first as a copy messenger (newsroom gopher), and then as a writer, an editor, or any job they'd let her do. Once, she finagled the assignment of interviewing the guys in KISS. With her childhood best friend, Sue, posing as her photographer (it was their scam to get Sue in), the two 19-year-olds met and interviewed the band members — who weren't wearing their signature makeup!
Sue, whose husband was a childhood friend of Steve Morgan, who lived in Indianapolis, introduced Roxanne to Steve in Florida. "Rox walked into Sue's wedding reception with her close friend Barb, who was tall, thin and glamorous," recalls Steve, tall himself, burly, and talkative, when the grief allows. "Rox was really short, and had this cuteness. I like cute."
After a reflective pause, Steve continues: "We sat on the beach that night after we met, and we talked for hours. I opened up right away. I told her about my bad childhood, all the bad things I had done, and I tried my hardest to convince her I was a bad person. She listened, but she wouldn't believe me. She was so caring and understanding. ... She was the only person in the world who ever really understood me."
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There she sat, drinking sweet red wine with lots of ice. That was her favorite. She could down 'em fast, but most of the time, you wouldn't notice her buzz. She liked bars, but certainly not crowded ones. She wasn't a Mass Ave type, but she could end up there if a friend persisted. It was right by The Star building.
She was more comfortable in a dark, nondescript Westside or Eastside bar. She knew pool sharks. She knew bikers — posers and hardcore alike. She knew a couple of dancers. She didn't watch them dance, but she didn't care that they danced. She loved music, and she loved listening to local bands with Steve.
When it came to drinking, home was her favorite watering hole. In recent years, she thought she was drinking too much. But she'd come home so stressed out; it was a warm release. The newspaper industry was in a tailspin. Gannett, having purchased The Star in 2000 when the industry was still rockin' and rollin', was implementing round after round of newsroom layoffs. (She didn't, and wouldn't, help compose the hit lists. She'd have no part of it.) It tore Rox up to see friends laid off. She never had kids, and both of her parents had been gone for years. She loved her co-workers like family. They were her family.
She was sad to lose promising young talent, but she liked to think the young ones could land on their feet outside of newspapers. She was devastated to see older co-workers' careers cut short before the finish line. She knew the toll ahead. She knew that people her age, and even younger, wouldn't be able to find a newspaper job anything like they had at The Star. Maybe they wouldn't find a job at all. She knew that this digital age was a young person's age.
Amid the personnel losses, which she took so personally, Roxanne worked even harder — while continuing to nurture her dwindling staff.
Bill Huddleston, in a daze but grinding away as if Roxanne's respect still were at stake, is quiet and soft-spoken like Rox. And like Rox, he doesn't complain openly. Still, if the workload was daunting when Rox was there, it's something far worse now that his good friend and mentor is gone. "She always tried to shield all of us from the shit as best she could," he says. "If that meant her working 10 straight nights, she'd do it. She wouldn't let anyone else pick up the slack."
Rox didn't hate the Bosses. In fact, she liked all but a couple of them over the years. And a couple of others were among her close friends; if Rox knew she had a tribe, she would have considered them members. It wasn't in Roxanne's nature to dislike anyone. She knew that plummeting readership was a problem with no easy solution.
She was depressed, though, about the rapidly decreasing size of the copy desk, and about management's decision not to replenish it. As person after person was laid off and not replaced, operations were consolidated and remaining copy editors had more and more to do. As bodies disappeared, the Bosses "reorganized" the newsroom, again and again. Sports and business and features — now she often had to juggle their lineups, coordinate their duties, console their survivors ... in addition to her news responsibilities. On many nights, a single copy editor now had a workload once handled by three or four people. And since Rox always edited more copy than anyone, that meant her workload was beyond unbearable, whatever that word is. (She'd know the word.)
Working in another industry wasn't really an option. Rox wasn't a tech person; she never even owned a home computer. She used one at work, so why stare at one when she was at home? She worked for the newspaper, that thing people read at the table with their coffee and breakfast, and out on the porch, and in bed on a lazy Sunday. Perhaps Rox could have busted a move to work for The Star's online operation. That could have meant day hours for the first time in decades. But she now was old school, and besides, she still had a few night desk people to protect.
On top of everything else, she was concerned about her health. She had been experiencing shortness of breath and saw a doctor a few months ago, Steve says. More tests were to be done. Meanwhile, she was trying to get healthy. Rox had cut out a lot of the crappy food and lost 30 pounds. She downplayed it as just a start, but she was confident she'd lose much more, and she noticed a new spring in her step. She vowed not to sit so much.
For her health, she had hope. For her copy desk, she had resignation. Her despair was not a bitter one, but a beleaguered one. The once-busy newsroom had become a depressing ghost town, not exactly an inspirational setting for herculean challenges. And still, she stealthily walked through the oft-reorganized newsroom each night to her desk. And still, she was the best copy editor ever.
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There Steve sat, home in Greenwood, or at least in a house in Greenwood, the house they inherited a year ago after his mother died. They no longer had to be renters. Finally, they had a brand-new car. They were thinking about fencing the spacious backyard, and getting a dog. Rox had gotten over Jumbo and Snoopy and the other dogs, mostly.
Steve, who has built homes and rebuilt cars in the past, hasn't been able to work much over the past decade. A deteriorating back imposes physical limitations and causes extreme pain. He's OK, financially, with what his mother and Rox left him. He's far from rich, but he's got just enough.
He's not sure about the rest. Any of it.
For years, their late-summer/early-fall trip had been to Montana. They always drove, in whichever of their two or three old cars was running best. More than once, his mechanic's skill saved them along a mountain road or in some desolate parking lot. This year's trip was supposed to be different.
Rox emailed a longtime friend: "Going to California! We've never been, and I can't wait. We're taking our new Mini Clubman S, which flies like the wind, and are looking forward to getting it up in the Rockies."
They made it up into the Rockies, but not to California. The shortness of breath, which had subsided for the past few weeks, returned during the trip. They both thought getting to a lower elevation might help. Briefly, it did. But then in Ely, Nev., while checking into a hotel, Rox had to sit down in the lobby. Steve, waiting outside in the car, saw her through the window and rushed in. The rest happened so quickly.
Roxanne Morgan, the best copy editor ever, died on Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, at the age of 53.
The folks in Ely were incredible to Steve. The hotel people. The people at the hospital. The chaplain who sat with him by her body for five hours. The funeral home people. So compassionate. So kind. They were from Roxanne's tribe. Steve thought seriously about laying her to rest there, and maybe moving there. They had always dreamed of moving out West. But after a few days, he hit the road, Roxanne's remains at his side.
Steve has found his way home, but he is lost. He's not even sure it's really home. He doesn't know what to do.
Roxanne's people at The Star don't know what to do. Her people who've left The Star don't know what to do.
Everybody loved her so much — and they just don't know what to do.
Pete Scott worked with Roxanne Morgan from 1992 to 2004, when he left The Star voluntarily. Today he writes ad copy and manages projects for Scott Design.
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