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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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