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Ernest Hooper: Reflections on the reach and rewards of 25 years' work

Perched on an old bar stool beneath Tampa’s Selmon Expressway, Diane Williams waves at motorists for three and a half hours a day while sharing a message of Jesus’ love.
Perched on an old bar stool beneath Tampa’s Selmon Expressway, Diane Williams waves at motorists for three and a half hours a day while sharing a message of Jesus’ love.
Published Jun. 30, 2017

I've never told Diane Williams how much she inspires me.

And that's kind of the point.

For years, Williams has stood on the roadside in Riverview, and on Brandon Boulevard and sometimes on Channelside Drive, holding a sign that says "Jesus Cares." In Riverview, a street sign with a photo of her two-word affirmation stands on the roadside — a tribute to the impact she's had on so many.

"Everyone wants to know that someone cares about them," Williams told the Times in 2013. "What if someone was planning to end their life, saw this sign and changed their mind?"

But I have to imagine she's never gained a full appreciation of how her faith-based mission inspires. And in her efforts, I find a parallel to what I do every week for the Tampa Bay Times.

Oh sure, when it comes to determining who reads my columns and who delves into the regional sections I edit each week for the paper, I can cite audited circulation numbers and point to the highly-sophisticated metrics we use to chart our impact on the Internet.

Did you know 55 people in Portland, Oregon, read my latest column? I think it's my friend Andrea Warhol, clicking on the same story over and over again, but I'll take it.

Even with all the numbers, however, I can't measure the full impact of my work — just like Williams. We both take a leap of faith in sending out our unique messages and trust that it's provoking thought or changing a few minds or inspiring someone to do good.

Or maybe it's driving someone to anger. That's okay.

I don't share this perspective, one I've held for most of my journalistic career, because I'm seeking affirmation from readers. Honest. I'm driven by the unknown reach of my work. It fuels my imagination and my passion for the craft.

Knowing someone in Valrico, New Tampa, Seminole Heights or Toledo, Ohio, may read my words and feel compelled to act on them gets me out of bed every morning. It's my internal caffeine, even though I have to augment that with some real caffeine at Tre Amici@The Bunker in Ybor City.

Journalism is the awesome opportunity to impact lives in ways both big and small. At the Tampa Bay Times, that impact can be a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of editorials prompting Pinellas County to put fluoride back in its drinking water, or an investigative piece exposing a crooked charity stealing money in the name of Navy veterans.

Or maybe it's just a funny bumper sticker bringing a smile to a reader's face. To me, it's all a part of what makes this "daily miracle" worth the effort.

I reflect on all of this as I mark my 25th year at the Times this week. I'm so grateful to leaders of this paper, especially to Joe Childs, Jack Sheppard, Neville Green, Neil Brown and Paul Tash, for granting me 25 years to learn how to utilize that "awesome opportunity."

I started at the Times in June of 1992, a day after my 10-year Godby High School reunion in Tallahassee. I woke up at 6 a.m. and drove south on that Monday morning, stopping to change into a suit at the Burger King in Wesley Chapel.

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Dolly Brosan, one of the nicest people ever to work at this paper, greeted me with a smile at the Times Tampa bureau, and I immediately felt at home.

I thought I would toil here for a few years before moving on to something bigger and better. I didn't realize then that bigger and better could happen right here. I didn't understand how much I would learn to love Tampa Bay.

I started as a prep sportswriter. A few years ago, a friend who has become a successful businessman in Tampa pleasantly surprised me with a scrapbook full of articles I had written about his days as a high school basketball star.

It was one of the moments that confirmed my journalistic faith, but I didn't need it.

I'll always be driven by the belief my work matters more than I'll ever know. The mystery makes this job so wonderful, and it's the same inspiration that drives Diane Williams' simple but loving road-side outreach.

We're both on a mission, and I hope the mission continues. For both of us.

That's all I'm saying.