We got the awful, unbelievable news a year ago yesterday.
Brad Barnes, who had been a colleague ours at the Pensacola News-Journal in the early 1990s, was on the other end of the phone, calling from the newsroom of the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Ga.
He said he had some bad news about our long-time friend Melanie Bennett, a police reporter for the newspaper.
We were going to see Melanie the next day for the first time in a couple of years. She was coming to Charlotte with some other people from her newspaper for a writers’ conference. We were trying to nail down some plans — not always easy with Mel — to have her come out to the house for dinner, and were expecting her to call either that night or the next morning.
So what was the bad news? That Melanie wasn’t coming? But why wouldn’t she call and tell us that?
“Melanie died today,” Brad said.
I said, “Brad, say that again.”
It was the last thing in the world I expected to hear. Melanie’s husband, Paul, had found her dead in their home a few hours earlier. It was eventually determined to be a heart attack, but that wasn’t certain at the time.
It was left to me to break the bad news to Jayne as she returned from a business trip to Columbia, S.C. We were both devastated. It didn’t seem right that someone who personified the phrase “full of life” was gone. She was only 42 years old.
We had known Melanie for more than 15 years, dating back to our days in Pensacola. She wasn’t hard to get to know, and was such a presence she was impossible to ignore. She was a wonderful friend to us both, sharing a lot of our interests, not the least a love for reporting and writing.
But she also loved popular culture, especially movies — her Oscar night parties and her Disney toilet seat stand out in my memory.
I always think about knee-jerk media critics and smile when I think of Melanie, because she would have confounded them so much. She loved to talk politics — local, state or national. She would call us to talk about something she had read about the Clintons or George H.W. Bush or the latest reprehensible thing that Rush Limbaugh had said on the radio. (After the right-wing radio host’s personal attack on Michael J. Fox a few days ago, we wondered what she would’ve said about that. Mel, some things haven’t changed.)
But she defied stereotypes about media folks. She unapologetically loved lots of things that were decidedly not “elite” and were very red-state. She taped hours of the Jerry Lewis Telethon so she could watch it after work. She loved reality TV. She loved gospel music — as I flipped through the channels on the satellite radio this morning I stopped on a song by the Gaither Vocal Band and thought of her. She loved her home church back in Geraldine, a little town in north Alabama.
And, Lord, did she love her Auburn Tigers. I was always grateful that we were friends despite my affiliation with the hated Florida Gators. A few years ago I was thrilled to find a biography of the late Auburn football coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan in the $1 books at Books-a-Million that I signed and sent to her. She loved it. (That last name is pronounced “Jerr-dan,” as she was always quick to point out to the uninitiated.)
Jayne, Mel and I also worked together in Pittsburgh for a while. I don’t think they “got” her up there in Yankee-land, but she did meet her future husband, Paul, a nice guy from Tennessee, on the Internet during that time. (Leave it to Mel to find the jewel out of all the freaks and nutcases online. Friendship found Melanie pretty easily and once you were her friend you were all in. You soon knew everyone she knew.)
After her marriage, Melanie moved to Knoxville, Tenn., where she and Paul adopted a son, Cody. They settled in Columbus in 2000. We only saw her a few more times after that, but we always kept in touch. Mel would call and she and Jayne (and sometimes I) would talk about the latest thing that interested us. (She was the first person to call us on Sept. 11, 2001, to tell us about the terrorist attacks.) Then she’d get another call and as quickly as she’d appeared in our lives, she’d be gone again. But that was just Mel.
A year later, it’s still hard for us to believe we’ll never talk to her again. But we aren’t the only folks who remember her and think about her. We’ve spoken to many of her friends and relatives over the past year to share both grief and good memories.
And I think a true mark of a life well-lived is that people are still paying tribute to you a year after you’re gone. See this link for a touching column from a colleague this week in the Ledger-Enquirer: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/mld/ledgerenquirer/news/local/15840700.htm
Mel, we sure do miss you. And we’ll never forget you.