Celebrating my 22 years in The Mercury – KZN’s 170-years of daily newspapers!

by Rod Smith

My interest in writing for newspapers is the birth child of recuperating from an unexpected heart attack – I was in my early forties. 

Warned not to walk or get too excited for at least 3 weeks following 5-stent surgery, out of desperation I studied local columnists in the Indianapolis Star and decided that there was every reason I could make a similar contribution to my immediate community. It was close to Christmas and so I penned a column about – Christmas, of course.

“Wished I had gotten this a few days earlier,” responded the editor, “write on issues of faith, church, and we will run you once a month on Sundays.”

After a few years of monthly Sunday columns, rotating with a local rabbi, Catholic priest, and an imam, I transitioned to appearing weekly on Saturdays which I did for about 5 years. One day I decided I had said everything I ever wanted to say to my faithful readers in Indianapolis in 700-word weekly segments and quit.

But, I was bitten. I loved the dialogue with readers. I loved the love-mail and even enjoyed the hate mail. In response to a political column one reader wrote that I was “slow and stupid.” Seconds after reading his scathing assessment of my views I called the phone number in his email signature. 

“Ok,” he immediately conceded, “you are stupid, but you are certainly not slow.” 

The editorial columns I often thought would elicit little response got the most and the other way around – this, and so much more, fascinated me.  

While writing for The Indianapolis Star I visited Durban in 2001 and took the audacious risk of dropping in unannounced on the then editor of The Mercury, Dennis Pather. 

He graciously agreed to meet. 

Hoping for a weekly 700-word slot from the USA, Dennis dreamed up “You and Me” and the first of the daily columns was published a week later in late March 2001. 

Writing daily for The Mercury and doing it for 22 years – a newspaper published 14,225 kilometers from my home – seems absurd to some friends in the USA. 

It makes perfect sense to me. 

I love KwaZuluNatal and its vibrant culture. I need the connection to my homeland and, having grown up in Red Hill, I need the connection to my home city. Writing as I do about healthy relationships and vision and leadership helps to keep me somewhat sane. It helps me to maintain healthy boundaries, sharpens my thinking about families, and intimate and business relationships. I like to think it helps me be a better dad and therapist and human being.

That the column has lasted as long as it has is a joyful surprise to me, really it is. 

I think I have come to KZN about 4 times to speak at schools and churches and breakfasts and lunches. The response has been overwhelming and humbling and the many events – often oversold – are etched in my memory as life-giving moments when things are tough here in the USA as they often are. 

I track my trajectory with the column with vivid memories usually related to deadlines. 

I have written columns with a 4-year-old sitting on my hip, typing with one hand, because my other arm was holding infant-Nathanael, my other hand holding his bottle. 

My sons are now 24 and 20. 

I’ve stolen Wi-Fi from coffee shops on the famed Route 66 to meet a deadline while the boys and my sister and I were driving to California. I’ve written for The Mercury and answered reader emails on a flip-phone while traveling on trains in Eastern Europe. At a time when I was writing a series of You and Me columns about essential family conversations, I tried to have a deep conversation with my sons about my inevitable death. 

My older son raised his hand, as if in school.

“When you are dead,” he said, “do I have to write your columns?” 

“Do the Frozen,” I said. He knew exactly what I meant.

See you in tomorrow’s paper……

Rod Smith

One Comment to “Celebrating my 22 years in The Mercury – KZN’s 170-years of daily newspapers!”

  1. Wonderful Rod, I remember the day clearly you becoming the columnist for You and Me.
    I love being in Wimpy, having a cuppa and reading your column and seeing other folk doing the same. I want to
    Shout out “ He’s my brother !!”
    I have also made friends through your column
    Thanks for being who you are to so many folk and especially to me !’

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