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Lessons Mary Fortney taught me about living one's life

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Feb 14, 2011

Lessons Mary Fortney taught me years ago came to mind on learning of her recent death, following a period of health problems and increasing frailty.

She was for many years a general-assignment reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times and, later, Peninsula Times Tribune. She later did inside-editing work at the San Jose Mercury-News, and wrote a neat children's book along the way.

"General assignment" means a reporter doesn't have a specific beat but rather covers just about anything that comes along, fielding assignments from editors rather than "covering a beat" and digging up one's own stories in the city or schools, or environment, or land-use or other category.

Most reporters enjoy variety in their writing and interviewing, and this was particularly true of Mary. As long as I worked with her in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, she was invariably enthusiastic about her work and assignments.

There was one glaring thing about which she wasn't enthusiastic: having her stories cut to fit a space. And she was not shy about complaining about that.

So the first lesson I learned was that if you don't like something, tell people so. Even if they can't do anything about it due to what I called the "twin tyrannies of time and space" that is newspaper journalism. The space tyranny is lessened now with news posted on the Internet. But most readers don't want to read full minutes of a meeting -- they'd rather read about the important highlights, I believe, as in a news story.

A second important lesson I learned from Mary is that if you don't like hiking uphill, don't. Or biking. She became a founding member in the early 1970s of first the "Downhill Biking Club" -- an informal group I formed as a kind of joke within the Palo Alto Times' staff, which was (like most newspapers at the time) not known for the physical prowess of its staffers, with a couple of notable exceptions.

She was an enthusiastic member of that and a complementary group, the Downhill Hiking Club, so named because we responded to an invitation to hike down the Purisima Canyon when it was being considered for purchase by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. We would start at the top and be given a lift back up to the parking area from the bottom. Perfect for a Times' staff event.

A spinoff was the Downwind Kiting Club, a picnic/staff gathering held annually for years on Coyote Hill (with Stanford University's permission) in which kites of all kinds were flown in all kinds of wind. After trying to fix a few broken store-bought kites, I had an insight that changed my approach to life. That was a realization that if you have the right angle, the right surface area, the right weight and balance and a strong-enough string a kite had no choice but to fly.

So I began building kites out of bamboo strips and tissue paper. The most notable was an 8-foot-wide butterfly kite made out of various colored tissue paper. But it was too big for the string, which kept breaking. After several crashes, tissue strips hung trailing from the kite, which had gaping holes -- it looked like a butterfly from Hell. But with reduced surface area, it flew.

The third lesson Mary shared with me one day was how to maintain a bright outlook and an equilibrium of cheerful friendliness, despite hard times life can hand one -- such as the tragic death at 13 of her son. The secret, she shared one day over lunch at a Chinese restaurant near the Times' building at 245 Lytton Ave., in downtown Palo Alto, was to plan your time when you have a weekend or other unstructured days coming up. This is especially important when one lives alone, she said.

Mary maintained her humor until the last. At a lunch with a mutual friend and former colleague, Marge Speidel, on Jan. 10 she was upbeat, laughing at old memories and asking questions with her usual journalistic inquisitiveness. Another lesson: I almost postponed the lunch due to the volume of things I needed to get done before I retired Jan. 31. My take-home lesson was: "Don't put off spending time with people important to you."

In her case, planning ahead meant scheduling something with a friend, going to the theatre or music performance, or lecture, or outing to The City. On a bigger scale, it meant scheduling trips, often with a group or friends, to distant lands. She visited dozens of countries over the years, and I envied her, being encumbered with a family and house at the time.

Finally, I gleaned from Mary an almost constant joy in her profession. She loved writing and she loved people, and she wove them together in a tight writing style in which her empathy and compassion glowed through.

Only once did I catch her in an odd phraseology, and that was in a direct quotation. She had interviewed a physician about a book he had written about issues in life. She asked him why he chose to write the book, which veered a bit from his medical practice.

"If I die I want to leave something behind for my children," he replied, or words close to that.

I clipped the article out of the paper and attached a note: "Mary, it's WHEN I die, not IF -- even for an M.D."

She took it with good humor, as usual.

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