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Commentary: John Dinges’ letter to his father

INTRO: There’s an old saying. Write when you get work. Commentator John Dinges did get a job, so he decided to write home to his father.


We haven’t been in touch for a while. I want to bring you up to date on what has been happening since we last talked.

I know you were proud that I was studying for the priesthood. I gave that a good try but it wasn’t right.

Now, actually for quite a while, I have—not just a job—but a profession. I fell into it kind of by accident. I wrote a letter to a newspaper, and they said, you seem literate. Come in for a tryout. They made me copy editor, then a police reporter. Then I was a freelancer in Latin America. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

I don’t mean it was easy. Journalism puts you face-to-face with reality, often grim reality.

At one point I was in Central America covering a civil war. Guatemala. Soldiers had been raiding villages all around Lake Atitlan, a beautiful crater lake hundreds of feet deep. It is said the Mayas—before they were conquered by the Spaniards—would row out in boats and throw gold figurines over the side. Returning their riches to the gods.

We were staying in a motel on the edge of the lake. Two reporter friends and I swam far out from shore, early in the morning. The mist was still rising from the water. In that moment the killing in the hills around us could not touch us. We did not have to think about the massacre a priest had described to us the day before.

For me, it was a centered moment, in a place of transcendence, where this world, the world below and the heavens are connected, run through as by a spear, top to bottom.

We swam back, we wrote our stories. We tried to get to the truth.

I know journalists don’t use this kind of language to talk about what we do. But I also know, Dad, I am where I should be, doing what I was meant to do. Struggling to understand both the glory and the evil of it all.

Maybe we don’t talk like we used to, Dad, but I want you to know I took your advice. You said, get a good education like your mother’s. Your grandfather was a farmer, I’m a car dealer in a small town, you move up to the next step. Whatever you do, don’t go into the car business.

Well, I have come a long way from Emmetsburg, Iowa. Recently, I’ve been teaching young journalists how to use sound to craft stories on the radio. I spend as much time in Latin America as I can. (I’ll tell you about Carolina and the kids in my next letter.)

One thing for sure. Being an accidental journalist, I can’t remember having a single boring day. I do still think about God, and I never sold a car.

Back announce: John Dinges is retiring from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism after 19 years. It just so happens that is how old he was when his father died.


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