The newspaper was never wrapped in plastic and tossed in the driveway. It was nestled in the skinny space between the storm and front doors of our house in Summit, dry and intact.
That is where I found The Star-Ledger every day after school, for as long as I can remember.
Many people my age recall getting The Newark Evening News until it folded in 1972, but I don’t. We always were a Star-Ledger family.
Like most boys my age, I went right to the Sports section. First stop was Jerry Izenberg. The guy had the best job in the world, writing about sports, and I knew I wanted to do that someday.
The dreams of that prepubescent boy came true, as did others. Those dreams began with this newspaper and today the “working part” of this wonderful half-century association comes to an end. This is my farewell column.
I say the working part because I will always be associated with this paper. It is, and will remain, my identity. My obituary will say “former Star-Ledger columnist,” foremost.
I’m proud of that. I always was, and always will be. Every time I introduced myself or made a call and said the words “Mark Di Ionno, from The Star-Ledger,” I felt a heart race of pride. It was a physical effect.
Each time I received a letter or email or, later, an appreciative comment on NJ.com, I felt publicly validated. Each time a reader reached out with a problem to solve or a story to tell, I felt called upon to do something meaningful. There were thousands upon thousands of those communications over the years. Thank you all — for reading, for reaching out, for your part in that telepathic relationship between writer and reader. I was blessed to have you all on the receiving end of my work.
At Thanksgiving this year, I wrote a column about the practice of gratitude. Several of you sensed I was winding down and wondered if that was a farewell column. Let’s say it was Part I, because when I look back on my career, all I can think is how grateful I am it unfolded this way.
Mostly, I’m grateful for the all the friendships I made in this frenetic business, the bonds formed chasing stories, making deadlines and reflecting on whatever good it accomplished. There are too many people to name. But over the years I have had mentors, and people I have mentored, people who were like big brothers and sisters to me, or I to them. We were a Star-Ledger family.
When all is said and done, it’s not the stories or awards that matter. It’s the people I loved. And loved working with. And loved talking with. I loved coming to the newsroom every day and still do. That’s the hardest part of leaving.
The recent evolution of this business is well-documented but, technology aside, media always has been a young person’s business. It needs fresh eyes, fresh legs and fresh ideas. A smart man knows when to move over.
Accepting that now allows me to evolve as a writer and make a greater investment in my novels. A theme of my most recent, “Gods of Wood & Stone,” is about staying relevant. A retired ballplayer headed to the Hall of Fame feels lost and fears all he is, is who he was. The other main character, a Cooperstown blacksmith, fights to make history relevant in a sports- and celebrity-obsessed world. I know the feeling of both.
Readers of this column know I used it to advocate for better promotion of New Jersey’s under-appreciated Revolutionary War history. I’m especially thankful to have the opportunity and voice to do that.
Thankful is the best word to sum up how I feel about my career. Lucky is the second-best word.
Fresh out of the Navy, I was lucky to get Izenberg in a sports writing course at Rutgers-Newark, and he became my lifelong mentor. In appreciation, I dedicated my first novel, “The Last Newspaperman” to him.
In a few short years, I, too, was a sports columnist at the New York Post.
In New York, I was lucky to get to know Pete Hamill, and the world of a street columnist enticed me. I dreamed of that job, and eventually got it here, in my home state at my home paper.
My former editor, Jim Willse, despite being a New Yorker, luckily appreciated my Jersey authenticity, in both knowledge and voice and gave me this space. His successor, Kevin Whitmer, let me keep it, through very tough times. I’m grateful to both.
My first column editor, David Tucker, and I were a high-wire act. A poet, he understood the cadence of language. He knew exactly what a column needed to sing but, like all great editors, also knew to get out the way and let me do the singing. Same for Rosemary Parrillo, who took over after David retired. I was lucky to have both.
I’m grateful that my career here dates enough years to have worked for both Sid Dorfman and Mort Pye, the shoulders on which this paper’s editorial legacy was built. I am the last person in the company to have worked for both. That’s how much this place is in my DNA.
It was Sid – he was always just “Sid” to the people who worked for him — who helped me make the transition from sports to news by saying the magic words all journalists dream of.
“Do what you want,” he said. “Go out and find the stories and write them.”
I did that, the best I could.
And there is one more piece of gratitude and luck I have to mention.
When I came to work at The Star-Ledger in 1990, I got to learn so much about this crazy state of ours.
It, too, became part of my DNA and I was determined to represent it, and its people, well. I covered New Jersey. I never seriously looked to go anywhere else. I wanted to end my journalism career at The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s greatest newspaper.
And now I have.