It has been 20 years since I last drew a paycheck as an employee of The Star Beacon, the Ashtabula daily newspaper I grew up reading.
Twenty years is a long time, but that fact didn't soften the blow of the news Sunday that Karl Pearson, the first boss I had in this business, died unexpectedly at 58.
Dave Burcham, another former boss and a former Tribune Chronicle sports editor, likes to say, "None of us are getting out of here alive."
It's true, but we're never prepared for that stark reality when it applies to someone we've known and loved for this long.
Karl didn't just work at The Star Beacon. He was The Star Beacon. And he wasn't just the first sports editor to hire me. He was the first boss I had in any job.
Well, he was the first one I had for more than one day.
Before Karl hired me as a part-timer in his sports department, my friend Dan Ciolek and I worked at a nursery. Our jobs consisted of picking up potted plants, putting them on a flatbed wagon hauled by a tractor and then walking or riding a few hundred feet and unloading them again.
We did this repeatedly for what seemed like an eternity (read: until lunch) before deciding it wasn't for us.
By noon that first day, we were sitting in Dan's car in a nearby Burger King parking lot and wondering how our friend Robert Ashcraft was going to feel when we quit after one day on the job. Robert had worked there for a while and had recommended us to his boss.
Not long after that, Karl called and asked if I was still interested in working at the newspaper. I'd applied for a part-time job a couple of months earlier and gone on an interview, but someone else had been hired.
But when that guy didn't work out - thanks, buddy! - Karl called me. I had a job before we hung up.
I have wanted to tell him for years how grateful I was for that opportunity in October 1985.
The sound of Karl's familiar baritone hadn't been a daily part of my life for two decades, but it has been a comforting and recurring guest over the years. We just spoke a couple of weeks ago, but it never occurred to me it might be our last conversation.
I wish, of course, that I'd acted on my impulse to thank Karl for giving me a start in this business and for all he did to help me acquire the skills to make a living doing what I love.
Reflect, remember and sometimes regret ... it's what we do when we lose someone like Karl.
He put up with me for six years in Ashtabula. It couldn't have been easy. Like most teenagers, I was convinced I knew everything when I walked into the building, but Karl didn't hold my unfounded arrogance against me.
He simply showed me all there was to know about sportswriting, which I quickly learned was radically different than any other kind of writing I did. He also taught me about deadlines. I knew about those in the sense that I rarely met them when it came to writing papers in high school and college.
He also taught me how to design pages and take photographs. But one of the lessons I remember most was about talking to people. Karl had a booming voice, whether he was interviewing a coach after a game, talking on the phone or singing the national anthem before an event. He was convinced that my soft-spoken manner wasn't going to cut it.
I remember thinking - and perhaps even telling him - that compared to him, everyone was going to sound meek and mild. But he was right and I learned to speak up.
Karl was funny, too. And unlike some people, he had no problem allowing himself to become the butt of a joke. As if he had a choice, working daily with newsroom pranksters like Don McCormack and Bob Lebzelter.
People will be talking about Karl-isms for years to come. One of them was a nervous habit of ending sentences with "stuff like that," "things of that nature" or "whatever you wanna call."
Karl was a character. I still remember our annual drives down Route 45 from Ashtabula to Warren Western Reserve for high school basketball tournament games. We'd stop at the sold Sandwich Factory for a footlong on the way down and another on the way back. Karl didn't just provide driving directions for young sportswriters. His landmarks also were the best places to eat along the route.
Karl was Ashtabula's version of former Tribune Chronicle sportswriter Dave Dorchock, another great friend and colleague who died before his time. They remain unforgettable characters and among the best friends I've had.
Do anything long enough and eventually you'll deal with loss of a friend. Pete Mollica, John Kovach, Chuck Housteau and Steve Kovach all have passed way in recent months. Mike Scully, another friend and former co-worker from Ashtabula, died in 1998.
I learned something from each of them, but Karl was my first teacher.
"So it's all my fault," he'd say.
Even in death, Karl again taught me something. In talking to others who knew him and reading their tributes to him, I realized that despite more than three decades in the newsroom, he was the rare journalist who found a way to prevent the job from defining him.
Karl is rightly being hailed as a sportswriting icon in northeastern Ohio. No one I ever knew put more of his heart and soul into covering high school sports. But there was more to the man than headlines, deadlines, columns and game stories.
Karl's most important contributions came as a son, brother, uncle and friend and man of God. If there ever was a man who did the right thing in front of an audience of thousands every day and - more importantly - even when no one was watching, it was Karl Pearson.
Thanks for everything, Karl. I'm going to miss you and stuff like that.