Hindsight Series, Part 2: Work

If you’d asked me in 2002 if I felt like I’d grown much in the years since my 1999 baptism, I’d have said no. But in hindsight, I was wrong: I had developed enough of a relationship with God to know how to be really mad at Him.

This may not sound like a good thing, but coming from a guy who, only a few years earlier, was indifferent to the Almighty and believed the feeling was mutual, the ability to feel genuine rage against Him was real progress.

And I had good reason to be mad, too – or so I thought at the time.

I’ll tell you all about why in a few paragraphs. But first, I’d like to tell you about my old friend and mentor, Darrell Skidnuk.

People might wonder why on Earth I’d have spent a dozen years in Fort McMurray, but those wonderers clearly didn’t know Darrell.

He was the managing editor of the Fort McMurray Today newspaper for much of the 1990s and early 2000s. He was the guy who hired me – a wet-behind-the-ears 22-year-old hack with just 18 months of weekly newspaper experience – to work in a daily paper in that small northeast Alberta city.

Darrell was the greatest boss I’ve ever had.

In a business known for overworking its employees to the point of burnout, he made sure that when reporters put in an hour of overtime, we got more than an hour off later (I’ve never heard of that in any other newspaper setting). Newsrooms are supposed to be full of chain-smoking, hard-drinking, self-absorbed, rageholic egomaniacs, but Darrell was none of the above. A devoted father, husband, active Christian and community volunteer, he was kind, jovial, generous, compassionate and witty to his staff, yet principled, honourable, hard-working, intelligent and courageous as a journalist. He taught us how a nice guy could be a hard-news journalist and still be a nice guy.

They just don’t make ’em like Darrell.

He hired young slackers with a bit of potential – including me and a certain beautiful red-headed lady some of you know – and through a brilliant combination of gentle nudges, playful sarcasm and unimpeachable example, brought out the best in us. I never loved living in Fort McMurray, but I loved working for Darrell.

Our world was turned upside-down about a decade ago, when he announced to the newsroom that he had cancer, and it was inoperable. The decline would be slow, but inevitable.

He was dying.

But he wasn’t going to spend his last months feeling sorry for himself; he’d decided to keep working as long as he could.

Unfortunately, this was at about the time that Fort McMurray as a community lost all sense. The oilsands boom had brought in thousands of new citizens much too quickly, so housing prices and the narcotics and prostitution industries skyrocketed, while cleanliness, common decency, retail and restaurant service levels and general quality-of-life plummeted. As a result, staff turnover rates at all of the city’s major employers (including the paper) rose sharply, and it seemed like the newsroom was constantly in hiring or training mode (usually both, as I recall). This was taking its toll on Darrell, and it showed. But he kept soldiering on.

And then Karen and I went ahead and added to his troubles.

Karen was pregnant with our son, Ian, meaning she would soon be going on maternity leave. And because we’d decided she would be a stay-home mom once the kid arrived, I needed to earn more money. I was therefore actively hunting for a new job.

Karen and I were two of the longest-serving and most reliable members of Darrell’s team; we knew the city and the paper almost as well as he did, and he was about to lose both of us within a few months of each other. We felt terrible (but not terrible enough to put our plans on hold).

When we broke the news to him, we expected him to utter something like, ‘I understand where you’re coming from, and I hate to lose you, but I wish you well’ – through gritted teeth. Instead, he beamed at us, gushed a ‘That’s great! I’m so happy for you! Congratulations!’ and then let out his signature Scooby Doo laugh that always made us smile.

He was quite a guy.

* * *

A few months later, I got that better-paying job I’d wanted – the only downside was that it was not our ticket out of Fort McMurray. Keyano College, the oilsands city’s post-secondary institution, needed a public relations manager and they decided I was their guy.

And I was elated. I’d leapt into journalism’s more lucrative sister profession, and also bounced up the ladder to management – all in one fell swoop. What a coup!

It took me about four months to find out I hated it.

Somehow, the work was boring and pedantic, while also being beyond my abilities. For a dozen reasons – many of which, in hindsight, were related more to my mindset than my skill set – this position wasn’t right for me, and I wasn’t right for it.

Aside from what I did wrong and what they did wrong, the fundamental problem was that the role was long on strategic planning, networking and schmoozing, and very short on writing. (In hindsight, I can’t imagine why I’d have thought I could be happy in such a job.)

I was miserable.

But about five months into my time in this role, an ad in the Careers section of the paper caught my eye, and I was convinced I was saved. One of the oilsands companies (Syncrude) was looking for a writer for its newsletters – a person to write technical and people profiles. Technical and people profiles just happen to be two of my specialties.

Even more promising was the fact that the supervisor of this new employee happened to be a guy named Randy – my former city editor at the newspaper, with whom I’d had a great professional relationship. So great that two years earlier, he’d called me out of the blue and invited both me and Karen to come work for him at the paper he was editing at the time.

This was a slam-dunk: a well-paying job for which I was perfectly qualified, and the person doing the hiring was someone I liked, who seemed to be looking for an opportunity to hire me again. I was saved! I started mentally writing my resignation letter about two minutes after I left the interview.

Imagine my disappointment a few days later, when I got the call from a Syncrude HR rep to tell me they’d chosen someone else. Worse yet, I knew the successful candidate quite well, and thought him to be an above-average small-city sports reporter with very little else to offer the world. (He’s still with the company and doing very well, so clearly Syncrude saw something in him that I didn’t. Good on ya, Bob!)

After I got off the phone with the HR rep, I was quite despondent. I was still stuck in a job that I found dreary, tedious and difficult, working with people to whom I didn’t relate. I had no idea how to deal with the situation.

Here’s where I was mad at God. After saying a polite but dazed goodbye to the HR rep, I walked, with tears in my eyes, to a deserted bathroom and whispered an anguished, angry tirade to my creator: ‘How could You let this happen? This job was perfect for me! I was perfect for it! Instead I’m stuck here, struggling along in a job I hate! Why, God? WHY?!?’

Things came to a head a few weeks later, and my college boss/mentor/tormentor (even with the benefit of hindsight I’m still unsure about how to feel about her) asked me frankly if I really wanted to be in PR at this college.

I said no.

She was surprised, but she came up with an excellent solution: she engineered a job switcheroo whereby I would write for newsletters and maintain the college website until we figured out what my longer-term future would be. And in the meantime, the college would continue to pay me manager money for technician work.

There were a lot of words I would use to describe my feelings toward that boss – not all of them positive. But when she engineered that new arrangement, I added a new one: grateful. She definitely came through when it counted.

I didn’t know anything about web development at the time, but I was assured it would be a piece of cake for me to learn what I needed to know about the required software to do that part of the job. They were right, and a few weeks later, I was excelling in my temporary writing/web role and mostly enjoying it.

Four months after the switcheroo, I got a call from Tim, my old publisher at the paper, inviting me to lunch. Over beef vindaloo, he asked me to come back to the paper and be city editor.

The pressures of running a newsroom in a boomtown had finally gotten to Darrell, and he decided he had better things to do with his last few months on Earth than deal with a constant stream of professional headaches.

Tim decided to promote Mike, the current city editor, to replace Darrell as managing editor, and bring me back in to replace Mike. It was a brilliant idea – not to toot my own horn. The paper knew me and I knew the paper and the city better than anyone except Darrell and Mike. And because I’d spent a year away, the reporters were more likely to accept me as a supervisor because they hadn’t spent the past year working with me as either a buddy or a rival. Yet, they knew I knew what I was doing because I wasn’t a total outsider or neophyte McMurrayite. I’d also gained some management experience, and done a lot of growing up during my year in exile.

A few days after the succession plan was announced, Darrell took me out to lunch to congratulate me and give me some advice about my new position. He told me he felt better about leaving, knowing that he was effectively passing the torch to me – rather than some stranger who didn’t know or care about the paper or the city.

I was elated.

The job paid about the same as my Keyano position did, and it was familiar yet fresh; challenging yet comfortable. I found myself in exactly the job I wanted at exactly the time I needed it, at exactly the time Darrell needed someone he could trust to take over for him.

And it never would have happened if God had let Randy hire me for that Syncrude job. I don’t know why God allowed Darrell to develop cancer, but in hindsight, I have no doubt about why He took me to Keyano and prevented me from going to Syncrude.

And seven years later, I’m still in awe.

* * *

For the next few months, Darrell was still pretty strong, so he made almost-weekly visits to the paper to lay out the sports stats page for us – just to keep busy and see some friends. Hanging out and bantering with Darrell during those early mornings is time I’ll always treasure.

Darrell died in April of 2004, a few days after Karen and I last visited him in the hospital. We went to say goodbye, but couldn’t find the words. I never managed to tell him how much I valued, admired and loved him. I think he knew, but in hindsight, I sure wish I’d told him.

* * *

You’d think that’s the end of the story, but not quite – although I confess the rest is a bit anticlimactic.

I spent 2 ½ years as city editor, after which we moved to Calgary, and found ourselves attending Holy Trinity Anglican Church (www.holytrinitycalgary.org). About a year after we came to that church, Holy Trinity found itself without a webservant.

It just so happens that Holy Trinity uses the exact same obsolete software that Keyano did to maintain its website, and I learned just enough about the system to oversee its little corner of cyberspace.

In hindsight, that can’t all be a coincidence.

Peace be with you.


About robpetkau

Communications professional by day, amateur musician by night, worship leader (at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) on weekends and aspiring Bible teacher in my dreams. Grateful husband to the woman who completes me. Doing-the-best-I-can dad to the son and daughter who keep me on my toes. Striving disciple of the GodMan who came, taught and died for me. Thanks for stopping by!
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