MAXWELL: After two years away, back to the joys I missed
8/13/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

I am back.
Many readers and colleagues want to know why I came back. A straightforward question deserves straightforward answers.
First, some background: In 2004, I resigned from the St. Petersburg Times as editorial writer and columnist to fulfill a long-ago promise to myself to work in some capacity at a historically black college or university. That would be my personal way of “giving back” to an institution that made higher education possible for me and a way to help current and future black students.
I chose Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., because I had friends there and because I had served there as a civil rights organizer during the summer of 1964. I contacted the college president, and we agreed that I would join the faculty as a scholar-in-residence for at least one year. I would teach, advise the student newspaper and re-establish the journalism major.
Until I arrived, students could only minor in journalism. Because of a generous benefactor, I had enough money to revive the major in less than a year, equip a top-of-the-line newsroom, fund 10 scholarships and implement a field-trip program. Immediately, several students who been English majors switched to journalism.
So, with such quick success at Stillman, why did I come back to the Times?
Money, or the lack thereof, was the main reason. When I went to Stillman in 2004, my salary was $33,000 before taxes. When I left in 2006, it was $35,000 before taxes. Simply put, with rent and utilities, gasoline, food, federal and Alabama income taxes, Social Security and pension deductions, car and health and renter’s insurances, a daughter in college and monthly checks to my ailing mother, I struggled to make ends meet each month.
A few times I was on the verge of borrowing money from relatives, but my pride stopped me.
Without money, I could not travel, especially abroad. I try to travel to a new foreign place at least once a year. And then there is New York. During my two years at Stillman, I traveled to New York a mere three times – once to see a play, once to visit relatives in Harlem and once on business. And without money, I could not buy the books I wanted. Like travel, books make life worth living to me.
Another reason I returned to the Times is that I plain missed Florida. I was born in Fort Lauderdale, fewer than 2 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. I am a water person. In Daytona Beach, I lived in a tiny beach house several blocks from the famous boardwalk. In Key West, when I taught at Florida Keys Community College, the Gulf of Mexico was my front yard. In Fort Pierce, I was a five-minute drive from the Atlantic. But in Tuscaloosa, I was landlocked, and it drove me crazy.
I could not adjust to the right-wing politics, economic stinginess and meddlesome, fundamentalist religiosity of West Alabama. Never have I had so many Bible-toting proselytizers knocking on my door. I sent more than a dozen of these well-meaning folks away with harsh reminders that my home was where I demanded to be left alone. Period.
Stillman, which is Presbyterian affiliated, also was too religious for me. Students were required to take several hours of religion and attend chapel, and faculty were strongly urged to do so. When a professor did not attend, which I never did, a dean or a chairman reminded you. Although the college encouraged the religious life with good intentions, I found many aspects of the tradition intolerable.
Finally, I missed the Times, not the newspaper per se but the venue I had to voice my opinion on issues that both matter to the public and interest me. I cannot count the number of nights I woke up in Tuscaloosa wanting to weigh in on something in the news or something I had witnessed.
While I wrote a weekly column for the “West Alabama” section of the Tuscaloosa News, I did not have the freedom of the op-ed columnist, the freedom to channel the late H.L. Mencken, my favorite curmudgeon.
Some people are natural-born lovers or killers. I am a natural-born opinion columnist and debater. I missed the give-and-take of the morning editorial board meetings more than I imagined when I left the newspaper.
I have not forsaken Stillman College by any means. I will be teaching one online journalism course, raising money for scholarships and arranging for colleagues to lecture on campus.
The Stillman experience enriched my life and will continue to do so, but I am glad to be back at the Times.