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Feature feedback?

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by Sean Smyth, Jun 22, 2007.

  1. Sean Smyth

    Sean Smyth Member

    Hello, everyone. Long-time lurker on this board, wondering what some may think of an older feature I have kicking around. It's always been one of my favorite subjects, so I feel more strongly about it, and as a result, it usually ends up in most of my clips packages. Just curious what you guys would've done to tighten it up and/or improve it. (And the desk at this paper actually edited a couple misspellings into the story.)


    Mr. Jake relishes role as Carlisle ambassador
    The Sentinel, Carlisle, Pa.
    Sunday, Oct. 16, 2005

    By Sean Smyth
    Sentinel Reporter


    Say the name to anyone in Carlisle and they’ll know who you’re talking about.

    “Jake, Jake, Jake!”

    They’ve heard the name ring out from the student section fat basketball games for years as Mr. Jake, the cafeteria proctor, made his way to his seat, above the Carlisle High School bench. He’d clench his fist and acknowledge the salute and the students would sit down.

    Jacob T. Hodge Sr. is his formal name. And he is a Carlisle icon — the face of the entire community.

    “Everyone knows Jake,” Carlisle High School co-principal Gary Worley says.

    “He is the spirit of Carlisle,” Carlisle High School basketball coach Joe Stasyszn adds.

    A proud, positive, upbeat man, Jake Hodge has served as Carlisle’s unofficial ambassador for years now.

    “He’s the most popular man around,” says his daughter, Pamela.

    Maybe Dad should run for mayor, she quips.

    But Jake Hodge, 79, was diagnosed with colon cancer in February. Since then, he’s had good and bad days.

    There’s also been one constant: a stream of well-wishers.

    He greets all visitors whether they are strangers or familiar faces with the same words. “How you doing, my friend?” Then he offers a firm handshake.

    He forgets about his declining health when someone walks through the door of his North Middleton Township home, where he is receiving hospice care.

    “When I stopped in, the first thing he did was ask how I was doing, how my family was doing, how (Lebo’s son) Jeff’s family was doing,” former Carlisle High School boys’ basketball coach Dave Lebo, now an assistant men’s basketball coach at Auburn University, says of a recent visit. The first stop Lebo made on a recent return to town was Jake’s house.

    “He didn’t want to talk about himself and he didn’t want to talk about his situation.”

    The Lebo-Hodge bond goes back three decades. It was forever intertwined through the tragedy of Jay Hodge’s death Jan. 25, 1980, when he collapsed late in a game against Steel-High. Jay’s parents, Jake and Delores Hodge, were in their usual seats, above the Carlisle bench.

    Lebo, then a young coach on the cusp of a great run in leading the Carlisle program, says serious thought was given to cancelling the rest of the season. He says he was pretty close to walking away from the bench.

    Lebo didn’t quit; his team returned to the court a week later, taking on York High on a Saturday afternoon in front of a packed crowd in what is now Evans Gym.

    Just before tipoff, Jake and Delores walked in and took their customary seats. The student section erupted. Jake shook his fist; they sat down.

    Carlisle beat York that day. “They should have beat us by the number of points we beat them by,” Lebo recalls. “It’s struck with me ever since that there’s more to sports than athletic ability. There’s a special spirit.”

    The walls in Jake’s living room, where his bed is located now, are museum-like.

    Behind his bed and to the left is a wall of plaques. To the right, another corner of the room is a shrine to Carlisle High School athletics: signs, pennants and balls commemorating the Thundering Herd’s four straight PIAA Class AAAA boys’ basketball championships, and portraits of sons, Spike and Jay.

    Move up that wall a little further, alongside Jake’s bed, and you’ll see a large portrait-style picture of Jake and Delores Hodge, surrounded by other family pictures and the Carlisle Area Finest award given to Jake and Delores in 1984 for outstanding volunteerism. An oversized get-well card, made out of poster board by CHS students, leans against the wall, next to the television. Across the room are more cards. They are just a few of the hundreds — maybe thousands — of cards Jake’s received.

    “We have a bag about this high,” Pam says, holding her hand at her waist. Jake’s read all of them, at least a few lines.

    It’s unbelievable,” Jake says. “Why me? I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything anybody else hasn’t done.”

    Visitors come by daily, sometimes two or three at a time. In the afternoons, Spike notes, “they have to get by me.”

    Former co-workers, friends of Jake’s five children and 10 grandchildren,and, of course, family members are among the stream of visitors who come to see him.

    “I’ve been blessed,” Jake says.

    Jake Hodge loves people.

    The first major activity Jake put his hand in was a drum-and-bugle corps he founded after leaving the service.

    “It was the cheapest thing to do,” he says. “Bugles didn’t cost too much.”

    Family members helped put together the corps’ outfits. Drums were secured. The group marched in parades across the region. And Jake recalls marching in an American Legion parade in Washington.

    “We were walking down — oh, what’s that street in Washington, D.C., where the Lincoln Memorial is? That street,” Jake says. “And here we are, a bunch of black guys, all black guys. Everybody said we couldn’t do it. We did it.

    “It made you feel good. It made you feel like, ‘I am somebody.’”

    Jake’s always been active in his church, Bethel AME Church on East Pomfret Street. He founded non-profit, PUT (People Together), and ran that for a number of years in the early 1990s. He always attended Carlisle High sporting events, especially football and basketball games, to support the kids.

    After retiring from the Carlisle Barracks, Jake was a cafeteria proctor for more than 14 years at Carlisle High’s Swartz Building. He only stopped working there late last school year, after falling ill.

    Jake always made sure everything was in order. Kids put away their trash. They didn’t jump in line and cut others off. They were respectful. And if they weren’t, they heard about it.

    “Even if the kids were getting out of line, he’d turn it into a positive somewhere,” says Paul Wysocki, a high school assistant principal.

    “If he spoke to them, they did what he asked them to do,” says Worley, who was one of Lebo’s assistant coaches when Jay Hodge played for Carlisle. “Like any good educator, he was able to translate the fact, and communicate the fact, that he really cared about them.”

    “I’ve known Mr. Jake all my life,” says Jim Washington Jr., Hope Station’s executive director. “Back when I was growing up, he was one of those people who helped raise kids. He was one of the persons you’d look up to. He’d holler at you and keep you straight.”

    Everyone says Jake never singled someone out for negative attention. It was all about being upbeat and being inclusive.

    “He doesn’t do black things, he does people things,” Washington says. “He doesn’t see black and white. As many white people love him as black people love him. He’s a man for all seasons.”

    In the early 1990s, Assistant Superintendent John Friend says, Jake stepped in whenever there was a hint of racial tension in the air at the high school. “Jake was able to walk in and talk about those issues and talk to them about their feelings. We used to always look at him as an asset at the high school.”

    Fowler, who retired as superintendent last year, says Jake was a “key adviser.”

    “He is someone not hesitant to give you his opinion, but he lifts you up at the same time,” Fowler says. “Jake’s a person who always sees the good and the potential in people.”

    Skip Jones, program coordinator for South Central Pennsylvania Sickle Cell Council, started working at the council last year. That’s when he met Jake, whose grandson Trey has battled sickle cell anemia.

    Even though they’ve known each other briefly, Jones has picked up on Jake’s gentleness.

    “He’s still positive, he’s still interacting, he’s still concerned about others,” Jones says. “And that concern is genuine.”

    Jake has dealt with pain in his life. His son’s tragedy. Cancer claimed Delores three years ago this month. Trey’s illness. There have been other hurdles, too.

    No matter what, Jake remains upbeat.

    He says he’s always spoken his mind. He wants people to think he was direct with his thoughts and spoke “in a way that didn’t offend or embarrass anybody.”

    Offend? Embarrass?

    Not Jake Hodge.

    That needs to be said.
  2. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Sean -

    Thanks for posting and sharing your work with us.

    I think this piece is fundamentally sound mechanically, so just a couple of tiny nits to pick up front.

    - I'd flip your lede to read like this:

    “Jake, Jake, Jake!”
    Say the name to anyone in Carlisle and they’ll know who you’re talking about.

    - Anything you cite as being "(noun)-like" is an opportunity for improvement. Rather than say the walls of a room are "museum-like," which is awkward and really non-specific (and actually describes the wall itself, not what's hanging on it), try to describe the attribute that makes you think of them that way, i.e. a wall on which "the plaques and pictures hang with a museum's tidy care", or on which "the late-day museum light falls on family pictures and dusty plaques." You're far enough along as a writer to start thinking in more ambitious descriptive terms. You only want one or two of these kinds of descriptions in a piece this size, but they can be very important in establishing a suitable tone. Good descriptions run much deeper than simply itemizing what you see.

    - "Further" is an expression of continuance, not distance. If you're measuring distance, it's "farther."

    - Did it strike you at any point that this man was dying in his "living" room? Just something to think about.

    - I'm not sure your closing grafs get you where you really want to go, which leads me to this:

    - My big note, something I can't really express in a line edit, would be this: I feel that the piece is mechanically correct in almost every way, but that it doesn't resonate emotionally. At least for me. I'm sure your readers, most of whom know, or know of, Jake, feel otherwise. Still, the best version of a story like this is one that moves a stranger.

    I say this because I believe you're writer enough to begin thinking in deeper, richer, more complex terms about stories like this. I'm not advocating cheap sentiment or overwriting; nor am I saying that you try to manipulate readers to bring tears. Far from it. In fact, I insist on the opposite, and advocate only narrative honesty. But the truth is that if Jake's in hospice care; it they've moved his bed into the living room; if people troop to the house day after day to say goodbye - this man is dying. At its core then, this is a story about what it means to die.

    And while your story catalogs some of the events in this man's life, it doesn't really have the emotional gravity it should.

    Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying that you need to write about what it means to die. I'm saying that you should have that theme in your mind as you write the story of this man's life.

    At this stage in your development as a writer it's important to begin thinking in narrative terms of human universals - the things every one of us share in common - especially in your feature work.

    I'm not describing this as well as I might, but if you want to pursue it, I'd be happy to try to clarify my thoughts in further posts. And maybe some of the other greybeards can weigh in with their thoughts as well. I may be completely off my rocker here. I'm sure they'll let me know.

    In the meantime, thanks again for bringing your work in. I appreciate the chance to read it.
  3. dawgpounddiehard

    dawgpounddiehard Active Member


    Very solid effort, this was a helluva story.

    Again, I'll be nitpicking, but I would have like to see less quotes. By that I don't mean less sources, you have great sources for this story, but piggyback on what they said by writing it. You can write better than what people say. Does that make sense?

    I think jgmacg's idea of using the theme of what it means to die as you background. How you would do that, I'm not quite sure on how exactly to explain it. Maybe jgmacg can return to his rocker to help explain.

    Still, good stuff. You should feel proud that you were able to tell this man's story. He seems like a great man.
  4. Sean Smyth

    Sean Smyth Member

    Guys, thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it a lot.

    J, I debated with my editor a bit that night on how to mention the guy's last days. Our SE at the time looked at it and brought up that point. I was struggling with the balance to write about how he had lived this full life, yet he was knocking on death's door. (He died a week later.)

    And dawg, I think this guy's story makes the piece, even though I have had people tell me this is one of my better features. (It won a PNPA honorable mention in 2006.)

    Again, thanks for the input. I'll be back again, I promise.

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