The Washington Post

Don’t wait until a funeral to get to know a colleague’s story

“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I had never thought about her mother, or her sisters. I didn’t know she was from Texas. I had seen her at the book cart set out weekly for employees to clamor over. But I didn’t know she went for the mysteries. Apparently, she had a wry sense of humor, was the baby of her family and loved animals and shopping.

I learned all these things about Darlene Meyer at a small memorial ceremony at The Post recently after she was found dead last month in her home. She died of natural causes.

The two of us were not friends, so it’s not odd that we did not know intimate details of each other’s lives. But what struck me as I listened to her two sisters tell family stories (one about a standoff in the kitchen with her mother about who would prepare the meal) is that I had never pondered her life outside of the walls of The Post. Not a single time.

I’m from a little country town in Louisiana where everyone waves at whoever is passing, whether they are on foot, on a bicycle or in a car. If they pass 10 times a day, that’s about how many times you’ll be waving. People know your mother, your mother’s mother and your cousins on both sides of the family. Go home after a long stint away, and someone you haven’t seen in years will recognize the face and say: “That’s Robert Earl?” or “You one of Miss Daisy’s grandsons, ain’t you?” Small, small town America.

Little by little, however, cities suck that out of you. At times, I relish this anonymity. People look past you, and you them. Sometimes we smile. Other times, there is no acknowledgment, just strangers or co-workers passing under fluorescent lights.

Darlene and I were not total strangers. She came to The Post in 1997 as a sales rep. I arrived four years earlier, but in the initial years there was little reason for our paths to cross. The Post is a large operation, and there’s long been a bright-line split between the commercial and news sides.

When I was still eligible for the Washington Post Newspaper Guild, which represents the paper’s news and advertising employees, Darlene and I were officers at the same time. In 2009, she and I were the only two employees in the room for several months trying to scratch out the best deal we could for our colleagues. It was tedious, thankless and frustrating work.

Throughout, Darlene was a tough bargainer, and she made sure that the higher-paid folks in the newsroom understood that the folks she represented on the commercial side — in sales and production — had different needs. Little raises to some of us, she scolded, were not so little to her folks. She could glare with the best of them, at Post representatives and even union counterparts who crossed her.

“She could silence a room with her indignation over managerial mistreatment,” said Bruce Nelson, the Newspaper Guild national representative who met with her often.

Rick Ehrmann, the Guild’s local staff representative, reminded everyone that Darlene also sat through countless grievances and buyouts and meetings for other employees. It was because of his pestering that police finally knocked in her door after Darlene, who kept to herself, hadn’t been in touch for several days. Friends know when something is wrong.

But Darlene, her close friends made clear, was more than a gritty person. At one time, she had two cats. And one colleague said, through tears, that Darlene made her a better person by pushing her to take on more responsibility than she thought she could handle.

Diane Haith knew Darlene better than most of her colleagues. They often worked late, and when they were done, talked about work and personal problems, books and whatever else came to mind. One evening during the holiday season, after everyone else had gone, Haith said that the two of them turned out the overhead lights to get the full effects of the decorations they’d put up.

“We walked up to the tree in the dark and sang ‘Old Tannenbaum,’ ” said Haith, smiling as she remembered the moment. They even gave each other nicknames — Haith was Coco, Darlene was Loco. “Sometimes we were both Loco,” Haith said.

We can’t know everybody, and no matter how hard we try, we can only have a few special friends. But Darlene’s death saddened me, left me regretful that, despite all the hours we shared the same space, she was gone before I discovered much of who she was. I know better. The good people of my tiny home town have shown me all my life, every time a stranger strikes up a conversation, asks about my people or tries to connect, just because I’m from around there and I’m somebody’s boy, somebody’s grandbaby.

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