Goodbye Suzanne Donovan

Savannah Morning News

Oct. 9, 2016


Somehow you know the looks, the signs. Or maybe it’s a feeling. You’ve had the conversation –  the conversations –  before; you know what’s coming. But you don’t want to believe it. La la la. So what’s new? What’s going on? Nice skirt. Nice shoes. Is the campaign season ever going to end? Have you watched “River” on Netflix?

But this isn’t your first rodeo. This isn’t the first time a friend decides they have to up and move out of town. You’re happy for them. You really are. Change is good. Circumstances dictate – in this case proximity to an aging parent. Blah blah blah. But underneath you hate them too. How can you do this to me? Have you thought about me? What about me? Me, me me.

When I started working at the Savannah Morning News I lost several co-workers to other jobs in other cities. We were all more or less at entry level reporting jobs, happy to be there but perfectly poised to move somewhere else, so when somewhere bigger, something closer to family, something closer to what we wanted to do popped up we grabbed it and some of us, like me, got left behind. How dare you? Some folks I kept in contact with, some not.

But others came in and took up the slack. That’s what happened a couple decades ago. One editor moved on and Suzanne Donovan moved in. I noticed her right away. She was over 35 in a newsroom of relative youngsters. She worked through lunch with an apple or an orange next to her keyboard. She was smart, a wordsmith. She was a thinker, a stickler for good work. She challenged her team of reporters. She challenged me.

Then she left. But not the city. She changed direction. She started working at Step Up Savannah in 2007, a poverty initiative challenged to look hard and long and creatively about what to do about the 26 percent of our citizens who live beneath the poverty line. She assisted Daniel Dodd-Ramirez. Then, seven years later, when Dodd-Ramirez left, she took over the position.

By then we were officially friends. We walked around Daffin Park together in the wee hours of the morning, she the fastest walker on the planet, bar none, me sucking air, feeding her with questions so I wouldn’t have to put words together and walk at the same time, praying we could stop after three rounds. We talked of journalism, our mothers and local politics, not in any particular order; celebrated birthdays; brought in several new years’ together; ate latkes at Chanukah parties, chit-chatted at the biannual plant swaps, rode our bikes over to each other’s homes, and devoured her husband Brian’s Italian wedding cake. I met her brother and family and kept up with her nieces, especially the softball player who played semi-professionally in Holland and worked for the San Diego Padres as a bat girl (yes, girls can be bat boys; they can even make spectacular catches behind third base when a batter hits a scorcher her way, which Suzanne’s niece did, an event that went viral).

When I lived in Pittsburgh for a few years – her childhood home – we exchanged letters, handwritten, old style. When I returned for visits, we picked up where we left off with our walks in the misty mornings and quiet neighborhood streets and talked our talk, sometimes snarky, other times philosophical. The friendship deepened. We talked of change and writing and reading. We talked of life. I would never miss Step Up’s annual breakfast meeting, a group that attracts the most diverse group of Savannahians in one room for one purpose – to look at, once again, how we can address poverty and level the playing field in the city.

That same group of disparate people gathered last week in a final shout-out to Suzanne – neighborhood leaders, corporate bigwigs, community organizers, nonprofit types, lawyers, nurses, social workers and worker bees, one of whom whispered to her he turned down a trip to China so he could attend the next annual meeting. Everyone put a cheerful face forward but no one was happy to see this “spark plug” of a human being who understands irony and humor in equal parts leaving the job, leaving the city. The staff gave her a send-off gift of snow shoes for her new life in Minneapolis although at least one person talked about a full-length parka of fur trim for the chic and stylish Suzanne who regularly out-dresses all of us. Oh, they also gave her a day of pampering in a Minneapolis spa. (“Stop it!” said Suzanne, embarrassed, pleased and sad all at once).

She’s a game changer, a seeker of justice, a freedom fighter. She gave everything she had – sometimes 24/7 – with a level of commitment not often seen in our lifetime. She brought people together. She listened. She was strategic in her thinking.

“It’s been a breathtaking ride,” Suzanne said. “Step Up is a family. But poverty, as we know, is still with us. We have not checked it off the list yet.”







Crazy Jack does it his way

Savannah Morning News

Oct. 2, 2016


Make no mistake. His rules of commerce are clear. You see them the minute you enter the joint and catch the kitschy ambiance. For a minute you think you could be Bradley’s Lock and Key. You can’t miss the instructions. They’re scrawled in black ink, handwritten – large – on folded brown paper bags. They’re hanging up all over the place, taped to the walls, on the tall glass counter, on the large storefront.

“Keep your damn claim check and don’t say I didn’t give you one.”

“Please don’t tell me it’s in your other car. I only got one car.”

“We don’t try to misplace your shoes but it happens.”

“I don’t care what mama said. Keep your damn claim checks.”

When you walk into Crazy Jack’s Shoe Repair you are playing by his rules. Didn’t bring any cash? Too bad. He doesn’t take credit cards. And forget debit cards. He wants to keep things simple. He doesn’t like bookwork.

Except Jack Gilmore guy is a tease. He likes to pull your chain. Underneath the bluster, behind the black suspenders, the white t-shirt and his cutoff jeans, he’s soft as a marshmallow.

“Never mind,” he tells a woman fishing around in her purse for some cash. “Take your damn shoes and come back tomorrow with the money. Put the money through the door slot” -the slot that says, “24 hour drop off.” If you’re in Pooler you can slip your shoes through a similar slot at David’s Drycleaners.

At 83, Gilmore says he’s coasting. After selling vinyl and boom boxes (Crazy Jack’s Records and Tapes), racing motorcycles, running the racetrack on Quacco Road, promoting boxers, managing the Triple X restaurant near Daffin Park, working as a lifeguard at the beach, partnering with his son at his pressure washing business, it’s not beyond him to get up at 4 a.m. and drive to work “when it’s quiet and no one’s bothering me.” After that, the day is his. He talks to people, while his skeletal team replaces zippers, glues down soles, revives pocketbooks, brings back suitcases, repairs leather jacket and fixes worn heels. He’s a no-nonsense guy.  “Forget about those shoes,” he told one man. “Go down to the Salvation Army, see what you can find and bring them here. I’ll make them look like new.”

He’s part storyteller, part historian, part town crier. He tapes funeral notices of friends on his front counter. Once a woman came in and said, “Damn, that’s my uncle. Nobody told he he died.” In another black and white photo of six men (taped to the back of a brown paper bad), four were circled in red ink. “They died,” he said.

When Gilmore managed lots of employees he’d give give tickets to concerts, which reminds him of another photograph of a slew of people in front of a bus he rented for a George Harrison concert.

Gilmore grew up above his daddy’s business, Gilmore’s Dry Cleaning, on the corner of West Broad Street (now Martin Luther King Jr., Blvd) and 42nd street. Both he and his father were named John, “which is how I got to be called Crazy Jack,” he said. “I was always the outcast in the crowd. They went to the left, I went to the right.”

“Wanna see the before and after photos of my house?” he asked before hauling out two old photographs, taped to a brown paper bag.

“Look at this photo,” he said, turning to a shot of his employees loading a bus he rented for them to go to a George Harrison concert.

Then he reached for a phone book for more of the same. It’s held together by a rubber band, Addie Reeves’ style.  It holds addresses, phone numbers, business cards and a picture of his daddy’s childhood home in Baxley.

Sara, his wife of 58 years, is at his side in the business. Her father, Russ Peacock, played saxophone and clarinet in the Russ Peacock and his band of renowned, with Kitty Lane. They played “at Post 135 by the big park,” a building that now houses, among other things, a local bar known as “the Legion.” Either Sara or Gilmore seem to know everyone who comes into the store.

“Well I ain’t seen you in a long time,” Jack says.

On her way out the woman stopped to try and pick up a quarter from the floor. The quarter didn’t budge. Jack’s grandson glued it down eight years ago.

“That is so annoying,” she said. “I always forget.”

That reminded Jack of another story.

“This old man came in once all bent over barely able to get to the counter,” he started. “On his way out he tried to pick up the quarter. He picked and picked at it. Ten minutes later he gave up and said, ‘That’s the most exercise I got in 10 years. I gotta go home and lie down.’”

The shop is small. There are the “damn shoestrings. They’re drive you crazy.” And a table with shoes people never picked up.

“What’s your size?” Sara asks.

Just then, a customer, grabbing her shoes, walked out the door and said, “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” Jack answered, in September, without missing a beat. “You be good now, hear?”