The entire staff of Unified Newspaper Group is crushed this week.
The loss of our colleague and friend, Amber Levenhagen, was a sudden blow that has hit me like no other loss I’ve ever had.
I will never forget the wide-eyed, bubbly, bushy-haired girl with a pet hedgehog who came to us three years ago, so grateful for the opportunity to escape what she found as soul-crushing work in retail. But what will haunt me forever is the memory of the still excitable, but now sharp, focused, vibrant, tough and unquenchably curious government reporter who could not wait to dig into a complicated story.
“I love it so much!” she’d squeal when she would find a new layer in a story that would make so many other reporters groan.
When she took over her new beat in May, she moved out of the room where the other reporters put together the newspapers each week to a spot right outside my office. There, we’d often yell over to one another to start a conversation about how tax-increment financing works or to discuss a tactic for getting information from a reluctant bureaucrat or just talk about her plans for the weekend or my mother-in-law’s battle with cancer.
It’s going to be difficult to leave my door open now, with her ghost sitting right there, grunting excitedly over something she heard playing back an interview or finding out some new nugget of information.
The horror of losing a 25 year old who was just finding her place in the industry, engaged to be married to an emerging musician and full of life and love for the people she knew is beyond my comprehension right now.
For the hours after learning she’d soon be taken off life support after a gruesome Interstate 94 crash, I could not sleep, could not think. There were only two things I could manage – to talk to her former fellow community reporters – who also couldn’t sleep – and to write about her.
But even that was almost too much to bear.
The first time I typed her name, I broke down in tears as my wife and son came to comfort me. Then, just as I got myself together, I looked up her age for our unfortunate news story and saw her seemingly indefatigable smile grinning at me and lost it again.
I’m spending the week in Arizona, so I don’t even know what will happen when I walk by her desk to go to my office next Tuesday.
But the news doesn’t stop for personal tragedy, so soon enough, we had to go through the gut-wrenching exercise of moving her stories off our upcoming lists or changing her initials to someone else’s, parceling out her various beats temporarily and putting out an ad for a new reporter.
I’ve also had to figure out how to break the news to the other members of our staff and call reporters she had worked with in the past who would want to know about her untimely, utterly unfair demise.
I suppose I should count my blessings. At least I didn’t find out about this on my birthday and then have to call two of her best friends to break the news, as assistant editor Scott Girard did.
Amber was a wonderful photographer, an emerging writer, a gifted, intelligent reporter, and an amazing ambassador for our company. She was on track to move into management, and she was a perfect counter to my grizzled style that sometimes comes off as insensitive. Even in her worst of moods, Amber always had an infectious smile that is now simply painful to look at.
As I finished writing this early Saturday, the confirmation of what I’d been fearing for several hours before was still fresh, and it still didn’t feel real.
Our work teaches us to be professional through traumas; we have to be able to speak with grieving widows, parents, children. And we’ve had to follow some terrible stories over the years, the kind of thing that makes you walk out to your car and then break down in sadness for the person you’ve just spoken with.
But this … this is beyond our reckoning.
That mangled car I saw was one I’d seen in our parking lot so many times, one she was proud of after driving around a beater for so many years. That news story about a two-hour shutdown of the interstate on every TV and newspaper site in the area, that was our colleague. Our friend.
We all love our work here, and for some of us – probably most of us – it’s our refuge from other problems in life. We all know Amber would be angry with us – in her sweet, but firm way – if we were to make excuses.
But there’s no denying it’s going to be a bit difficult for UNG to put out a good product for a while. So please bear with us as we do our best to honor her memory.
We love you, Amber.