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I can only imagine the scene on Tuesday afternoon at the grand old Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix. Not a traveling Broadway show or a concert, but a memorial service for a local man, Mark Hummels, a 43-year old attorney gunned down during a typical day’s work, trying to mediate a business dispute.
I imagine the gravity inside the Orpheum — warm memories of a sweet, funny guy weighed down by a great blanket of sorrow; so much love it must have filled the place and spilled out onto the streets.
I’m thinking about Mark and his wife Dana, a Colorado Springs girl, his parents from Greeley, his little boy and his little girl, because I knew him during his time in Colorado Springs, twenty years ago. He studied political science at Colorado College and after he graduated, decided he wanted to try his hand at journalism. Mark came to my newspaper, the Colorado Springs Independent, willing to do anything, and started in production as an intern, cutting and pasting stories and ads together on a big sheet of paper, a now-antiquated process that evokes ink-stained hands, the smell of warm wax and the sharp metal swoosh of the paper-cutter.
It didn’t take us long to realize this kid was as smart as he was quirky, and he could write like an angel. We hired him to report arts and entertainment, and he turned that beat into a wellspring of adventure and insight. He covered local arts with competence and enthusiasm, and he jumped out of airplanes just to see and write what it felt like. Occasionally, be wrote opinion pieces for the op-ed pages on smokers’ rights, welfare reform, capitalism and consumerism.
Imagine how proud we were when he went on to graduate school in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, then covered politics and government for the two major New Mexico dailies.
Hummels proved himself more than just competent and eager, and when he left journalism for law school in 2001, he did so having seriously considered the ups and downs of his first chosen career. When one of his Berkeley professors, Neil Henry, emailed his former students, asking them to talk about the state of journalism for his book, American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in An Age of New Media (University of California Press, 2007), Mark Hummels’ response rang out as one that represented the concerns of many dedicated young reporters.
“I came to realize,” he said, “that government officials are so well-trained in obfuscation and spin that it’s next to impossible to get a real answer to most questions you ask them. This continues to drive me absolutely nuts with people in general and with people in positions of public trust especially. I came to think of reporting ‘both sides of the story’ as either 1) reporting ‘both’ sides of the octagon, or 2) giving ‘equal time’ for the Republicans and Democrats to each tell their lies.” (p. 283)
I’ve been thinking about Hummels because he was so decent. Mark met a lot of lawyers while working as a reporter, and told Henry that he “came to think of them as the people who really understood what’s going on, and the ones who [could] make real change in the final analysis.” (p. 284). That spark and idealism drove him to graduate number one in his class at University of Arizona School of Law.
When I heard last week that Mark Hummels had been gunned down and killed, I began trying to resurrect my last conversation with him, a telephone call in 2008 when we caught up on each other’s lives. I told him the sad news that my oldest son had died of suicide with a gun. He told me a little about his law career, still young, and how he had found satisfaction volunteering for the Arizona Justice Project, a nonprofit that helps inmates work to overturn wrongful convictions. In recent days, I read that Mark’s educational presentation on the Ray Krone case, an Arizona murder conviction overturned with DNA evidence, has been used to educate hundreds of attorneys and law students.
I picture the scene inside the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix and the long drive home for Mark’s family, the long road to come. Across town, two other families mourning deaths from the same shooting. Across America, how many memorial services this week alone, for loved ones fallen by a gun, at their own hand, by a stranger, or by someone they knew? All that love, all that sorrow, pouring out into the streets.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.