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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Attention to spelling bee becomes a f-r-e-n-z-y

I didn’t think I’d have time to write my column this week.

Actually, I’ll be honest — I was hoping I wouldn’t.

Once I decided to write about the Scripps National Spelling Bee, I figured I’d wait to write it until our local speller, Mentor Shore Middle School eighth-grader Vishnu Nistala, finished his run in the contest.

It’s only fair, after all. How can I write about a kid who’s still working?

The bee actually finished up on Thursday night, but I normally finish my column that morning.
I spend the next day and a half contributing to our weekend editions.

I said “normally” for a reason.

That’s because there was nothing “normal” about Wednesday and Thursday as the bee was progressing.

I’ll just be honest and say I didn’t get a lot of work done during those days because of how focused I was on the spellers in the bee.

It should have been a lot easier, because we knew Vishnu’s number was 201. When they were on 52 or 124, I should have been content to know he was a long way away from standing on stage and spelling.

But, no, I was reading the tweets as they came in from both Scripps Howard’s official site and The Associated Press writer covering the event.

I was retweeting when a speller did something cute. I was sending notes to co-workers when a word was listed that didn’t really even seem like a word. I also shared moments when I thought the word was too hard compared to others’ words.

After Wednesday’s rounds, we found out Vishnu’s scores from a first-round computer test and two words tackled in Rounds 2 and 3 were enough to put him into the second day.

Then, on Thursday morning, when I’m normally writing this column, in addition to all the stuff I did on Wednesday as the bee was progressing, I added runs across the newsroom to see the Ohio spellers on ESPN2.

A few of us gathered and got a chuckle at the sportslike graphics the network put up on the screen as the youngsters were toiling away.

My favorite was the part of speech octagon that appeared next to the line where the word would show up once the contestant started spelling.

It reminded me of the graphic during a baseball game that shows how many guys are on base.

The News-Herald sponsored Vishnu’s trip to Washington, D.C., to take part in the bee. When he showed up on TV, he wore a sign around his neck with his name and the words “The News-Herald” and “Willoughby, Ohio” underneath.

That’s beyond cool.

Add to that that a few months ago, I sat down on a stage at Auburn Career Center to judge a spelling bee for the first time in my life. The winner of that bee was a young man with jet black hair, wearing the bright red Shore Middle School hoodie that he called his lucky shirt.

Vishnu smiled a little bit when he won that night, but he and his father, Sat, both agreed he had a lot of work to do to win the trip to Washington.

When I next saw him, at Kirtland Public Library for the Tri-County Bee, wearing that same hoodie, he still had that calm, unflappable demeanor as he bested a Geauga County rival in the 40th round to win the trip to D.C.

I looked for the hoodie on stage Thursday, but found it replaced by a neat olive green polo shirt and khaki shorts.

But the calm was still there, along with the presence of mind to ask pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bially if he was indeed pronouncing a word correctly.

Bially smiled, then broke the news that while he couldn’t say yes, “we certainly will tell you if we hear anything that is wrong.”

The crowd laughed along with Vishnu.

The word Vishnu was inquiring about was araphorostic. But he spelled it arapharostic, slipping in an A instead of the first O.

Hearing the bell that signified an incorrect spelling, Vishnu turned and walked out of the camera shot.

While we probably won’t see that red hoodie again until it gets cold, if you spot that jet-black hair around town, I hope you’ll say hello and tell him that he did a great job.

I can’t imagine the pressure those kids feel as they walk up to the microphone to spell words that sometimes are 15 or 18 letters long. They walk up there to find a microphone, cameras, hot lights, a huge crowd and the expectations of family, friends and their hometown.

Vishnu doesn’t have to worry. He made us proud.
Twitter: @Lauranh

Friday, May 25, 2012

Area’s top students show grace under pressure

I’m a little jealous of the kindergarteners at Andrews Osborne Academy.

They’re already learning a skill that I’ve spent most of my adult life avoiding — mostly because I’m a big chicken.

I’m pretty sure most of you are, too, judging by the responses I get whenever the subject comes up.
Public speaking is No. 1 on the list of phobias, according to the website

According to the site, it finished ahead of death and snakes. I personally would put snakes ahead of both of the other two. But not too far ahead.

A few weeks ago in Columbus, I had to face my fear, standing before a group of about 200 people to deliver the opening remarks at a luncheon. When I received my script for the Associated Press Society of Ohio’s annual meeting, and was shocked to see how many pages of material I had to read.

So I plotted my strategy — spend a week familiarizing myself with the material and another week reading it out loud, over and over. My poor husband heard those lines so many times he probably could have recited it at the luncheon.

But, I got it out, without hesitation and survived the severe heart palpitations that made me wonder if those around me could actually hear the individual beats.

The memory of those nerves came rushing back this week as I watched four area high school students speaking to members of the Willoughby Rotary Club at the group’s annual scholarship luncheon.

After the luncheon, one of the event’s emcees, Andrews Osborne Academy Head of School Charles Roman, said that today’s youngsters have a big advantage over those of us from previous generations.

“At Andrews Osborne, they’re getting up in kindergarten and speaking in front of the class,” he said.
Just another example of what a schlub I was during my school days.

That reminder came only a few minutes after the previous reminder, when I sat and listened to accomplishments of the young ladies competing for the Rotary’s “Student of the Year” award at the event.

Each one of them had a list that went on for a few minutes. There was sports and Key Club and National Honor Society and volunteer work that spanned the stages of life, from Safety Town to food pantry service to meal deliveries. They’ve done Relay for Life, delivered Christmas baskets, coached soccer teams and helped pick the new Kirtland Schools superintendent.

Katherine Benhke of South High School in Willoughby, a graduate of Leadership Lake County’s youth program, was described by her social studies teacher as someone older adults would be proud to call daughter.

Alexandra Vito of Andrews Osborne Academy, a junior competing against three seniors for the honor, is, according to her science teacher, someone who has a desire to take care of her own peers, serving as a role model for all students.

Macy Araps of North High School in Eastlake, who spent some of her free time teaching soccer to an area youth team, also is an avid volunteer with the American Cancer Society, after losing her grandmother to the disease.

The young lady recognized by Willoughby Rotary as its “Student of the Year,” Morgan Choe of Kirtland High, had a two-page list of accomplishments. It’s difficult to pick one to mention here. But I’ll go with her work with the Youth Led Prevention Camp, where high school students came together to discuss the dangers of drug use and create ways to prevent it and reduce bullying in local schools.

When you’re lucky enough to meet youngsters like these, you get a chance to see greatness that’s just about to blossom and take on the world.

We can only hope that they’ll stay on the path they’ve taken so far and achieve all that those who know them best see as their potential.

Just think of how good the world will be when they do.
Twitter: @Lauranh

Friday, May 18, 2012

Some reminders of a youth guided so carefully

“We are young
So let’s set the world on fire
We can burn brighter than the sun”

I heard the first strains of that song by a band called Fun as I traveled south on East 222nd Street, but it reached that chorus as I turned down Ivan Avenue.

First came the house where a basketball coach used to live. Next was a good friend’s childhood home.

Turning the corner onto Naumann Avenue, I traced the route I’d taken so many times in my youth, heading for Roosevelt Pool on Arbor Avenue.

When I parked my car, I couldn’t help but find familiar sights everywhere I looked.

On one side was R.J.’s house; across the street was Mary Jo’s. A handful of houses back the other way was Andrea’s.

As I walked west on Arbor, I gazed to my left, past the construction fence and warning signs, to the tan exterior of the new school that will soon replace my beloved Roosevelt Elementary.

Gone is a lush lawn trampled by so many early-morning games of “kill the man,” a brutal form of football in which tackling was king and passing and touchdowns were for sissies.

Left unused are the multiple sets of steps through which we gained entry to a world of ABCs, multiplication tables and tales of our country’s history.

But once inside, I found familiar faces, seemingly untouched by the many, many years that have passed since I moved on to junior high, then high school, then college, then the working world.

Though 40 years have passed since I sat in neat cotton dresses on the floor of Mrs. Holtcamp’s kindergarten class, she stood in the hallway reciting the names of my classmates, and laughed as I mentioned the one who had tripped her all those years ago.

Miss Duvall beamed when I told her that her third-grade lessons in phone etiquette are still in my head today as I take calls from the public.

“See, you never know what they’ll remember or what’s getting through,” she said with an elbow to Mrs. Murray.

Murray minutes before had delivered a big hug in thanks for sharing with anyone who’d listen that her classroom we’d just passed was the one where my fifth-grade self had first gotten the urge to become a writer.

But, with no offense to any of these amazing women, the person whose presence made the tour so special was Paul Kapostasy.

Mr. K wasn’t just our gym teacher.

He also was the adviser to the school crossing guards. He was the only person who kept those “kill the man” games from actually killing a man.

But, for so many of us girls, he was also our first crush, with his dark curly hair and easy smile.
The fact that he was single for my entire time at Roosevelt didn’t hurt, either.

Mr. K went on to become principal at another Euclid school before serving for many years as principal at Perry High. He’s now fully enjoying his retirement.

He, too, can rattle off the names of former students, and proudly corrected me when I said one of the youngsters he mentioned was a troublemaker.

“He was a captain of the guards!”

Mr. K also has a soft spot for my brother, whom he encouraged to take up running. Gary went on to become a state champion in track in high school and qualify for the NCAA track meet in college.
Mr. K was thrilled to hear he continues to run today.

Looking back at all those rooms, and all their special moments, with those amazing people, I can’t help but think back to the lyrics I heard as I approached that open house this week at Roosevelt.

As we dreamed big in our youth, we had a wonderful set of boosters there to guide us on our way. Our hopes were theirs, too.
Twitter: @Lauranh

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A blue line that protects us all

On the closing night of my visit to Washington, D.C., we headed to a candlelight vigil at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

The ceremony honors those who lost their lives in the line of duty over the past year, and also those whose deaths have recently been discovered to have occurred in the line of duty.

At the end of the ceremony, officers and dignitaries read the names of 362 people whose names were added to the wall in the past year. According to, which is the website for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 163 officers died in the line of duty in 2011. Thus far this year, 40 officers have died.

Among the more moving moments in the ceremony was when Craig W. Floyd, chairman and CEO of the Fund, paid tribute to law enforcement officers with a presentation that included a blue beam of light that passed from the speakers platform, over the crowd, to a building that houses the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, which is across Fourth Street from the memorial.

The beam is intended to be a symbol for police officers and their patrol, which guards the "thin blue line" between law and anarchy.

"Through your conduct, your commitment, and your compassion for others, you have transformed the think blue line into a vast, unyielding shield of protection that spreads across our nation to communities large and small," Floyd said, as the thin beam opened to form one as wide as the memorial itself.

The crowd gasped as the illusion played out overhead, and it dazzled those on hand with its gripping description of the work that law enforcement does on a daily basis.

Check out some video highlights of the vigil here:

-- Laura Kessel
Twitter: @Lauranh

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Not easy to watch your weight during Police Unity Tour

Riding a bike 300 miles over four days doesn't guarantee you'll reach your destination in top physical condition.

Just ask Mentor's Mike Rae, who took part in last week's Police Unity Tour, which traveled from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., as part of a fundraiser for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Rae said he gained eight pounds over the course of the ride.

"It's because they feed us so well," Rae said with a laugh as he described the food the riders receive during breaks along the route.

But Lisa Jacques, a 49-year-old provincial constable with the Ontario Provincial Police, charts her calorie burn on her bike's GPS.

She said during Thursday's 96-mile section of the ride, she burned 4,500 calories. On Friday, when the riders traveled a little under 100 miles, too, Jacques said she was able to burn 3,500 calories.

At the end of Friday's ride, the group reached Annapolis, Md., where Rae's group of riders headed to a pier along the Chesapeake Bay for their annual visit to a pizza shop for a quick dinner before hitting the sack for the last part of the ride, into the District of Columbia and finally on to the memorial.

-- Laura Kessel
Twitter: @Lauranh

Monday, May 14, 2012

Many miles to entry fee for Police Unity Tour

Many of the riders in the Police Unity Tour admit struggling to collect the required $1,750 fee to take part in the 300-mile ride.
Mentor resident Mike Rae gets creative.
He sells books and other trinkets on eBay, and recently started offering to perform weddings and vow renewal ceremonies. He previously became an ordained minister to perform the wedding ceremony for the daughter of a good friend.
Peter Bennett, an attorney from the Isle of Man in England, also got creative, because he said he found it difficult to get friends to support what for him is a foreign charity.
Bennett said he took advantage of his aging vehicle, and the fact that he gets mileage reimbursement for drives he takes as part of his job inspecting prosecutors back home.
“Over the past year, I did quite a bit of work away from home on inspections, and I got paid mileage when I used my own car. Now, my car is worth about 50 pence,” Bennett said with a chuckle, explaining that equates to about 75 cents in American dollars. “It’s worth nothing. I take the petrol (also known as gas) money out of the mileage, and put the rest aside for this.”
Bennett, according to Rae, is among the better riders in PUT, which surprised him.
Rae said he discovered Bennett after the Brit wrote to members of the Cleveland Cycling Club, hoping to find organized rides he could take part in during a trip to Ohio three years ago.
When he first saw him, though, Rae was a little worried about his new friend’s participation because he is heavier than cyclists most Americans see taking part in road races. They met in person for the first time at an Ohio Turnpike rest stop before heading together to New Jersey to take part in the 2010 PUT ride.
“Peter gets out, and he was bigger than (his current size), and I go ‘Oh he’s gonna be the laughingstock of the event,’ because you’ve got officers with (huge arms), and he ends up being one of the best bikers in the whole darn thing, because his dad was an international bike champion from Europe,” Rae said. “So he’s been biking since he was a little kid, and the guy is great.
“He is always within the top 30 to 40 people from the truck, and when you’ve got about 700 people, that’s pretty top 10 percent, easy.”
By Laura Kessel
Twitter: @Lauranh

Friday, May 4, 2012

Much worth watching in social media world

It’s easy to get lost in the world of social media.

For me, it’s because I spend a good deal of my day moving around in there.

There’s Facebook, which provides a constant stream of updates on a multitude of topics. I get news headlines, updates from friends and, yes, find out a lot of things about people I really don’t need to know. Some of that stuff even has photographic evidence.

Then, there’s Twitter, which does the same, without the photos.

But social media isn’t just for playtime anymore. Plenty of businesses — including The News-Herald — are using social media to get their message across.

You can find deals there, get your news there and, if you follow the right things, learn a little something, too.

Lately, I’ve been learning a lot about how to handle problems that crop up via social media.
This week alone, I’ve seen folks in various walks of life handling “issues” in a very new-fangled way.

First up is a columnist from the Philadelphia Daily News, calling out a press secretary for Mayor Michael A. Nutter for tweets from his account, accusing her of having an agenda in her writing of columns critical of the city’s Parking Authority.

Here’s the tweet that irked columnist Ronnie Polaneczky: “If reporter has let’s say 150 agency violations, do you disclose that as you time after time pound said agency with your commentary?”

Polaneczky’s response was something like this: Yes, she’s had parking tickets, but they’re all paid.

She went into detail about how she got just about every ticket she’s received, the fact that they’ve all been paid off, the fact that she deserved every single one of them and that she knows she’ll get more, because, as she said, “it’s the cost of living in the city.”

She went on to question how press secretary Mark McDonald knew she had received the tickets, as they’re supposed to be anonymous.

The day after her blistering column, Nutter issued an apology to Polaneczky, saying McDonald’s actions were “inappropriate.”

Then there’s Mayim Bialik, an actress who formerly starred in “Blossom” and who currently appears on “The Big Bang Theory.” I saw a link on Facebook to Bialik’s detailing on her blog a spat with Parenting magazine, which asked her a few months ago to write about an issue Bialik champions called “co-sleeping,” which involves parents and children sleeping in the same bed.

She wrote her piece, it appeared in the magazine, and then a couple months later, Parenting’s website asked in a web poll whether site users considered Bialik “nuts, normal or natural.”

Needless to say, she took issue: “Make up your mind, Parenting: are you a parenting magazine or just another corporate microphone contributing to the catty, judgmental, and homogenized notion of ‘normal’ many of us are finding does not match reality?”

Then there’s my favorite example of social media creeping into the mainstream — the aftermath of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

I’m not going to address the facts of the case — I’ll leave that to lawyers and the Florida judicial system.

What I will do is acknowledge shooter George Zimmerman’s legal team’s foray into social media in an attempt to stay on top of what they call rumors and falsehoods being spread about their client, the facts of the case and the victim.

Veteran attorney Mark O’Mara, who signed on to handle Zimmerman’s defense the day before the suspect turned himself in to face charges of second-degree murder in the Feb. 26 shooting of the unarmed Florida teen, has gone on the offensive online.

He set up a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account to handle the intense interest in the case.

At, you’ll find periodic updates about topics of interest. This week, there was news that the firm had contracted with a former IRS agent who now works as a CPA to administer the legal defense fund that Zimmerman had set up. The defense team said it plans to start its own fund in Zimmerman’s name, and the ex-agent will be in charge of that, as well. O’Mara’s team said neither they nor Zimmerman will have direct access to the funds.

Another update there was that O’Mara responded to news that the lawyer for Martin’s parents had released information about a MySpace page owned by Zimmerman on which he made comments about other races and crimes he’d previously been accused of committing. O’Mara admitted that the page was owned by Zimmerman, but added that all parties involved in the case would be subject to discussion of social media use.

I think O’Mara is brilliant.

He knows you can’t ignore what’s going on everywhere — discussion of the case. And, as he said on the website, if you can’t beat ’em, lead ’em.

“It is now a critical part of presidential politics, it has been part of revolutions in the Middle East, and it’s going to be an unavoidable part of high-profile legal cases, just as traditional media has been and continues to be,” reads a manifesto called “Why social media for George Zimmerman” on “We feel it would be irresponsible to ignore the robust online conversation, and we feel equally as strong about establishing a professional, responsible and ethical approach to new media.”

I’m encouraged by O’Mara’s use of tools that are key to discussion of the issues in the modern world. My only concern is how much time he’s spending fending off rumors and accusations from the attorney for the Martin family, who isn’t part of the prosecution team.

But, as I’m writing this, Zimmerman hasn’t even been arraigned, so what else is there to do?

I hope O’Mara keeps the site going. And, honestly, if he does, I’ll continue to be lost in a world of social media.
Twitter: @Lauranh