Timmy Fletcher was five years old. He lived with his family in a small town in Ontario.
He was bright. Charming too, in that confident way of young children who are loved by those around them. He zipped around in his wheelchair, beaming.
Timmy had one big wish: to go to school, like the other kids.
A new law allowed children with disabilities to attend their local schools. But the school and Timmy’s teacher didn’t think they could handle a paraplegic child.
I empathized with the teacher’s concerns. But the law was clear. And so I went to the school and kept asking: Why won’t you let Timmy into school?
I was one of two journalists who wouldn’t let up.
When the school finally changed course and Timmy went to school, my cameraman and I were there.
Timmy was back on the news that evening, a big smile on his face.
Journalism came alive for me when I realized the power of “Why?”
“Why” and “why not” are powerful questions, especially when posed on the local evening news. Traffic lights get installed at a busy intersection; care improves in a senior citizens’ home; regulations are changed or followed.
Asking “why” can actually change lives.
One of my last stories as a TV news reporter was about the lack of female firefighters in Toronto and most of Canada.
Asking “why” led me to two women at City Hall – Mary Bruce and Pat Henderson. They ran the Equity office.
They would love to see a woman firefighter, they said. What’s more, the fire chief did too. But all candidates failed the physical test.
Hmmm… I thought.
“With weight training, could a woman ever become strong enough to be a firefighter?” I asked the woman who ran my weight-training gym.
“Don’t see why not,” she replied.
“Is there an applicant who has come close?” I asked Mary and Pat. “Could you ask the chief?”
Before I knew it, the three of us were having lunch with Diane Oland, a smart woman who had repeatedly aced the written firefighting test. Diane was physically strong, but not strong enough.
“I know a woman,” I told my weight trainer. “She wants to be a firefighter. Could you train her?”
“I’ll do better,” she replied quickly. “My husband runs our other gym nearby and he used to be a firefighter in the UK. I’ll call him.”
My trainer’s husband felt he could get Diane ready to retake the test within 6 months or less — if she really wanted it. She did.
“We’ll all support you,” pledged Pat, Mary and I.
So she did, he did and we did.
The day Diane aced the test, I wasn’t just a journalist. I was undoubtedly one of her supporters.
I always tried to keep my own emotions out of my stories. But “why” and “why not” are dangerous questions. Sometimes, after asking them, your sense of justice gets seriously triggered and before you know it, you’re invested in the outcome.
Someone called my TV news station. A cameraman and I rushed to the scene.
The landlady showed us the disheveled room. “I kept screaming that they had the wrong man! They got the wrong room. They wouldn’t listen to me!”
It’s been three decades, and I ‘ve never forgotten him.
This was a case where “Why” and “Why not” were simply not enough.
That afternoon, Ronald, a Black man, lay on his bed in the rooming house where he lived, reading his Bible. Ronald Jackson was a practicing Christian.
A group of strange men burst in and attacked him.
Ronald did what any reasonable person would do: protest; fight back; try to save himself.
But by the time the plainclothes policemen stopped attacking Ronald, he had been badly beaten.
Meanwhile, the guy the police were really after made a swift escape.
My cameraman and I saw Ronald ourselves – his white undershirt stained with blood, his skin bruised. He looked dazed. But he did not get an apology. He got arrested instead.
A lawyer who saw my report on the evening news offered to represent Ronald, and he got his day in court. Or should have.
Just before the court date, Ronald’s lawyer told me, police officers in Toronto shipped Ronald off to Montreal, supposedly because of an old traffic ticket. He was in jail there when his case came up.
I had lost touch with this case, and only learned the above years later when I called the lawyer to ask how it had all turned out. He bluntly added: “He’s not the same man you met. He’s gone crazy.”
I could have wept.
(Ronald Jackson is not his real name.)