“You have to grow a rhinoceros skin.”
That was the advice I received when I first started this job 18 years ago.
My mentors at the time were Jo Hall and Larry Atkinson. Both warned me that there would be times when the cruelty of people would beat my soul and I would wonder if this was all worth it.
There was one particular letter, unsigned of course, from someone who had claimed to have known my dad, Punchy Zerr.
The letter was dropped through the mail slot at the office with no return address on the plain white envelope. It was addressed to me.
I remember reading the hurtful words about the shame I brought to my dad’s name because I took a stand on an issue that differed from the writer’s view. It really rattled me that this writer would be so hurtful and nasty simply because I disagreed with him or her.
I took the letter to Jo. She read it, told me whoever wrote it was a coward because they did not have the guts to say this to my face or even claim the words as their own.
She told me when I receive this kind of hate mail, I needed to throw it in the “circular file” and forget it.
I know she meant it, but over the years there were incidents that upset Jo as much as this one upset me. Growing that thick skin is easier said than done.
Larry got word of the letter and came to my office for a one-on-one. I remember him telling me I would have to get used to people lashing out and I needed to grow a thick skin if I was going to share my opinion with readers. He said that there are people who would not like my opinion and would certainly let me know.
Over the years I have heard those voices of opposition on a regular basis. From anonymous phone messages telling me I was going to hell, to messages telling me someone was praying for me, this has been a part of my life.
It is easier now to find out who is leaving the messages, so those have tapered off.
Some have found other ways to leave anonymous messages and I still receive them.
But those who feel that I have no right to have an opinion because I differ from their’s are far outweighed but is one single opinion that has always stayed with me.
After a particularly tough week in which I had a number of letters to the editor and emails calling for my ouster at the paper, I was mailing bills when a small, elderly woman stopped me in front of the post office.
She put her hand on my arm and looked me right in the eye and said, “You’re Katie Zerr aren’t you.”
I thought to myself, here we go again, but what happened next was unexpected and has stayed with me a long time.
She told me not to be discouraged by the negativity. She told me to keep telling it like it is and letting people know there was more than one way to think.
I thanked her and said her comments couldn’t have come at a better time. She smiled and walked away. I don’t know who she was, but I remember her face and her words. She really touched me.
This week I was speaking to a longtime resident who is my political opposite. We have always gotten along, no matter if we disagree. He told me that between the two of us, we could straighten things out. He understands that it takes an exchange of ideas to find solutions to problems and that there is right on both sides of the political spectrum.
That could not be truer at this time in our lives.
We have become so divided that we cannot listen. We refuse to hear anything but what we think is right, whether or not it is the truth.
Our divide eats at the foundation of our country. It is doing exactly what it’s designed to do and is purposely used for that reason.
Yet we refuse to disavow it.
We continue to brow beat others who may have a differing view.
It happens daily on the 24-hour networks. People yelling over others, not letting them speak, not letting the other side have a say.
Some people champion this as a positive effort to tap down the opposition.
I see it as bullying- as a means to advance one side of the issues. That is not how a democratic republic is supposed to work.
I have expressed my opinions loudly or with strong language when an issue hits too close to home. There are times that I regret it, but there are also times when the ignorance of an idea or opinion is so abhorrent to me, that I cannot remain silent.
It is at that time that I hear Jo’s voice telling me in order to be successful while working in the public, we need to grow a thick skin.
This is a message I am passing on.