Dean Kahn

Dean Kahn retires, looks back at his 29 years at The Bellingham Herald

Dean Kahn, The Bellingham Herald reporter, editor and columnist, Oct. 11, 2016.
Dean Kahn, The Bellingham Herald reporter, editor and columnist, Oct. 11, 2016.

My byline is on this story and that’s me in the picture, but by the time you read this I will have cleaned out my desk and turned in my magnetic door card.

I retired from The Bellingham Herald on Friday, Oct. 14, after 29 years of fun, interesting, sometimes aggravating, and always memorable moments. After working that long at one place, how could it be otherwise?

Working at a newspaper brings its own set of joys and challenges. Your work is on public display, so you have to live with criticism and disagreement. But when you’re a reporter, people are willing to share their stories.

People like the brothers and sister of John E. Higman, the first person from Whatcom County to die in combat in Vietnam. Johnny died in 1965 during the first big battle between U.S. and North Vietnamese troops. In “We Were Soldiers,” the movie based on the battle, Higman’s name appears in the closing scene. It was an honor to tell his story.

And people like Bev McKissick, the Kendall Elementary librarian who inspired co-workers, friends, and students with her positive approach to life despite having terminal bone cancer. That story, alone, was worth telling.

What followed was equally inspiring. Friends of McKissick, friends of those friends, and complete strangers quickly donated the wedding gown, tuxes, flowers, cake, food, wine, and venue needed so McKissick’s only daughter could marry before cancer took her mother away. (Here’s our photo gallery from the wedding).

And people like Laurie Lewis, her neighbors in Van Zandt, and general contractor Meshak Drew. Working together as volunteers with other community supporters, they built a house for Jerry Bajema, a retired Van Zandt resident who nearly severed his left arm in a gruesome chainsaw accident. Bajema had lacked the money to fix up his rundown, fire-damaged home.

My most unforgettable experience started about 5 p.m. on a pleasant June afternoon in 1999. Reporters were finishing their stories for the day when we heard an explosion and ran outside to see a large dark cloud rising into the sky to the north and east of downtown.

As we soon learned, a fuel pipeline had ruptured in Whatcom Falls Park and flowed into Whatcom Creek, where two boys playing with a butane lighter inadvertently ignited the gasoline, sparking a massive fireball up and down the creek.

Three people died that sad, sad day: the two boys, Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King; and high school graduate Liam Wood, who was fly-fishing in the creek.

My newsroom bosses happened to be gone that day so I was interim city editor when the pipeline blew. Everyone at the newspaper focused on their jobs while keeping a lid on the anger and anguish they felt about what had happened to their community.

Over time, that anger and sadness was offset – to the extent anything can offset death and destruction – by the community’s response restoring the creek and improving the oversight of pipeline companies and the agencies that are supposed to regulate them. The response did Bellingham proud.

I’ve had lighthearted experiences, too, from readers contributing limericks for St. Patrick’s Day and love poems for Valentine’s Day to community members writing chapters for serial stories.

So thanks to then-Managing Editor Jack Keith for hiring me at the Herald in 1986, thanks to then-Publisher Christine Chin for not choosing me to be managing editor (a bad idea on my part to apply), and thanks to Executive Editor Julie Shirley for suggesting that I write weekly columns.

And thanks to everyone in the community willing to share their story.