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Mike Fitts helped us make up our minds

A few days back, I shared unwelcome news with colleagues here at The State. You, our readers, ought to know as well.

It is with the deepest regret that I hereby announce that Associate Editor Mike Fitts has left the newspaper. His last day on the job was Friday, July 18. This page was likely the last of ours that he saw through the composing room.

Mike, a graduate of the University of Missouri — the gold standard among J-schools — joined the paper in February 1990 after a brief stint at the Anderson Independent Mail.

I first had the honor of working with him early the next year, when I was asked to drop what I was doing (a year-long project on fundamental problems in South Carolina government called “Power Failure”) to help out on the national desk during the Gulf War. I was immediately impressed with his quick comprehension of the importance and context of national and international events. Not many journalists his age (or mine) took the kind of interest he did in military affairs. He was no more a veteran than I was, but you didn’t have to tell him the difference between a rifle and a gun. He was fully ready to explain this war to our readers.

I soon learned that Mike knew something about everything, from current events to national and world history to the most esoteric bits of popular culture. You didn’t want to play Trivial Pursuit with this guy — at least, not for money. Throw a line from an old movie at him, and he’d answer with embellishment. Make a literary allusion or refer to something that happened in politics before he was born, and he’d tell you something about it you didn’t know.

(After I helped him with something on his last day, he replied by instant message: “Which it’s a kindness, Captain.” He was channeling a character from Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. I first heard of these wonderful books from Mike, and they are a shared passion. I will miss such exchanges.)

Most of all, he not only knew things, he knew which ones were important — and why.

Mike’s abilities in this regard were recognized when he became the newspaper’s national editor, and have been invaluable to the editorial board since he moved to the third floor in 2000.

Mike has been our expert on national and international issues from Day One. Closer to home, he has taken on the challenging subjects of the environment, energy policy, economic development and higher education. In recent years, as our staff shrank, Mike put his desk experience to work designing our pages.

But his greatest contribution has not been obvious to the reading public, or indeed to anyone outside of the editorial board. That is his ability to help the group frame difficult decisions, breaking them down into their component parts and setting them out in a logical sequence that does much to lead us to our eventual conclusions. I’ve made passing reference to this in past columns. Of our discussion of whom to endorse in the GOP presidential primary this year, I mentioned that “As our lead editor on national affairs, Mike framed the discussion, speaking at length about each of the Republicans. As others joined in, it quickly became apparent that each of us had reached very similar conclusions....”

Later that month, I would write that “As he did before the Republican primary, Associate Editor Mike Fitts framed the discussion of our Democratic endorsement, and did a sufficiently thorough job that the rest of us merely elaborated on his observations....”

It would be an exaggeration to say we endorsed Sens. McCain and Barack Obama because of Mike — we all had our reasons — but he certainly helped us reach consensus more quickly and smoothly. Arriving at an answer quickly — if you remain convinced later it’s the right one — is a particular virtue in our profession.

It’s called “leadership.” Mike has it, and it’s of that rare sort that works unobtrusively, in a collegial setting. This editorial board has benefited greatly, which is why his name’s been on our masthead the last few years.

Mike is leaving us to work at a new, business-to-business publication that will soon begin here in the Midlands. As far as we are concerned here in editorial, the only good news in his plans is that he will still be around, and we might get to see him and his family from time to time.

When I asked whether he wanted to write a farewell column, Mike said he’d let his last one stand for that purpose. In that vein I invite you go to our Web site and read it (see the address below). It appeared in the last weeks of the nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, under the headline, “The necessary ingredient for success: hope.”

I’ll close with an excerpt:

In 2008, America needs a strong dose of hope from its politics, which have been a source of gloom for years. Cynicism, partisanship and big-bucks lobbying have led to a government that does too little, as big issues go unaddressed. That’s no fun to cover as a journalist, and brings no satisfaction to suffer through as a citizen, either. In this election year, I hope for better.

For the link to Mike’s last column and more, visit my blog at thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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