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Just Melanie: A mentor for the younger me, a friend for the older

Just Melanie: A mentor for the younger me, a friend for the older

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Tax Increment Financing – also known as TIF in certain circles.

Bond issues.

Sales tax receipts.

Budget limits.

Property tax levies.

Substandard and blighted.

First class cities.

Planning jurisdiction.

Planning commission.

Board of adjustment.

I was sweating. My eyes were glassy. The terms kept flying.

Water fund.

Street fund.

Wastewater treatment facilities.

Landfill lifespans.

YCDC.

YCVB.

NDED.

NACO.

The League.

My palms were as wet as sponges. My back itched. My cheeks were as hot as the sun.

Budget authority.

Lease/purchase agreements.

Environmental studies.

Easements.

Eminent domain.

My brain was swelling. My nose was running. The words kept flowing and I was drowning in a sea of knowledge, armed with a deflated raft of ignorance.

This was how I began my role as government reporter for the York News-Times. I sat at a little table with a small name plate that simply said “Press.”

In front and above me, on an elevated platform sat 10 people I didn’t know. Eight were city council members, one was the mayor and the other was the city attorney.

For an hour, I scribbled words that made no sense to me. I faked calmness to infer that I knew what was happening and I could decipher the terminology. I reasoned that I could somehow figure all this out later so as to actually write some sort of explanation.

What I needed at that point was a translator, a government professor, a mentor, someone to save me.

When the nightmare was finally over, I was quickly trying to put together a ream of papers so I could dash out the door. That’s when I heard a soothing voice behind me.

“So you are Melanie from the newspaper?” a gentleman’s voice said. “I’m Jack.”

I turned to see a white-haired man in a navy blue blazer.

I shook his outreached hand, hoping he didn’t notice how drenched in perspiration my hand was. I said it was nice to meet him, while trying to figure out who he was, as he wasn’t sitting on the platform and didn’t have a name plate.

“I’m the city administrator and any time you need to sit down and go over things, in case you need information or an explanation of something, just give me a call,” he said, smiling. “In fact, I’ve got time tomorrow. Come over or call if you have any questions.”

The first thing I did, that next morning, was dial 363-2600.

Jack invited me into his office where the walls were adorned with photos of grandchildren and golf paraphernalia. The back shelves were filled with books and awards. His desk was covered with piles of paperwork and the phone was ringing off the hook.

“You seem really busy,” I nervously said. “I can come back later.”

But Jack insisted that he had plenty of time to help me with my “questions.” I didn’t tell him that what I needed could have been likened to teaching me an entirely different language – but now, in hindsight, I suspect he already knew that.

“I’m relatively new here, also,” he said, offering me a chair at his conference table. “So maybe we’ll just figure it out together.”

It was a gracious gesture, to say the least. He knew I was under water – instead of having an attitude because I hadn’t taken my swimming lessons, he threw me a life jacket in the guise of “us learning together.”

It was completely gracious. Mr. Vavra was a seasoned administrator – a guru in the arena of municipal and financial issues. I was a writer with limited government experience.

For the next two hours, Jack walked me through the agenda. Topic by topic, he explained the situation, the council’s decision, the ramifications of their actions, what it would lead to in the future. When I must have looked confused, he stopped and started over at the point where he recognized he had lost me.

By noon, I had a bright bulb shining over my head (figuratively, because the light had finally gone on in my brain). I had a grasp on the city’s goings-on and had started to build a better vocabulary. Plus, I felt like I had not only found a mentor in this new arena, but also maybe a friend.

And so began my coverage of the city and a scheduled routine of meetings with Jack.

Every Tuesday afternoon, we’d have a phone conversation to talk about the upcoming city council agenda. Every Friday morning, we’d chat about the meeting that had just been held.

Every time I called 363-2600 (also known as Jack the Lifeline), he made the time to answer my questions – in terms I understood until I could speak the same language he was talking.

And once a year, in early August, Jack would set aside at least one afternoon, sometimes two, to go over the proposed budget. Fund by fund, line item by line item, he walked me through the city’s finances until I knew exactly what was going on.

Time flew by.

For 14 years, Jack was a fountain of knowledge for me, from which also flowed entertaining conversations and laughter. Yes, I think I can say we became pals. We could talk about business and still share stories from our own lives.

I heard about his growing up, the son of a Lincoln police officer. I’ve heard about how he met his beloved wife, Cheryl – how they started out young and poor. He told me about his children and grandchildren. He talked about his past work experiences, before coming to York.

And I reciprocated, sharing stories from my life and sometimes seeking his wise advice.

Between discussing warrants, negotiation results, street construction maps and all the before-mentioned topics, I stumbled upon a treasured friendship.

A few years ago, I walked into Jack’s office and sat in my usual chair – the second on the east side of the table. I saw all the golf stuff had been taken down, the pictures were no longer there. The room was so empty, I said to him, as he made his way to the same chair he always sat in, the first on the west side of the table. He said it was time to go.

That was the day Jack retired.

Later that week, I attended his retirement celebration at the York Country Club, along with a bunch of other people who wished him well. He told me he thought I sort of knew what I was doing now. I said I was fortunate, that the younger version of me met my mentor, Jack Vavra. I thanked him for not treating me like an idiot and encouraging me to learn, be better, try harder.

He moved into retirement and I stayed here, plugging along in my government reporting. After he left, I texted him a few questions here and there, which he answered for a while. Then we stopped communicating as life moved on.

And now this week, the words Jack Vavra are again in our newspaper but not in the way they were before. Now, his name appears in an obituary.

Jack has passed away. His funeral is this Thursday morning.

That makes me sad.

But I’m also happy he told the younger me to toughen up and the older me to lighten up.

I’m not sure either version of me listened, but at least I heard the words.

I’m also happy he shared his knowledge with the younger me and his friendship with the older.

Thanks Jack. It meant a lot.

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