The amazing journey that was 2013

I like, when I’m driving around various places, getting lost.

I frequently do it in towns around the Valley.

I like doing it in the Ohio and Pennsylvania countryside.

It’s also been an adventure on multistate trips.

It’s never completely lost, mind you, thanks to smartphones and maps.

It’s a planned lost, I guess. A streak of pragmatism and efficiency makes those “lost” travels rather calculated — a neighborhood here or there, a town here or there, and occasionally a 30-mile stretch of country highway that clearly leads me from my current interstate to the next one I need.

It’s sometimes our best family experiences — neat stores, garage sales, tiny roadside diners, etc.

Similarly, on Sundays in this space, some of my best experiences are often when there is no map, and just when my job and my curiosity lead me to some surprise lives and events.

Perhaps it’s part of the “uniquely American journey” we’re on, which was one of my top lessons of 2013.

Bill Hewitt is a park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. If you visit the park, please seek any of his tours. He is storytelling magic, tinged with wisdom, perspective and patriotism that is inspiring.

He’ll tell you that foreigners always ask him what is so special about Americans. “Why you?” they ask. He goes on a two-minute answer that is part Abe Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

It’s pretty special, and among the many 2013 experiences I take into 2014.

Kaitlin Windt is another. She is the brave ninth-grader at Boardman High School whom I was able to profile in November. She was born with Friedreich’s Ataxia, a birth disease that attacks all of the body’s muscles over time. As an eighth-grader, a wheelchair became her best way to live, but it threatened her chance to play flute in the high school band.

Her will met with band director Tom Ruggieri, his daughter, Rachel, and band president Beth Bean. The four teamed up to ensure Kaitlin and her wheelchair found a place in the school band. It made for a great story for Vindy readers, and made its way across the country, and eventually overseas to a London newspaper.

Simeon Booker Jr. was a special part of my 2013. It started with a simple book release — his effort to chronicle his life efforts as a crusading journalist in the crosshairs of America’s civil-rights movement. I profiled him and the book. It resulted in a homecoming for the Youngstown son, a commencement honor at Youngstown State University, and a re-introduction of him to an appreciative Valley. A group of us have launched an effort to sustain Booker’s legacy, and we embark on that mission in 2014.

Many people grabbed onto the life and love of Wolfy and Princess. They were a pair of abandoned dogs who called the city’s Smoky Hollow neighborhood home. The people in that neighborhood ensured the dogs and their pups were cared for. It was not a perfect existence as other people wanted the dogs adopted out. Wolfy died in September. Princess still lives in the Hollow, along with their pup, Andy.

I wasn’t lost in the Valley in October, but I was definitely seeing it from a different perspective when I went kayaking down the Mahoning River with Chuck Miller and friends. The friends have anointed Miller with the title “Mr. Mahoning,” and as a group, they have carefully and artfully sculpted the river for use and introduced hundreds of people like me to the concept.

Ginny Snyder Maikranz is 86, and a lifelong teacher. Years after retiring from Poland High School, we profiled her feat in 2013 of finally quitting smoking. It was a weakness in her that she despised as she tried to lead students in life. She wanted to serve one last lesson, and the outpouring I received from her former students even surprised Ginny.

Steve Merrell’s buddies had an outpouring for him. He was a golf icon around Hubbard and Pine Lakes Golf Course. He died in 2012 after a motorcycle accident. April 2013 arrived with the annual tournament he organized, Merrell’s Master, now continuing in his honor — and with some of his tough rules still in place. A bench was unveiled in his name, and fittingly, the first winner of the memorial Merrell’s Masters was Steve’s brother, Kenny.

Doug Helmick of Struthers and JD Eicher of Canfield are some younger Valley guys I got to meet in 2013 and expect to hear more from in the coming years.

Helmick is a talented filmmaker, and Eicher just released his third album.

Put their name on your Google alerts if you want to stay abreast of talented artists in the Valley.

And Carl Jacobson was a lesson in 2013 in embracing who we are despite the history. He was a former steelworker who, like thousands of others, had his life gutted when steel left the Valley in 1977. Like all of the Valley, he, too, moved on in life and figured out a way to live again.

In 2013, more than 30 years down the road from steel’s departure, Jacobson organized the steel company summer reunion project — a gathering of the lives that were built around an industry and abruptly separated.

A year ago, I never could have forecast a 2013 as rich as it was in such personal experiences.

It’s a unique journey we’re all on — most of it unplanned.

It’s great to share those journeys.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at He blogs, too, on Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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