Thursday, October 15, 2015

Up Close & Personal … ALAN K. STOUT

Up Close & Personal … ALAN K. STOUT

Alan K. Stout is the community and resource development coordinator with Big Brothers Big Sisters of The Bridge. He also hosts a weekly radio show on 105 The River and, as a freelance journalist, he contributes stories to The Electric City, The Scranton Times-Tribune and The Westside Bulletin. Stout is a graduate of Wyoming Valley West High School, Luzerne County Community College and King’s College. He has two children, Mary Ann, 10, and A.J., 8. He lives in Edwardsville. 

How did you first get involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters? “For about 18 years, I worked at The Times Leader newspaper. I wore many hats there over the years, including reporter, features writer, music columnist, music editor, Newspapers in Education manager and Weekender editor. From 1999 through 2011, I helped organize a charity concert every year called ‘Concert For Karen/Concert For A Cause,’ and for the very last show we did, in 2011, we named the Big Brothers Big Sisters Anti-Bullying program as the benefactor. Through that event, I got to know the people at the agency, and they got to know me, and purely by coincidence, about six months later, they had a job opportunity that I was interested in. After 18 years at the paper, I was ready to move on, and I was fortunate enough to get the position with Big Brothers Big Sisters.”

Can you explain the work that you do there? “I’m very involved with all of our community relations, public relations and marketing. I also assist with all of the agency’s fundraisers and special events, as well as volunteer recruitment. And I help run our anti-bullying program and social media. The agency is a program of Catholic Social Services, so I also assist with some of their events and oversee the social media for the St. Vincent de Paul Kitchen and the St. Francis of Assisi Kitchen.”

What do you enjoy about it the most? “I enjoy getting the name of the agency out there. With Big Brothers Big Sisters, I’ve helped develop PSAs for radio and television, and have written guest editorials to the local newspapers about the need for volunteers. There’s really a great need for volunteer Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and I believe that the more exposure the agency receives, the more likely it is that we’ll attract new volunteers. Having a Big Brother of Big Sister can really change the life of a child, and I enjoy trying to help make that happen.”

Your radio show focuses mostly on local talent, correct? “Yes. My music column, which ran in the Times Leader and The Weekender for about 14 years, was called ‘Music On The Menu,’ and it often profiled local musicians. The radio show, which is now in its 10th year, is an offshoot of that. It’s fun, because instead of trying to describe music on paper, which can be very difficult sometimes, I can just play it for people. And the talent that we have here in NEPA is incredible. Music has always been a very big part of my life and will probably always be the thing that people associate with me the most."

During your time at The Times Leader, didn’t you also interview a lot of rock stars? “It was an exciting time for music in the region. The Montage amphitheater opened in 1994, and the arena opened in 1999. Combine that with The Kirby and the Scranton Cultural Center, and all of a sudden, the biggest stars in world were visiting NEPA all the time. And I got to talk to quite a few of them.”

Anybody stand out? “Billy Joel, David Bowie, Eddie Van Halen, Steven Tyler, Don Henley, Jon Bon Jovi, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, Ray Charles … it was really a lot of fun, because they were all pretty fascinating people and incredibly talented. And when you could provide the readers with a story like that, they loved it. You can still listen to quite a few of them on YouTube. If you type in my name and the name of the artist, they pop right up.

What do you do in your free time to relax? “I'm a single Dad, and I work a few jobs, so I'm always on the go. But I try to hit the gym a few times a week. It’s a great way to clear your head out and get the endorphins kicking in. I also like working around my house. I played men’s softball in some pretty competitive leagues for about 10 years, but I haven’t played at that level in a long time. These days, when I’m not working, I’m often with my two children.  And we always have a lot of fun together.”

Favorite music? “The Beatles, as well as John and Paul’s solo material. Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Who, The Rolling Stones, KISS, The Badlees, Led Zeppelin and Robert Plant’s solo material. And I love Elvis Presley. I have about 90 of his songs on my iPod. Last year, I visited Graceland.”

Favorite TV show? “From the past, ‘Taxi’ and ‘M*A*S*H.’ These days, I like ‘Law & Order SVU.’

Favorite movies? “Field of Dreams, Dead Poets Society, Diner, Jaws, Caddyshack and The Breakfast Club. I also like Sleepless in Seattle and The Bridges of Madison County.”

Favorite color? “Black.”

Favorite food? “Italian. And seafood. But I also like bar food, such as burgers, wings and pizza. I could probably eat pizza four times a week.”

Follow sports? “I’m a huge fan of the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. I’ve probably been to Yankee Stadium about 75 times and I even made it down to Texas Stadium to see the Cowboys.”

Have you traveled much? “It’s funny, but my Dad helped give me my great love for baseball, and because of that, I’ve been to a lot of cities. Every summer, for the past 24 years, we go and see the Yankees play on the road somewhere. We’ve been to Boston, Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Miami, Washington, Tampa Bay … all just to see the Yankees. I’ve also been to Dallas, Memphis, Denver and Charleston. My wish list includes Chicago and California. I’d like to drive down the coast from San Francisco to San Diego someday. And I’d like to visit England and Ireland.”

Favorite city? New York. No place else is even close. I just love the energy.”

Favorite vacation spot? Anyplace where there’s a beach. Long Beach Island, Cape May, Dewey Beach, Ocean City Maryland … I love them all.”

Favorite thing about NEPA? “The mountains, the Susquehanna and the people. And the pizza.”

Favorite books? “I’ve read dozens of biographies and autobiographies. I find the truth to be much more interesting than fiction. Right now, I’m reading ‘The Closer’ by Marino Rivera.”

Favorite quote? I have two: ‘Do Onto Others As You’d Have Done To You.’ It’s so simple, but it’s remarkable. Think about it. If everybody followed the simple golden rule, the world would be fine. There would be no crime. There would be no war. The other one I like is,  ‘It's amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit,’ which is often attributed to either Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan, among others. I don’t know who said it first, but I do believe it’s true.” 

Favorite holiday? “Christmas. And the whole month leading up to it. I particularly like Christmas Eve.”

Guilty pleasure? “Soda. And a good gin and tonic on the weekend.”

Occupation you most admire? “Anything in the medical field. Doctors, nurses, paramedics … they are very special people.”

Biggest pet peeve? "Indecisiveness. When I make up my mind as to what I want to do, I pull the trigger. I just do it." 

First car? A 1974 Dodge Monaco. It was huge, which is probably why my parents bought it for me as my first car. They probably felt it was safe. I used to say that it had four rooms and a bath.”

Any nicknames? “The guys on my old softball team always called me ‘Mel,’ because there was a guy on the Yankees at the time named Mel Hall that I liked. And those guys, to this day, still call me that. Later, some of the guys started calling me "GQ" because I usually wear suits to work and, even with jeans, I like a nice blazer. And at the newspaper, they called me ‘AKS’ or ‘Alan K.’ "

What does the ‘K’ stand for? “Kent.”  

What might surprise some people about you?  "That's a tough one. I coached Little League one year. That might surprise people. And I guess some people might be surprised to learn that I have a degree in history and education. I taught high school social studies for a while and I really enjoy local history. One of the projects I'm still trying to complete, which began a few years ago, is a documentary film about the 'Agnes' flood of 1972. I really respect the field of education and I continue to teach in some ways. I am the class instructor with the Big Brothers Big Sisters anti-bullying program, which allows me to meet with kids in our local schools each week, and as recently as just a few years ago, I was an adjunct faculty member at Luzerne County Community College, where I taught English Composition. Another thing that might surprise people - though I guess some people might remember it - is that I had a little bit of a hit song on the radio back in 2003. It was on about 14 radio stations in NEPA that summer and was No. 5 on the local singles chart. It was definitely the most unique experience of my life ... to be driving in your car and hear your song on the radio, right in between Springsteen and The Rolling Stones. It's still somewhat surreal to me that such things actually happened.    

Most influential people on your life? “My parents, who were always there for me in every way. And my grandparents, who I spent a lot of time with when I was a kid. There is not a day that passes that I don’t think of them. I’ve also had some great bosses and supervisors over the years that I’ve learned a lot from and, in some ways, have tried to emulate. I also believe you can still learn from people that are younger than you. My daughter is the kindest person I’ve ever known. Not a mean bone in her body. And my son is hilarious. He always makes me laugh. They, in their own innocent ways, have had a great influence on me.”

What is your most memorable professional experience? “It was probably the 12 years we did ‘Concert For Karen/Concert For A Cause. It’s strange, because though I have great affection for that event, I also, clearly, wish it never happened, because it was first inspired by someone passing away way too young. But it was an incredible experience, and it was the most ‘pure’ thing you could ever imagine being a part of. There were so many people from the community that came together each year so beautifully … people from bands, people from newspapers, radio stations and television stations and sound companies, and there was no ego or any false agenda. Everybody got it. Everybody cared. And all that anyone wanted – every single person involved – was for the event to be a success each year. It was the most special thing I’ve ever been a part of. “

This month, you are receiving the “Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Steamtown Music Awards, which are a part of the Electric City Music Conference. How does that feel?  “It’s funny, because when I think of an award like that, I think of the 85 year-old guy that’s been nominated for the Oscar six times, but never won, so they toss him one before he checks out. Seriously though, I am very humbled and flattered, especially since it is coming from the community of local musicians that have been such an important and wonderful part of my life. I was very surprised when they told me about it, and I am appreciative.”

What do you enjoy about writing for the Westside Bulletin? “I moved to Kingston from South Wilkes-Barre when I was about nine years old. I grew up on the west side of the Wyoming Valley. I played Kingston sports – both baseball and football – and I’m a proud Valley West graduate. And I still live there. I know so many people on the west side, and so many businesses, and it’s fun to sit down with them and chat with them about either their personal life, or their business, or both. Sometimes, I might be interviewing somebody I’ve known for years. Sometimes, I might be interviewing someone I’m meeting for the first time. Regardless, I always learn something interesting about them, and I enjoy sharing that with the readers.”  

(Alan K. Stout is an award-winning journalist that has been voted NEPA's "Favorite Newspaper Columnist" seven times. He also earned a Keystone Pres Award for Excellence in Journalism. He has interviewed hundreds of people from throughout NEPA and now writes the "Up Close & Personal" feature for The Electric City, The Diamond City and He wrote a similar column for The Times Leader from 2009-2011 and, in 2015, for The Weekender. Since 2012, under the name "Coffee With ...," it can also be found each month in The Westside Bulletin. In this column,  published in October of 2014 in The Westside Bulletin, the interviewer became the interviewee, as Alan was asked to answer some of the same questions that he usually asks people in the "Up Close & Personal"  and "Coffee With" feature.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Eulogy for my Mom

 St. Aloysius Church – August 6, 2015

To my Dad, my sister and I, my Mother was our best friend. She was the one constant in our lives. Through all of the ups and downs, and the good times and the bad, she was the one that was always there. She was kind, she was strong, and she was wise.  And the three of us each had our own unique and special relationship with her.

Though for the past 38 years, the four of us were a family, my Mom and I actually go back a bit further. And I sometimes think of the five or six years that she was a single Mom, and it was just the two of us, living right here in South Wilkes-Barre. It was the mid -‘70s, and there was a popular song on the radio at the time called “You and Me Against The World,” and sometimes when it came on the radio when we were in the car, she would sing it to me.  Many years later, when I got married, I surprised her with it as our mother/son dance at the reception. And for the past few days, one line from that song has kept going through my mind.

“And when one of us in gone, and one of us is left to carry on, then the memories will have to do, our memories alone will get us through. Think about the days of me and you, you and me against the world.”

Some friends told me this week that my Mom was still with me, and that I should watch for the signs, but I really didn't want to do that just yet. I haven't turned on the radio or TV all week, and I wasn't looking for some heart-shaped cloud in the sky. I told a good friend, just last night, that if my Mom could ever send me such a gesture, I wanted to be walloped right over the head.

This morning, I stopped at the store to pick up some photographs of my children that I'd had developed and that I thought I might place with my Mom before she was laid to rest, and as soon as I walked into the store, that song  - "You and Me Against The World" - came on. It is not a song that you hear very often. It is not played very much. And I suppose the people in the store may have been wondering why I was walking up and down the aisle crying, saying "Oh, thank you, Mom. Thank you so much."

I thought all of you, who are also feeling great loss right now, might take some comfort in knowing that.

I have never forgotten those years with my Mom, and I never will, because she made what could have been difficult years great years. We had fun. And she was incredibly strong. Stronger than I can ever hope to be.

She was amazing.

My Mom married my Dad when I was nine. A year or so later, she had Susan, and for the past 39 years, we have been a family. And that’s how most of you here today know us, and that is how you’ve known her. And nothing mattered to her more than her family. She loved my Dad so much, and over the past few years, they really enjoyed retirement and travelling. He was just telling me the other night, with fondness, about some of their adventures, and I still have warm memories of being on family vacations, and looking down from the balcony of the condo, and seeing them going for one of their twilight strolls together on the beach. My mom loved the ocean. She could sit and just look at it for days. And my Dad always made sure she got there, often. Thank you, Dad.

Though Susan has lived in Philadelphia for 20 years, it’s really almost as if she never left. She visits home often. Very often. And she called my Mom and Dad pretty much every day. They had a special bond that can only be found between a mother and daughter, and my parents would also sometimes go and stay with her at her home in Philly for a few days. They also traveled together, visiting places such as Ireland and the tropics. They had fun. And if you noticed how perfect all of the arrangements for these services are, with everything so beautiful, that was simply Susan being her mother's daughter. 

Mom loved her family. And we loved her. And if the three of us thought there wasn’t even any more room for love in her heart, we were wrong, because once the grandchildren started to arrive about eight years ago, Mom seemed to take love another level. First was my daughter, Mary Ann, who shares my Mom’s name, her mother’s name, and her grandmother’s name. I know my Mom was proud of that, but probably not nearly as proud as I am. Then came my son, A.J., and then came Susan's and Matt’s son, John. My Mom loved Matt like a son, and she loved her three grandchildren with all of her heart. To say she spoiled them would be an understatement, and I know both Susan and I will find it to be very strange, over the next few weeks, to not be getting calls from her, asking us if there is anything the kids need for school. I know she would have been stopping by my house with a few bags of new clothes, and tablets and pencils and crayons, or, more likely she would have just taken the kids shopping with her and let them pick out some things they wanted and needed. Her grandchildren, all three of them, never wanted for anything. And nothing seemed to make her happier than bringing them joy.

Everyone here today, and those that we saw last night, had a unique and special relationship with my Mom. Her sister Joan, is here, who is heartbroken over the loss of who she still considers to be her baby sister. Other family members and friends, some from right in the neighborhood, some who have traveled a great distance to be here today, are also feeling great loss. Her former co-workers from King’s College, with whom she remained close with even after retirement, are feeling great loss. There were many times over the years that I talked with my Mom and asked what she was up to, and she said she was having dinner that night with the ladies from King’s. We met them all last night. She loved you.

Even before she retired, my Mom was also always busy at home. She enjoyed working in her beautiful yard and she was always tweaking something at the house. It seemed rooms that didn’t really need to be painted might be painted, or wallpaper that didn’t necessarily need to be replaced would be replaced, but her taste was always impeccable. At Christmastime, cars driving down her street would stop and compliment her on her holiday decorating.  Mom was always making things better. Mom liked things to look nice. And her home was immaculate. And today, when I have a guest at my home, or my sister has guests at her home, and we receive compliments on how the pictures are always hung perfectly and everything is in order, we both know - and we are proud to say - that we are simply a reflection of our mother.      

My Mom would be happy - and I know she is happy - that this beautiful church is her last stop here on this Earth. When the school next door opened in the 50s, she was among the first students to attend it for eight years. She received her sacraments here, she sang in that beautiful choir, and she enjoyed the May Crowings in the schoolyard across the street. Three months ago, she was joyous here as her granddaughter received her First Holy Communion. And now, she would want us to be strong. And she would want us to be joyous. She would want us, after a heartbreaking few weeks, to get back to our jobs and our work and to do good things. She would want my Dad to go fishing and spend time with us and his friends. She would want all of us  to enjoy our lives and our families. She never wanted us to worry. As recently as a few weeks ago, when she first began to have some setbacks with her health, and I would ask her how she was feeling, she would tell me not to worry, and that she was fine. Thinking back on it now, I think maybe she knew she was not fine, but she did not like to be fussed over and she always put her family first, and the thought of us worrying about her health was probably much more of a concern to her than her health.

In the end, my Mom simply showed us all the same strength that she showed me 40 years ago, when it was just her and me against the world. Back then, I didn’t have to worry about a thing. She made sure of that. And that’s what she still always wanted, for all of us.

About two weeks ago, I was with her at the hospital, and things were still looking OK. She was just starting to get some treatments, and she was sitting up in bed, and after a nice visit I was about to go home, and as I was leaving I told her that she was the strongest person I know. And she looked at me, and said, “Oh, I’m just doing what I have to do.”

And then she paused, and she looked right at me, and she said, “And you do what you have to do.”

It was one of the last conversations I ever had with her. And I have thought of it many times over the past two weeks.

We will all do what we have to do, Mom. We will be strong, like you, and we will always be here for each other, just as you were always here for us. We will still talk to you every single day, for the rest of our lives, until we see you again.

We will never forget you.

And we will never stop loving you.