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Local boy makes good

One hot July afternoon in 1999 I did something I'd never done before: I abruptly quit my job.

What had started out being a pretty fun career in graphics had turned into a stomach-churning, soul-sucking pit of despair. The camel's back broke on July 10, 1999. I walked out, experiencing a feeling I can only imagine must be akin to getting out of prison.

I was 28 years old. I had no wife, no kids and no responsibilities. The next day, panic briefly set in about what I'd done, but that only lasted as long as it took to cash in some stock and a fledgling 401(k).

For the next two and a half months, I was unemployed.

It was glorious.

I began referring to myself as Nate McCullough, International Man of Leisure. (I thought it was hilarious.) Having no place to be, I quit wearing a watch. I threw some awesome parties. I wrote half of a novel. I went on a road trip to New York.

Then the money ran out. Fantasy life was over. It was time to find a job.

But what to do? Before I left college I had abandoned my original goal of working for a newspaper. Graphic design seemed much more fun and definitely more lucrative.

But I'd never really given journalism a shot. I'd wanted to be a newspaper columnist ever since I'd met Lewis Grizzard when I was 12 years old. So I started applying at newspapers and soon I got a call from the Gwinnett Daily Post.

I showed up a few days later for my interview. I'll never forget the thought I had as I pulled into the parking lot: What have I done? I left a place where people drove Porsches and ate at steakhouses for lunch for this place?

At the time, the Daily Post was in an old warehouse that had been converted into office space. The two outbuildings were nearly falling down, and everything was painted the ugliest dingy yellow I'd ever seen. The parking lot was mostly unpaved and there were more than a few old beaters in it.

The inside was kind of like the outside. Cramped. Crowded. Messy. A couple of people were barking back and forth about something.

But it felt alive somehow, like something important was going on, like things were getting done.

Long story short, I started the next week. That was 10 years ago this past Tuesday. And what have I done? What haven't I done?

I've designed hundreds of front pages, written thousands of headlines and edited as many stories. I've written quite a few, too. And I achieved that dream of becoming a columnist.

I've met governors, athletes, singers and movie stars. I've interviewed Richard Petty. I got yelled at by a pro football player. I answered the newsroom phone one night and Lester Maddox was on the other end.

I've met some pretty interesting unfamous folks, too: a man who jumped out of a burning airplane, a soldier who was wounded in Iraq and the county game warden, to name a few.

Some of the experiences haven't been pleasant, of course. Every time it rained at the old building, a former publisher would call to tell someone to go stack papers by the back wall of his office to keep the rain out. One time an animal died in the ceiling and stunk up the place. And the power has gone out here more times than I can remember.

In this business you're exposed to a lot of life's tragedies, so some days are downright horrifying, and I'd just as soon forget those.

Most of it has been a blast though, and it's been because of the people. I've had the pleasure of working with some mighty fine ones over the years.

Good newspaper people work on one priority: the story. Do whatever it takes to tell the story.

Photographers get muddy and bloody trying to get the shot. Reporters get doors slammed in their faces. They come back from fires smelling like smoke and from murder scenes needing a drink. Newspaper people get cussed out, threatened and subpoenaed. I remember one who got rocks thrown at him.

But they do it because they believe in telling the stories. They believe in the First Amendment and in shining a light in dark corners. They believe in the public's right to know. They know that despite all the doom and gloom, occasionally, some good comes from telling the stories.

Like the time we saved Christmas. We ran a front-page story one time about a local co-op that had no toys to give needy children. The next day, people took them toys by the truckload. That's my favorite memory of my time here so far. Well, that and seeing Todd Cline dressed up as a nun once.

Ten years ago, I asked myself what I'd done. The answer now is I've become a newspaper man.

I think I've done all right.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.