This is the sixth in a November series produced by BNG on what it means to be “blessed,” a word so flippantly used that it often loses meaning.
My life has been marked by a series of diversions that, looking in the rearview mirror, have been blessings. Not “blessings in disguise” that saved me from calamity or “mixed blessings” that had immediately recognizable upsides and downsides. I mean blessings of a more profound nature that come when we are diverted in an entirely different direction and discover we’ve been transformed by the experience.
I can’t say for sure when the first of these diversions happened. Maybe it was in the summer before sixth grade when my mother decided I should join the band and took me to meet with the band director.
Because I had braces on my teeth, he said I wasn’t a good candidate for the cool instruments — trumpets, trombones and the like. He put a flute in my hand, and for two years I endured sitting through rehearsals, concerts and chair challenges with a bunch of girls. Ick!
But in junior high, when the braces came off, I boldly asked for something different. That band director introduced me to the baritone sax, a brass behemoth compared to the spindly silver flute. I was skeptical — “How do you even hold the thing?” — but he said the fingerings were similar to the flute and if I could learn how to blow it, it was mine to play. I figured it out, and I’m still playing 50 years later in our church wind ensemble. I doubt I would have continued playing the flute all these years later.
“In junior high, when the braces came off, I boldly asked for something different.”
My other extra-curricular activity in those years was Boy Scouts. One summer I was selected to join the staff of a week-long leadership camp, and I was excited by the prospect of leading a patrol of younger scouts through the rigors of the week. Excitement turned to disappointment when I was told my job was to be camp scribe.
What? I had no idea what that even entailed, and nobody gave me clear directions. So, I spent the week taking notes on everything I saw and heard and when I got home, I wrote a diary of the week that was copied and sent to every scout and adult who had been there. I didn’t realize at the time I was publishing my first newspaper, handwritten as it was.
At Baylor University, I set my sights on joining an exclusive service organization my grandfather had been a charter member of 60 years earlier. It wouldn’t be easy because they took just a dozen new members every year, and “legacy” was not in their vocabulary, but I rushed them anyway. I was rejected on the first try — and the second, and the third.
“I was rejected on the first try — and the second, and the third.”
While my roommates and dorm friends were living large in fraternities I could have easily joined on their recommendations, I was destined for the life of an “independent” because of my stubborn desire for exclusivity. I felt sorry for myself at the time, but being snubbed by them and me snubbing the frats allowed me to focus all my time and energy on my journalism major. I’m pretty sure if I had joined a club, I wouldn’t have had time to be editor of the campus newspaper my senior year.
That led to my first newspaper job at the Waco Tribune-Herald, where I was thrown into general assignments and nighttime police reporting until I gained experience and a regular beat opened up. And when it finally did, it wasn’t what I wanted: religion and social service agencies. Not exactly where the action was, or so I thought.
As it happened, there was plenty of news to report and human interest stories to tell as the Reagan administration cut budgets and federal agencies struggled to serve their constituents with more than just that infamous government cheese.
On the religion side, I found myself spending time with leaders from every denomination in the book who gave this lifelong Baptist a taste for the broader, ecumenical world. That set me up well for marriage to a devout Catholic who also taught me an appreciation for liturgy and the mysteries of faith.
But the biggest news story on the religion pages was the fracturing Southern Baptist Convention, and that put me in rooms with some of the stars of religion journalism at the time: Helen Parmley, Louis Moore and George Cornell, to name a few. On one heady night in New Orleans, I found myself at a small dinner of maybe 25 people with the likes of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and Buckner Fanning.
Marriage took me from Waco to Dallas, where I interviewed at both big daily newspapers, which were at the height of a battle for market dominance. I thought I had experience they would appreciate, but they both rejected me. Instead, I landed a job at a city business magazine with a small staff and plenty of room to learn and grow. That was my introduction to magazine journalism and print production that included managing freelance writers and photographers and making press checks at midnight.
“What those jobs lacked in stability was more than made up for in experiences I never would have had as a long-tenured reporter at a daily newspaper.”
The rest of my career has been a series of relatively short-term engagements that were ended by mergers, shutdowns, untenable conditions and one outright termination. Still, what those jobs lacked in stability was more than made up for in experiences I never would have had as a long-tenured reporter at a daily newspaper.
What’s more, those jobs gave me relationships I wouldn’t trade for anything. My boss at the city business magazine has been a lifelong friend and colleague, and even today we are collaborating on a project.
On a more personal level, my life was diverted in a big way 15 years ago when my wife of 25 years was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her struggle was relatively brief at just 16 months compared to the years-long battles many cancer victims and their families endure. I believe there was a true blessing in that brevity, although it shook me to my core.
In the weeks and months afterward, I stayed close to my church family and especially our wind ensemble. Playing music with friends always has been a go-to place for peace and consolation.
I also carried on with my job in communications at the regional transit agency, but after a couple of years I decided it was time to “get off the bus” and do something different. That opened up time to pursue other types of writing including fiction, essays and freelancing of my choice. I was encouraged in that decision by a friend in our church wind ensemble. Her name is LeAnn; she plays the flute. We’ve now been married 11 years.
If I had gotten all those things I wanted — a trumpet, a scout patrol, club membership, a hot city beat, a big newspaper job, career stability, a lifelong marriage — I would have a story to tell about blessings beyond measure. Instead, I’m grateful for the diversions in life that have carried me through to this day.
Jeff Hampton is a freelance writer based in Dallas. He is a graduate of Baylor University, has worked as a newspaper reporter and in corporate communications and now freelances and writes books.
Other articles in this series:
‘We’re so blessed!’ | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
Blessing is not about good fortune; it is akin to God’s love | Opinion by Ann Bell Worley
Original blessing, the #blessed hashtag, and what it really means to be blessed | Opinion by Andrew Daugherty
When being a ‘blessing’ comes with some baggage | Opinion by Amber Cantorna
Seeing mortality as a blessing | Opinion by Cynthia Astle