Wharton retires

St. Mary’s State’s Attorney Richard Fritz (R), left, stands with John Wharton and Sheriff Tim Cameron (R), right, during an impromptu plaque presentation on Thursday morning marking Wharton’s 34 years of work with The Enterprise. Wharton retired from the paper on May 31.

This edition of The Enterprise doesn’t look much different from last Friday’s. But there has been a profound change. The change isn’t cosmetic, though. It’s both personnel and personal.

This issue of The Enterprise is the first one in 34 years that doesn’t somehow have John Wharton’s hand — or byline — in it. (A photo of him is right here, though.) He retired Friday, May 31.

In professional baseball, collecting 3,000 hits is a benchmark that usually propels a player toward Hall of Fame status. In the realm of community journalism, then, John’s participation in exactly 3,550 editions of The Enterprise since he first came to us on April 12, 1985, is to be honored, cherished and celebrated.

A rough estimate of his production would be at least 18,000 bylines, but the total number of stories he cranked out is probably more in the neighborhood of 20,000.

John’s experience, his acumen and his seemingly bottomless institutional memory have served him and our community well. And though he worked in a sometimes difficult and contentious beat — police and courts — that doesn’t often win popularity contests, John steadfastly completed his assignments with dignity, grace and flair.

He could speak truth to power, holding his own with elected officials about important issues. And then the next day, he could converse tenderly and sympathetically with the family of a person killed in a car accident, and produce an article that not only accurately told the facts, but weaved a story that accentuated the humanity of the person who passed away. You got to know that person thanks to John’s skill, tact and soul.

You can’t truly write with such empathy unless you are, at your core, a decent person. And John absolutely is. He is unfailingly kind, honest, fair and affable. You can’t fake that, and even those who found his work to be disagreeable to their circumstances could never doubt his sincerity or his work ethic.

John was often ribbed in our newsroom about his dogged devotion to detail and routine, and about what to others appeared to be a quirky filing system. But just ask him about the disposition of a circuit court case from 1999, and he could whip out a photocopy of the article in question quicker than he could ask for another 10 minutes at deadline.

John grew up in Baltimore, but quickly took to life in the country once he moved here. One of his TV favorites, “The Andy Griffith Show,” could provide some insight. “That haircut of yours might be city style,” the star was told in one episode, “but your heart was shaped in a bowl.” John settled in just fine, and later met and married his bride here in his adopted home.

After more than three decades on the job, there was very little in St. Mary’s that was new to John, but he was always looking for fresh angles to write about for The Enterprise. And he was always eager to get into the paper the stories of those people in our community who don’t always get a lot of ink. Those people often got some play in his Friday “This ‘n’ That” column. John was also eager to take on feature assignments and photo duty weekends — particularly if there were good music and barbecue available.

Music is another aspect of John’s personality that informs his richly layered and pleasant demeanor. His holiday ukulele strumming at the courthouse, sheriff’s office and state police barrack is legendary — particularly since he jams in an outfit of boots, flannel shirt and red corduroy pants and suspenders that suggests a very slender Santa Claus.

John was a constant at The Enterprise through several changes of ownership and a dizzying number of technological advances. He originally filed his stories on early dinosaurs of word processing, which eventually gave way to laptops, smart phones and content management systems.

But the job and its purpose did not change. Nor did his two-finger, hunt-and-peck style of keyboarding. It didn’t win any typing races, but the journalism it produced won enough regional and national awards to cover several walls.

During his career here, John saw a number of competing media products spring up and then wither, and others struggle to try to gain a foothold in this news market where The Enterprise is still the unquestioned dominant force, the paper of record for St. Mary’s County in print and online.

And we’re happy to report that while John’s byline won’t be in the paper in every edition anymore, he will occasionally stretch his long legs on selected feature stories exclusively for us — and you.

We’re all looking forward to what the next chapter brings, and we wish him nothing but the best of health and happiness.

Someone will take John Wharton’s space here in our newsroom — but no one will ever take his place.