Up Front: December 2009

Comes with age

Watching Pete Verna hobble from his office to his sport utility vehicle, Senior Editor Frank Maley wondered whether he should try to keep him from getting behind the wheel. “Walking seemed such a struggle for him. I wasn’t sure how well he could handle a truck. But we had only met two hours earlier and he had driven himself to the office, so I decided it was none of my business. I was there to observe and gather information for a story.”

Earlier, Frank had asked Verna about a book that contained information about his career. He had copies at home and told Frank to follow him there. That’s where they were going when the accident that opens this month’s cover story occurred.

The art of feature writing is rooted in the craft of reporting, digging up details that flesh out the facts. When a writer is really lucky, he finds something that enables him to encapsulate the essence of the story in a single scene. That’s what Frank witnessed that day. But it left him feeling a bit guilty instead of elated. As he sat there with Verna, people asked if they were related. “I told them we weren’t. But I was starting to feel responsible for him.” One who came over was Hugh McColl. When Frank mentioned he had been interviewing him, the retired Bank of America CEO wanted to know: “Why was he driving instead of you?”

“I hemmed and hawed that I was following Pete home, that he knew the way and had driven himself to the interview, but I’m sure I didn’t sound convinced that I’d done the right thing. Had I wrestled the keys out of his hands, none of this would have happened. But Pete would have thought me an impudent jerk.”

Something else nagged at him. I’ll let Frank tell the rest: “The story started out as a piece on how an apparently stellar six-decade career as an engineer and builder came to a sad end with Pete’s failed attempt to build a condo tower. I hadn’t set out to examine the role his age might have played, but I couldn’t ignore what I was seeing and hearing. McColl’s comment made it clear I wasn’t the only one wondering if Pete was engaging in activities that were now a little beyond his abilities.

“I haven’t met many people as courageous as Pete Verna. Not many have the guts to tackle a $30 million project, and even fewer would dare try it after their 80th birthday. I wouldn’t need many fingers to count the people who would talk to a journalist about it after failing so publicly. But there’s a fine line between courageous and foolhardy, and it shifts as we age.

“Pete testing the limits of nature would not have mattered much had not a lot of people — including Pete — lost a lot of money. It wouldn’t have mattered as much if the building weren’t in such a prominent place in downtown Charlotte. It wouldn’t have mattered as much if he weren’t hoping to get the money to do another project next door.

“Any doubts I had about raising the age issue were erased when I talked to Pete’s son, Jim. He’s clearly proud of his dad but worries about him. I told him about the accident, about how I felt like his dad’s caretaker there. ‘Welcome to my world,’ he said.”