LIMA — He looked for Limas across the United States. He relayed the memories local legends had of their hometowns.
Since 1986, columnist Mike Lackey helped us understand how the Lima area fit into the larger world. Today’s heartfelt musings mark the end of a 23-year run and Lackey’s 37-year career with The Lima News.
“I’m sorry it’s ended,” said Ron Varland, a former editor of The Lima News who prodded Lackey, then the city editor at the newspaper, to begin writing columns. “We’re all a bit poorer because of this, but I understand why he’s leaving.”
A native of the Dayton area, the 61-year-old Lackey’s insightful writing made him as much a part of Lima as a Kewpee burger.
“People will say they read Mike’s column and say, ‘Boy that was just great. Or I had to laugh. Or it made me cry. ….’ He’s touched so many people with his words,” said Craig Orosz, photo editor for The Lima News. “I don’t think he realized how important his columns were to people. He had quite a following out there, young and old.”
Looking for Limas
One of Lackey’s most memorable projects came in 1998. Ray Sullivan, then the editor of The Lima News, brought Lackey and Orosz into his office, proposing they crisscross the country looking for other places named Lima. In all, they found 18 of them in 14 states, logging 16,313 miles.
“I remember sitting in that meeting — and fortunately I had the good sense not to say it — but I remember sitting there thinking, ‘This is the dumbest idea I ever heard. This sounds like a good way to spend $10,000 of the company’s money and waste six months of my life for a bunch of stories no one’s going to read,’” Lackey said. “Ten years later, people still stop me on the street to say how much they enjoyed those stories.”
Orosz added, “We’re the only two people in the world who’ve been to every Lima in the United States. Who else can say that?”
In learning about other Limas, people here learned about themselves.
“It turned out to be a great series because of how similar the different places also named Lima were,” said Paul Smith, former sports editor. “… They produced some in-depth things about what those other Limas were going through.”
But the series didn’t come without challenges. Lackey’s laid-back demeanor and smile helped the duo find stories in a Lima near Youngstown, which initially distrusted the duo coming into town in a rented white Cadillac. Some people even wondered if the wheelchair-bound Lackey was some kind of mob don.
“When we got out into a diner, everyone was kind of looking at us, but no one wanted to talk to us,” Orosz recalled. “Mike came out and broke the ice with the waitress. He explained who we were and why we were there and that we wanted to do a story about this Lima.
“That was the icebreaker. All of a sudden, everybody just came up with stories about what was going on in that town and its history.”
A new chapter
The coffee table in Lackey’s living room shows his eclectic interests. There lie books on the Civil War, Ohio State football, the Beatles and professional baseball statistics, just a small sampling of his estimated 1,200-book collection.
His career in Lima showed those same interests. After nearly three years covering sports in Canada, Lackey landed in Lima on Aug. 28, 1972, as a sports writer. He gained notoriety as a top-notch bowling columnist and harness racing writer. He wrote news feature stories from 1978 to 1980 before becoming the newspaper’s assistant city editor in 1980 and the city editor in 1981.
Varland’s decision to have Lackey write columns in 1986 truly changed Lackey’s life.
“I knew we were wasting an incredible resource,” Varland said. “He had something to offer, and he wasn’t using it.”
He started writing a column once a week as time permitted. In 1992, Sullivan moved him to a new full-time columnist role. Lackey started with two columns a week before increasing his output to three times a week.
“First and foremost, Mike is a good reporter,” Sullivan said. “He listens and observes with a depth that, when he writes — and he is a clear and elegant writer — he translates Lima’s experiences in a precise yet humble way.”
Lackey does that by understanding and caring about the people he wrote about and for, said Tom Mullen, a former editor and publisher in Lima.
“He has a very keen mind and very highly developed observational skills,” Mullen said. “That comes through in his writing and reporting. It’s clear Mike loves people and has a sense of respect for a broad spectrum of people.”
With his well-known humility and humor, Lackey sets aside the praise.
“On my income tax, I just put myself down as a reporter,” Lackey said. “I don’t consider myself a writer in any elevated sense. I think even journalist is a little bit lofty. It just comes back to being a storyteller.”
LACKEY ON …
I’ve long since considered myself an honorary native. Technically, I’m not a native, since I wasn’t born here and didn’t grow up here. I’ve lived here far longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. This is my hometown.
There was always a surprise there. You’d meet someone who seemed like an ordinary person from Lima, Ohio. Yet very often, they had a remarkable story to tell.
How cerebral palsy made him a better reporter:
In an odd way, it helps me sometimes as a reporter or interviewer. People are less intimidated than they might be if they’re not used to dealing with the news media. They might be put off by being approached by a reporter. I was a little bit more able to approach people because I’m anything but an intimidating figure. I’m this little guy in a wheelchair, and no one’s scared of that. Sometimes it’s actually been an asset.
The “Looking for Limas” series:
People really loved those stories. I came to really enjoy them too. All of these places were small, just wide spaces in the road. They’re places you’d really have to go looking for. You couldn’t find it by accident. Each had a fascinating story.
His 23 years of columns:
The truth is you’re not creating great literature every other day. I really felt like I’d done my job on any given day if I’d given people something that was basically worth the three or four minutes it’d take them to read it. You can’t get too big of an opinion of your own work. It’s a fleeting literary form.