He was a skinny kid just back from Vietnam the first time I saw Joe Nawrozki. He stood there in a corner of the third-floor sports office at the News American, and John Steadman wrote a column about him headlined "Our GI Joe Returns from the War," as though the experience were no less triumphant than the guys coming home from World War II. But it was. Joe kept the worst of it to himself that day.
For Nawrozki, this was completely out of character. For the last four decades in this business, he's brought us the complete story as he's seen it through a reporter's attentive eye. He's written about drug traffickers and charity rip-offs, about corrupt politicians and brutal prison conditions. About undercover police tactics and courthouse underhandedness. About Baltimore County's promising east-side development and the struggles of military veterans. About famous folks such as James Michener and Redd Foxx, and great characters such as the racetrack tout Mister Diz and the political roustabout Melvin Perkins. Also about the joys of growing up on this city's east side, whose street life and rich cultural mosaic informed every sentence he ever wrote.
And now, after 40 years in the newspaper business, he slips out the door and heads into retirement this week. All these years, while working first at the News American and then at The Sun, he's simultaneously taught classes out at the Harford Recreation Center in Jarrettsville, in tae kwon do, the Korean martial art. He's been through hip and shoulder replacements, a broken jaw, fused vertebra. Now he needs his other hip replaced.
Joe's a fifth-degree master who's taught thousands of people the art of self-defense: old people, young people, students at the Maryland School for the Blind "who taught me." He's taught a dozen black belts. The philosophy's simple, he says: "Be good enough to walk away from a fight. But, if they put a hand on you, God help them." He's loved the teaching, and he's loved the reporting.
"It's been a magical time," he was saying the other day. "But I'm busted up, and it's time to move on."
Forty years ago, he came off Belair Road and Erdman Avenue to find work as a sports writer under Steadman for a couple of years, and then went off to Vietnam. He was no ordinary soldier. He did volunteer work with lepers. He volunteered to take food and medicine to remote villages, and was ambushed three times. He wrote about the war from the heart of it.
When he was discharged, he had no idea how furiously the country had divided itself over the war and the political lies behind it. Coming home, his plane landed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
"I was thrilled just to be alive," he said. "I'm walking through the airport in my Army uniform, and a young woman in a sundress came up to me. I thought she was gonna hug me. I had visions of my father and my uncles, when they came home from their war. She said, `Are you back from Vietnam?' I said, "Yes.' She spit on me. I wanted to lay down on the floor and die."
But it taught him something, too. "What it felt like to be an outsider, an outcast." When he came back to the News American, they put him on the city desk, where his general assignment reporting included writing about returning veterans. Thousands were coming home in body bags.
"I felt I had to make those numbers human," he said.
At his desk one day, he talked on the telephone with a mother who'd just gotten word that her son had been killed in the fighting while his family was preparing his homecoming.
"I'm sitting here by the Christmas tree we got for him," the woman said. It was July; she wanted to make it feel like Christmas for her boy. Joe got off the phone, went into the men's room and broke down. An assistant city editor named Mason "Bunky" Brunson followed him in and comforted him. Brunson, a World War II vet, understood: He'd seen the worst of it at Tarawa.
In 1976, Nawrozki was one of six veterans invited to the Gerald Ford White House, honored for his work on behalf of veterans.
"It's all been great fun," Joe said the other day. "Some of it's the big stuff, like watching the rebirth of the east side of Baltimore County. Some of it was just the thrill of meeting ordinary people, of finding out what's on the other side of that door every day."
Some of it brought unexpected challenges, such as the time several of the era's biggest heroin dealers offered face-to-face objections to stories he'd written.
"Nah," Joe said, laughing aloud. "The real courage was being a kid, and playing ball for Little Flower. Do you know how brave it is to be 10 years old, and standing out there and wanting to feel tough, and your uniform says `Little Flower'?"
Anyway, Joe's not finished. He'll continue to oversee the tae kwon do classes out in Jarrettsville. He wants to do some freelance writing. And he's gone to Veterans Affairs with an idea he thinks might be helpful: a writing project for those soldiers coming home from the current fighting, to work out the kind of emotions our G.I. Joe remembers from his own war.