GALESBURG — Sometimes the only thing a troubled teenager needs is an encouraging word and an adult who is willing to listen.
Being a teenager has never been easy, but today young people face new pressures.
Guidance counselors are the unsung heroes of education. They not only help youngsters through the academic bureaucracy, but they assist students facing life’s challenges. Unfortunately, these are among the positions most vulnerable to budget cuts.
I was thinking about that last week when I learned Doug Fitch had died. He was a counselor for 26 years at Galesburg High School, where I attended.
Doug Fitch was the kind of person who could spot a youngster in trouble and offer a helping hand.
One former student told me how Mr. Fitch talked him out of suicide.
"My dad was working two jobs, my mom was working fulltime, and my best friend, my brother, was in the service and had been deployed overseas. I was lonely and had no one to talk to. I was briefly suicidal, and then I talked to Mr. Fitch. He could really turn your heart around."
The former student, who asked not to be identified, went on to become a suicide-prevention counselor.
On a tragic day, when I was 17, I too sought out Mr. Fitch.
I grew up on a farm near Galesburg, and shortly before leaving for school, someone hollered that our hired hand had been hurt. I yelled for my mother to call an ambulance and raced behind the hog barn where he had been working.
The back of the otherwise blue Ford tractor was bright red with the man’s blood. My dad was standing over him administering a tourniquet. And I found the man’s foot 20 feet away.
After the ambulance left, I climbed into my Pontiac and headed for school. There were tears in my eyes, and I was embarrassed. I grew up in a home where boys weren’t supposed to cry.
When I pulled into the high school parking lot, the only thing I could think to do was talk to Mr. Fitch. He listened and told me about losing a cousin in a logging accident when he was growing up.
Later he walked with me to talk to a teacher and asked that I be excused from a test that day, and he contacted each of my teachers to let them know what I had been through.
I can’t help but wonder how many teenagers sat in his office and shared secrets: pregnancies, trouble at home, bullying at school.
I’m sure Mr. Fitch gave each of them a compassionate ear as he did for me.
"When you sat down with Mr. Fitch, you had his undivided attention. There was a quiet confidence about him. You could tell he really cared," said Sean Hanlon, a former student who is now a lawyer in Denver.
During my 30 years as a journalist, I’ve covered suicides, school shootings and other catastrophes that befall young people. Inevitably, I’m asked how we can prevent such tragedies.
In each incident, a troubled student wasn’t helped before he or she acted out. We need to provide more counseling resources in our schools.
Our schools need more people like Mr. Fitch.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com