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A legacy lives on: remembering Mike Voss

Sporting my purple button down shirt, tasteless “dad tie” and slacks I likely hadn’t worn since high school graduation, I walked through the glass doors of The Washington Daily News in December 2013, the beginning of a 2-year stint as sports editor. I was fresh meat. I represented change. I was uncomfortable.

It’s impossible to miss the gold medallion when you walk through the front door, encased in glass, the last vestige of a time when investigative journalism successfully held a local government accountable for its actions, perhaps saving lives. The Pulitzer Prize. I had never seen one in real life, only heard of its lore, and a handful of great writers associated with it.

Turns out, I would work with one of those writers.

Mike Voss was a true Washingtonian, a newsman, a man of few words, only speaking when there was something important to be said. And his words had value. When he spoke, you listened.

On that day in December, Mike had few words of encouragement or advice. Instead, he briefly welcomed me, immediately diving into his retirement plans. He was convinced his time at the paper was coming to an end and had a dream of taking the Trans Canadian Railway across the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, soaking in the natural beauty of a terrain vastly different from that of the Coastal Plain.

After a couple of months on the job, Mike tendered his resignation, packed a bag and boarded the train. He traversed Lake Superior, cut through the Canadian Rockies and finished in Vancouver, an experience of a lifetime — one he’d been dreaming of for decades.

When you work for a print newspaper, you don’t often get these kinds of experiences. You become dedicated to your craft, sometimes trapped inside your own bubble, a public servant personified. Mike was back at his old desk in a month.

He described his vacation in great detail, but never discussed the reason for his return to the paper. He didn’t need to. We all knew that’s where he belonged. He was a journalist, and not the diluted, vague digital definition. He was objective, fact-based, fair and respected.

When I heard of Mike’s passing on Sunday, I first thought of the late nights in the newsroom covering the big stories — from Dominique Wilkins’ return to the string of 2015 tornados to local election coverage. It was hard work, but it was exhilarating. Oh, how I miss those days.

But I also thought about what Mike represented, the kind of news reporter we seem to take for granted, the underappreciated. We live in a volatile, politically charged time, where it’s often difficult to differentiate fact from fiction and fiction from propaganda. Print isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got.

In 1990, when the Daily News won that Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, a newsroom came together to uncover a high level of carcinogens in the public’s drinking water. The story was nominated alongside other investigative reports from the New York Times and The Washington Post. And your Daily News won.

Unfortunately, environmental atrocities like what happened in the ’90s aren’t isolated incidents. Across the country, from Flint, Michigan, to Newark, New Jersey, the most marginalized face that reality every day, questioning the toxicity of the lifeblood that flows from their taps. They’re confronted with the terrible reality that the utility they need to survive may eventually kill them.

You turn on your tap, you pour a glass of water, you don’t think twice. That’s thanks to a curious group of reporters who refused to give up on a story that would end up having a generational impact. Left unchecked, who knows where Washington would be today. Mike Voss was a part of a team of journalists that changed the course of the county for the better. Writing that saved lives.

Mike may have been the last of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writers left in the newsroom, but his legacy lives on through his work and the work of his peers. You can’t write the history of this newspaper without him. Preserve the future of quality local journalism by supporting your local paper.

Dave Cucchiara was the sports editor at the Daily News from 2014-2015. He resides in Somerville, New Jersey, and works as a digital-content strategist for a large supermarket co-op in the northeast.