Kent Bush: It is a small world after all

Kent Bush

People always say how small the world is.

They see someone in the grocery store one weekend and then they see the same person on vacation three states away the next week. Those coincidences are always interesting.

But I think I can one up any of those “it’s a small world” stories.

As I followed the biggest headline in sports, I realized I had known one of the main characters in the story before they were famous. I couldn’t believe I had met one of the stat-struck lovers at the center of the tale of the Notre Dame linebacker who had a strangely close relationship with a woman he had never met – primarily because she never existed.

I don’t know Manti Te’o. I knew his imaginary girlfriend. She has cost a woman her job at the newspaper where I used to work.

More strange things happened at the Chickasha Express-Star than most businesses with the same number of employees.

We had a person become trapped, hanging upside down in a cargo elevator shaft. Everyone recovered. But the memory of my brother’s horrified face when he saw the not-safe-for-work photos of the carnage that incident caused still makes me laugh today. I don’t know that he ever visited my office again.

A pressman got his hand caught in the press. Don’t worry. It peeled back the skin, but he didn’t even break a bone.

And an employee who wasn’t pregnant had a child. I was on a baseball field coaching a game when I got a call about that one. That was the only incident I didn’t witness personally.

But all of those stories pale in comparison to Te’o and the girl who would put him in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons.

A new advertising clerk was hired and she was off to a good start. She was a nice young woman who seemed to be catching on quickly.

But on her first Friday at the job, she had to call in sick because her young daughter “Whisper” had fallen ill. No one thought anything about it. Kids get sick.

Then the following Friday, she was sick again. This kid had poor health but good timing for a parent who likes three-day weekends.

The third weekend, the baby was bad enough that she had to go to a specialist. The next, she was hospitalized. And during a subsequent weekend, the baby died.

Everyone was saddened. This poor young single mother was facing the worst thing anyone could – the loss of her child.

The employees rallied to support her. People were gathering food and offering all types of assistance. But when they inquired about the funeral, the clerk said there wasn’t going to be a service. She was asked which funeral home had the body. She said they weren’t using a funeral home.

Of course, my newsroom immediately smelled a rat. We smelled the wrong rat, but news people tend to know when someone is yanking their chain.

We immediately began to wonder if she had something to do with the baby’s death. We were ready to mobilize the police to help find this poor baby who had been murdered.

But when the police got involved, they got to the bottom of it quickly. Police know when they are being duped as well and have even better leverage to get to the bottom of stories.

We found out that baby Whisper had never existed. In fact, the baby was actually a much older child of one of the clerk’s friends. The clerk had just used the baby photo from years before to help fill the holes in her plotline.

You see, she had been arrested for embezzlement when she got fired from her previous job. The clerk was trying to get a fresh start, but she had a handful of weekends to spend in prison as part of her rather lenient sentence.

If she could just excuse herself from a few Fridays at first, she could get back on track.

That’s when baby Whisper was born in her mind. After her sentence was served and she didn’t need the baby, she decided to end the story in a way to tie up all the loose ends and not have to explain when the baby’s birthday was or what she was buying it for Christmas. If the baby died, the story ended and she could get back to normal.

If not for the unexpected kindness of her new co-workers, it could have worked.

But she didn’t fill in all the blanks, and it cost her the new job too.

That imaginary child would have been about the same age as the imaginary girlfriend that Te’o celebrated posthumously all year.

I like to think it was the same imaginary person. You can’t prove it wasn’t.

I’m not sure that Te’o was involved in the ruse from the beginning. 

The scam doesn’t mean much to anyone beyond South Bend if his team doesn’t go undefeated and end up playing for a national title. There was no motivation at first. But I know he didn’t come clean after he knew the girlfriend he never met, never died because she was never real.

He did lie to his father about meeting her in Hawaii. He did continue the story after he knew it wasn’t true.

He was embarrassed. He’s old enough to know better, but young enough to make stupid decisions.

We’re all lucky our dumbest decisions didn’t play out as the highlight of a 24-hour news cycle for days.

But no matter what the truth turns out to be, we have all learned that imaginary friends aren’t good friends.

Kent Bush is publisher of the Augusta, Kan., Gazette.