In the spring of 2007, I was named an Inquirer metro columnist.
As flattered as I was to land such a premier reporting position, I honestly wasn't sure I was up to the task. Writing about life in the big city felt too heavy and daunting, especially for a former sports and features writer who had spent the bulk of her career in the toy department.
I realize now that the chance to champion ordinary folks and write about the issues affecting all of us was the most extraordinary opportunity I would ever have.
Using this precious piece of real estate to weigh in on those topics - and to interact with you every Tuesday and Friday - was a privilege I never, ever took lightly.
Now, after almost seven years of informing, opining, commiserating, and challenging, I am leaving the paper. Today, Friday, is my last day at The Inquirer.
The industry is changing, and I'd like to try something different before I get too old.
Leaving, though, is truly bittersweet, because I love my colleagues still in the trenches as much as I love this craft. Anybody who has ever been in this business knows that journalism is not what we do, it's who we are.
I heard you
The column gave me the chance to speak to you - and, boy, did you talk back.
I could always count on Millie for an audible high-five when she agreed and a gentle chastisement when she didn't. Ron Coates, "your reader out here in Chadds Ford," weighed in with thoughtful responses that would often take up more time than my voice mail allowed. And Joe from Fishtown? Well, Joe, we can agree to disagree.
Despite your many different viewpoints, you still took time to read about the folks whose stories seldom got told, and my take on issues important to me: education, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, politics, gun violence.
I'm guessing that fully a third of my commentaries focused on the city's homicides - and the young African American men who were the victims as well as the perpetrators. In November 2007, with a homicide rate at 336 and counting, I wept while writing a column about my love for black men:
"I am a black woman who was raised by a black man, married a black man, and gave birth to a black son. Which is why it breaks my heart to even think this, let alone write it: I'm starting to profile black men."
That admission generated hundreds of e-mails and phone calls, and landed me on a couple of national news programs. I made sure to note that my fear of black men wasn't so much of them as for them.
I lived off a $35 weekly food budget so I could give you a firsthand account of what a typical food-stamp recipient goes through. I profiled Doris Swarn, the dedicated young lifeguard at Hartranft pool in North Philly, one of many unsung heroes who make a difference in disadvantaged neighborhoods. I got on Phillies fans for breaking out in a celebratory chant when news broke of Osama bin Laden's killing, because I can't celebrate death under any circumstance.
This year, I vowed to use this space to launch a full-scale assault on gun violence. Judging from your feedback, you'll take the momentum and run with it - all the way to your state legislators.
One of the highlights of my career was the opportunity to chronicle history - including the election (and reelection) of President Obama.
In 2010, I was one of 20 African American columnists invited to the White House for a group interview with the commander-in-chief. One of the first questions we asked was how it felt to be the nation's first black president.
After wryly admitting that crisis after crisis hadn't allowed him to focus on his legacy, Obama replied: "When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, he was thinking about winning games. And then, after he retired, he could look back and say, 'Well, that was something.' "
I'm not retiring - at least not yet. And Lord knows I'm not trying to compare myself to Jackie Robinson or President Obama.
But after a 32-year newspaper career that has taken me more places than I could ever have imagined and given me more joy - and wisdom - than I ever thought possible, I can look back with gratitude and say, 'Wow. That was really something.' "
And you were really something, too.
For the next week, contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.