On the other side of the headline

“You work at the News Journal? There’s this guy you work with…”

From 2005 to 2010, I had countless conversations that began like that. They all ended with “Sean Dugas.”

I was an editor during Sean’s time at the paper. I watched him move from newsroom clerk to general assignment and cops reporter to the role that I think suited him best -- one of the PNJ’s earliest and best news video personalities.

With the video camera he went everywhere -- Black Friday shopping, Blue Angels air shows, breaking news scenes, and anywhere else we asked him to go.

He would do whatever was asked of him -- weekends, nights, trolling the crowd at a big event to find video vignettes to populate the website. He believed everyone had a story to tell -- and everyone was worth listening to.

People interested in the preservation of historic St. John’s Cemetery. Motorcycle riders advocating for stricter penalties against auto drivers who seriously injure or kill bikers. Festivalgoers. Christmas bargain hunters. People slinging crawfish at the Seafood Festival.

I think he enjoyed with a sense of mischief the way his own appearance -- the dreads, the beard, the thrift-store inspired fashion choices -- made people categorize him. Because he so seemed to enjoy confounding those expectations.

He knew exactly who he was and he was entirely comfortable in his own skin.

Sean was my desk neighbor when I was pregnant with my second daughter. He had a thousand questions about pregnancy.

“You’re making a person,” he’d say after I’d tell him about feeling the baby move or how lying down on my right side helped ease pregnancy-related nausea because your stomach empties from left to right.

He thought it was the coolest thing in the world.

He told me once that he never wanted to spend more than $500 on a car. And it showed when he would call into the newsroom broken down on the side of the road in whatever his ride at the time was.

He was indeed a free spirit. He also believed life was too short to drink cheap beer. He wanted to do a good job. He tried to see the good in other people, and most of the time, he seemed to find it.

Did that lead him to awful circumstances of his death, trusting people he shouldn’t have? Maybe, but I hope not. I wouldn’t want to believe the price of giving people the benefit of the doubt can run that high.

The twin brothers convicted of his murder will not receive the death penalty. One will have 15 years -- the other his natural life -- to contemplate their actions. Actions I hope one day they both will fully own up to, beyond the lame “my-brother-did-it” game to escape the consequences.

Sean deserves to be remembered for the way he lived rather than for the way he died -- murdered for a gaming card collection.

What I remember about Sean is his ability to speak to anyone -- from harried Black Friday shopper to BP exec to cop to coordinator of a soup kitchen -- and that most of the time, those people would answer his questions.

One of the people who eulogized Sean at his service spoke for a moment directly to his journalistic colleagues in the audience. He said, now you know how it feels to be on the other side of that headline, to know the person behind the incident report.

Remember that when the news cycle sends you out into another family’s pain.

Treat that person’s friends and loved ones accordingly. Because now you’ve been on their side of the headline.

It’s a place none of us want to be.