• After 30 years as a journalist, I’m hanging up my press pass – sort of. You may have known me during my 24 years at the Northwest Florida Daily News. Or, more recently at Crestview News Bulletin and two weekly papers in Santa Rosa County.

    I had titles – education reporter, features writer, managing editor, editor and weekly columnist at all of those papers.

    I recently decided that I love to write as much as ever. But it’s time to write for me and for any of you who care to read me, of course.

    My plan is to write my weekly column – much like the one that was in the other papers and which some of you have told me you’ve been missing as I’ve jumped around a bit this past year or so.

    And I’ll write what I’m calling Okaloosa Stories – the stories that I have always loved to tell, that feature people in the county, beautiful places and quirky little tales that say more about what it’s like to live here than all of the front-page stories I’ve written in my years as a journalist.

    My coworkers and, I’ve since heard, some in the community called these the Wendy Stories. They were stories that none of the other reporters were fighting me to do, stories that some journalists scorned. But many were stories that readers loved.

    And it was my greatest joy to tell them.

    I’ve lost track of her over the years and the stories, and I don’t know if she’s still with us. But years ago, a woman came into the newspaper where I was working with a heart-shaped potato that she said was the last one in a bag she’d bought with her husband before he died.

    She was hoping to preserve it, but time isn’t kind to potatoes. She wanted a photo of it, so I obliged and shared her story. It was a story that went around the world.

    I’m not telling stories now with the hopes that they go around the world. I’ve been there, done that and what really mattered about those stories is that I got to tell them. That my life intersected with someone else’s and I got to write about what – in my opinion – really matters.

    We live for as long as we can. We breathe. Sometimes we are grateful for that simple act. We feel the sunshine on our face, the wind on our bare arms.

    We love our people and our pets.

    We bring our own touch to everything we do, marking it in the smallest of ways that ripple through the world around us.

    If you have a story to share with me, please reach out. I’m going to focus on Okaloosa County, the place I’ve called home since 1996 and the place I have written about for all but one of those years.

    My email is wendyvrudman@gmail.com or you can message me on Facebook at Okaloosa Stories.

  • Mid-morning, Chris Robbins parks his car at a small neighborhood park in Fort Walton Beach and gets out with a bulging bag of shelled peanuts in his hand.

    The animals know him, Robbins said. They even know his car.

    Unnoticed by the other park users, squirrels start to mobilize, scuffling through the pine stray and dried leaves on their way to particular trees. A blue jay swoops in, loudly announcing Robbins’ presence, and settles in a tree nearby.

    As often as weather permits, the Fort Walton Beach man is at this park, making his way around the quarter-mile track dropping peanuts in crooks of trees and on the park benches.

    He’s not sure exactly why he started bringing peanuts on his morning walk, but it’s kept him coming back.

    “When you know that there are all the little squirrels waiting for peanuts, it makes it harder just to say, ‘I’m not going to walk today,’” he said. “It’s motivation.”

    And, he adds, he feels like the squirrels are happy to see him.

    “I’m sure they are,” he said. “Because they’re going to get fed.”

    Each squirrel has its own personality, and he has come to recognize them, to know which tree they’ll follow him to.

    It started with him carrying a handful of peanuts and has progressed to a regular order on Amazon for two 5-pound bags of unsalted peanuts each month. The first thing a squirrel does is lick the shells to mark them, he said.

    Robbins also briefly runs the spigot in the park to create a puddle on the sidewalk. Squirrels get thirsty and, depending on the time of year, may have trouble finding moist food like berries.

    At the park, Robbins is popular, counting as many as 19 squirrels following him as he makes his way.

    “At certain times of day, it’s almost like a little prayer circle,” he said. “They’ll get in a circle early in the morning and it’s like they’re planning their day and then they’ll scatter through the park to look for peanuts.”

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