Melissa Block | KUOW News and Information

Melissa Block

As special correspondent, Melissa Block produces richly reported profiles of figures at the forefront of thought and culture, as well as stories and series on the critical issues of our day. Her reporting spans both domestic and international news. In addition, she is a guest host on NPR news programs.

Great reporting combined with compelling storytelling is vital to NPR's future. No one exemplifies that blend better than Block. As listeners well know, she has an amazing ability for telling the important stories of our age in a way that engages both the heart and the mind. It is why she has earned such a devoted following throughout her 30-year career at NPR.

As co-host of All Things Considered from 2003 to 2015, Block's reporting took her everywhere from the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the heart of Rio de Janeiro; from rural Mozambique to the farthest reaches of Alaska. Her riveting reporting from Sichuan, China, during and after the massive earthquake there in 2008 helped earn NPR broadcast journalism's top honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, duPont-Columbia Award, Edward R. Murrow Award, National Headliner Award, and the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi Award.

Block began at NPR in 1985 as an editorial assistant for All Things Considered and rose to become senior producer. From 1994 to 2002, she was a New York reporter and correspondent. Her reporting after the attacks of September 11, 2001, helped earn NPR a Peabody Award.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A moment now to remember one of rock music's most-beloved musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN GIRL")

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) She was an American girl.

On a recent, perfect morning at Johnson Farms in northern Michigan, workers climb wooden ladders high up into the trees, picking bags strapped across their bodies. The branches are heavy with fruit that glows in the morning sun. Their fingers are a blur, nimbly plucking fruit and filling bushel bags: about 50 pounds per load. It's hard, sweaty work.

Apple season was just getting underway on Old Mission Peninsula, a finger of land poking into Lake Michigan, dotted with lush farms.

Right after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, electrician Rocky Breaux, 53, loaded up his airboat in Houma, La., and drove to help rescue people from the swiftly rising floodwaters.

And now that the waters have receded, the ad hoc "Cajun Navy" has gone airborne: Breaux is now helping out with what's being called the "Cajun Airlift." Breaux has his own small plane — a Piper Arrow. When he heard that evacuees at one of Houston's big shelters needed more supplies, he loaded his plane, tanked up, and flew west, with Andy Cook as his co-pilot. "We're locked and loaded," Breaux says.

Sixteen-year-old Murad Rahimov peered down into a gigantic space he had only dreamed about before: the world's largest clean room, kept scrupulously free of any dust or contamination, where NASA assembles and tests spacecraft before launch.

Murad's eyes gleamed and a smile played on his face as he took it all in — the scientists encased in sterile white suits; the replica of the massive new space telescope, the most powerful ever built, that will study the first galaxies born after the Big Bang.

There are only two ways to get to Meyers Chuck, Alaska: by boat or float plane.

If you go by plane, you might hitch a ride on a de Havilland Beaver, circa 1958 — one of the planes that brings the mail every week. It comes in low over specks of islands and the forested Alaska coast, and curves into the protected inlet of Meyers Chuck, splashing down at high tide.

On the day we visit, a handful of boats are tied up along a floating mooring. Small wooden cabins are nestled among the trees.

He brooded, as Lincoln.

He seduced in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And he murdered, in There Will Be Blood.

This week, Daniel Day-Lewis — a three-time Oscar winner, and incomparable film chameleon — announced he is retiring from acting at 60.

A statement released by his spokeswoman gave no explanation, saying this is a private decision, and that Day-Lewis will have no further comment.

The actor has often taken lengthy sabbaticals between films, but this time it's apparently permanent.

So what will he be doing?

It all started with vellum.

We were led to believe that Queen Elizabeth's speech opening a new session of the British parliament next week was being delayed because it had to be printed on vellum: a parchment made from the skin of a calf.

And, that ink on vellum takes quite a while to dry. Hence, the delay.

Fascinating! So British!

Well, it turns out, the Queen's speech used to be inked on vellum, but those days are long gone.

Now, it's printed on goatskin parchment. But don't be fooled: there is no actual goatskin in the Queen's goatskin.

Alaska is home to about 18,000 fishermen who harvest nearly 6 billion pounds of seafood each year. Salmon dominates the catch, five species in all: chum salmon, sockeye, king, coho and pink.

For a taste of Alaska fishing life, we head out with a father-daughter fishing team as they go trolling for king salmon in the waters off Sitka, in southeast Alaska.

Southeast Alaska is known as the Panhandle:

It's a long, narrow strip of mainland coastline, plus 1,000 islands and the braided waterways that surround them.

In most places, there are no roads connecting the communities there, so Alaskans depend heavily on ferries: the Alaska Marine Highway System.

If you fly into Haines, Alaska, you'll be on a prop plane so small that your pilot will call the roll.

"Melissa." Yup. "Mary." Yes. "Joseph?" Right here.

Just 2,500 people live in Haines — a small town in southeast Alaska surrounded by water. The scenery is incredible, with snowy mountains and lush green forest beyond. The city center is just a few blocks, with several bars, a few restaurants and a beautiful, award-winning library.

What happens to a town when a key industry collapses?

Sometimes it dies. But sometimes it finds a way to reinvent itself.

Case in point: Ketchikan, Alaska, where the demise of the timber industry has led to a radical transformation.

Many people who used to earn their livelihoods through timber have now turned to jobs in tourism.

It's an identity shift that makes the city far different from what it was in the logging heyday.

"It was this boomtown!" says longtime Ketchikan resident Eric Collins. "It was just a crazy, wild frontier place."

In rural Alaska, providing health care means overcoming a lot of hurdles.

Fickle weather that can leave patients stranded, for one.

Also: complicated geography. Many Alaskan villages have no roads connecting them with hospitals or specialists, so people depend on local clinics and a cadre of devoted primary care doctors.

I followed one young family physician, Dr. Adam McMahan, on his regular weekly visit to the clinic in the village of Klukwan.

Before we headed out on our latest road trip for the Our Land series, we put a call out on social media, asking for ideas of places we should go in Arizona and New Mexico. Shannon Miller's suggestion really caught our attention: "White Sands are the only white gypsum 'sand' dunes in the world. They are actually crystals and it is beautiful."

How could we resist?

There's really no place like it on the planet: White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico. It's the world's largest gypsum dunefield, miles and miles of stunning white landscape.

Depending on where you sit, the U.S.-Mexico border is:

a) a dangerous frontier that allows drug traffickers and illegal immigrants to cross freely into the U.S.

or

b) a familiar frontier that is navigated as a regular part of everyday life.

For people who live along the border in the twinned cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, it's nearly always the latter.

The sister cities are known collectively as Ambos Nogales, or "Both Nogales."

Think about the avocados you mash for your Super Bowl guacamole, or the fresh tomatoes you enjoy in the winter. There's a good chance they came from Mexico.

Our southern neighbor is the United States' leading supplier of fresh produce, providing 70 percent of the fresh vegetables we import and more than 40 percent of our fresh fruit imports. That trade has boomed since NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement — was signed in 1994.

Think of the Mississippi Delta. Maybe you imagine cotton fields, sharecroppers and blues music.

It's been all that. But for more than a century, the Delta has also been a magnet for immigrants. I was intrigued to learn about one immigrant group in particular: the Delta Chinese.

To find out more, I travelled to Greenville, Miss., a small city along the Mississippi River. I meet Raymond Wong in Greenville's Chinese cemetery, right across a quiet road from an African-American cemetery. Wong's family has long been part of a thriving — but separate — Chinese community.

We hear a lot about U.S. companies laying off workers and shipping jobs overseas.

So, amid the global pressures to downsize, how do you hang onto your workforce?

We went looking for answers in Chelsea, Mich., home to a family owned manufacturer that's managed to thrive over four generations, since the company's founding in 1907.

The Chelsea Milling Co. is better known as the manufacturer of Jiffy baking mixes. You know the ones. They come in those signature little blue and white boxes: mixes for muffins, cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, brownies and more.

If you're in Clarksdale, Miss., home of the Delta blues, everybody says you have to go to Red's juke joint. The hole-in-the-wall club is the real deal. It's just a small room, a few tables and a fridge full of beer. Red lights are strung around a low ceiling. On the night we visit, octogenarian Leo "Bud" Welch plays in the center of the room, hunched over a sparkly, hot pink, electric guitar. Red Paden, the owner, sits out front, surveying from behind the bar.

You want to find pigs? Go to Iowa.

It's the largest pork producer in the country. The ratio of pigs to people in Iowa is about 7 to 1.

I've had a hankering to spend some time on a farm for my series "Our Land." Over the next few months, I'll be out on a road trip, visiting communities large and small, and talking with people about what's important in their lives.

So with farming in mind, off to Iowa we went — to Buchanan County in northeastern Iowa.

What becomes of a town when its heyday has passed? What convinces young people to stay when good jobs vanish?

Those are questions many towns across America have been trying to answer for years.

And they were on my mind when I headed to Independence, Kan., with a dwindling population that's now below 9,000. It's in the southeastern corner of the state, not far from the Oklahoma border.

Independence has much to boast about.

Bangladesh. Myanmar. Benin. Somalia. Haiti. Ireland. South Sudan. Iraq.

One by one, 59 immigrants from 29 countries rise before a federal judge in a Kansas City, Mo., courtroom and proudly state their country of origin.

Some have brought their young children, who watch from the audience. All look eager and intent. This is a big moment: They are about to become U.S. citizens.

In 2017, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are expected to be naturalized as U.S. citizens in ceremonies around the country, much like this one.

A week away from turning 99 years old, Frances Kolarek has a long view of life and presidential elections.

Born in 1917, three years before women won the right to vote, she cast her first presidential vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now, in 2016, she has cast her vote early for Hillary Clinton.

"I think she is undoubtedly the most qualified candidate for the presidency that we have seen in my lifetime," she says from her home at the retirement community where she lives, independently, outside Washington, D.C.

Imagine: the chance to live on an uninhabited tropical island for a month, off the grid, creating art.

No phone, no television, no Internet.

Instead, spectacular night skies, crystalline turquoise waters and extraordinary marine life on the coral reef just a short swim from your back door.

You might assume that with the thawing of relations between Cuba and the U.S., Cubans would see positive change at home, and less reason to attempt the perilous water crossing to Florida. You'd assume wrong.

U.S. law enforcement authorities are confronting a surge of Cuban migrants trying to make the journey by boat across the Florida Straits; it's the highest numbers they've seen in two decades.

The Rio Olympics are in the rear-view mirror. Thousands of athletes have returned home to resume their lives. But for many, this post-Olympic period can be a rough one, with depression and anxiety haunting them after the games.

That depression can affect both stars and lesser-known athletes alike.

Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has talked candidly about his downward spiral after the 2012 London games that led to a DUI arrest and time in rehab.

One of the last medals awarded at the Rio Olympics went to a 21-year-old middleweight boxer from Flint, Mich.: Claressa Shields.

It was gold. With that Sunday victory, Shields became the first U.S. boxer ever to win back-to-back gold medals.

On the podium, after the medal was slipped around her neck, she reached into her pocket, pulled out her gold medal from the 2012 London Games and draped that one over her head, too.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

The U.S. women's water polo team will be back in the pool on Friday, hungry for a second consecutive Olympic gold medal.

The women made it to the gold medal match after a decisive victory Wednesday against Hungary in the semifinals.

I watched that game with the mother of not one, but two players on Team USA.

Leslie Fischer of Laguna Beach, Calif., was sitting poolside, watching anxiously as the Hungarian players beat up on the U.S. team, including her daughters: Makenzie, 19, and Aria, 17, who's still in high school and the youngest player on the U.S. roster.

One story that's simmering at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has to do with sex: in particular, the controversy over intersex athletes, who are anatomically and genetically ambiguous.

At issue: Is it fair to allow those athletes, who often have high levels of testosterone, to compete with women?

Much of the attention has focused on South African runner Caster Semenya, the favorite to win gold in the women's 800 meters on Saturday. Semenya has been identified as intersex in many media reports, though she has never confirmed that or spoken about it.

At the Rio Olympics, there are the usual powerhouses:

Team USA, with 554 athletes. Australia, with 420. China, with 401.

And then there are the tiny countries: overwhelmed, but proud.

I went on a quest to find the tiniest of the tiny countries at the Summer Games. And I happened to find the delegation at the Olympic athletes' village, speaking a mashup of English and Nauruan.

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