Hello, I’m here on behalf of Jeff’s many friends at the Wall Street Journal.
I met Jeff on my first day with the Journal in the Chicago bureau in 1983. Jeff had started the previous week. I asked him: “So, what’s your beat?”
Jeff paused for a moment and then said in a serious tone: “Financial Futures.” Then he burst out laughing in that engaging and knowing laugh he had. He kept on laughing and soon I was kind of laughing too, and wondering: Why am I laughing? I have no idea what Financial Futures are.
But that was the point: Neither did Jeff.
In a colossal mismatch, the well-intentioned forces of the universe had taken our budding Michelangelo and, for the moment, assigned him to the equivalent of the paint department of an auto repair shop — in this instance to enlighten readers about forward currency contracts on the pound sterling and Malaysian ringgit. It was my first introduction to Jeff’s keen appreciation of life’s quirkiness, and the first round of what would be 29 years of laughing with my friend.
It didn’t take long for Jeff to escape the finance beat and start writing beautiful page-one stories about overnight workers in office buildings and the isolated lives of Norwegian bachelor farmers. It would be a continuous trajectory upward from there: as a page-one writer for the Journal, a Sun-Times advice columnist, back to the Journal as an award-winning columnist writing about life’s transitions, and as an author of best-selling books. Jeff found the sweet spot with readers — melding humor, empathy, and wisdom into some of the very best journalism not just at the Wall Street Journal, but of our generation.
Sometimes it was with disarming humor, often delivered at his own expense:
Jessilynn Norcross, the co-owner of the bookstore in Petoskey where Jeff spoke last Thursday, told us that he opened his remarks to the crowd this way: “He said he was surprised to see so many men in the audience. He said there must not be much to do on a Thursday night in Petoskey.”
Other times, his stories carried such a depth of emotion – for example, his piece on parents who lost a child or his story (and then book) on a professor giving his last lecture before dying of cancer – that his editors would be in tears and his readers would respond with hundreds of letters.
When Jeff wrote a column about why some people have difficulty saying “I love you,” Carolyn Kennedy of Macon, Georgia sent him a note. “I made copies of your article,” she said, “and sent one to each of my three granddaughters and their husbands, my five grandchildren and one great grandchild along with their Valentine’s Day cards.”
“This was a big, bright thread in his work and in his life,” says Joe White, who worked with Jeff in the Journal’s Detroit bureau. “Tell the people you love that you love them. Do it a lot. And do it now. Because you never know.”
Jeff wrote and spoke about what we all have in common: love, hope, humor, disappointment, uncertainty, friendship, mortality.
My colleague Mike Miller, and Jeff’s editor, put it this way: “I think the theme of his life’s work was exploring the common ground between comedy and tragedy. His laugh-out-loud features were often tinged with sadness – even the goofy ones, like the story about losing your car in the Disneyworld parking lot which at the end of the day was about the tragedy of irretrievable memory. At the same time, his books about death and loss were tinged with humor. It gave both types of story the richness of great literature: Instead of one-dimensional clichés, he saw that life was full of paradox and complexity, a journey towards death, and a hilarious one.”
Sue Shellenbarger, Jeff’s bureau chief in Chicago, recalled that his themes shifted after he was married and his daughters were born. His “lens” became that of a husband and father. “When he conceived both ‘The Girls from Ames’ and ‘The Magic Room,” Sue writes, “each idea was shaped in part by his effort to peer ahead into what the future held for his girls. Nothing mattered more to him.”
Jeff proudly regaled all of us with stories about Sherry, Jordon, Alex and Eden. Eben Shapiro, another of Jeff’s editors, sent me this note: “We have a daughter the same age. I was rereading the last emails I had from Jeff and each one, without fail, included a proud update on what each of his daughters was doing. There always were more details about his daughters than his latest book deal.”
Jeff knew everyone had a story to tell and so he was in a permanent state of engagement. If you stepped out for lunch with Jeff, you saw it up close: He struck up conversations with the waiter, the next guy in line, the short-order cook making the hamburger – trading jokes and tuning in to other people’s lives.
Jeff was the guy who did magic tricks in the office, who coached a legion of young reporters on their first stories, and who not only wrote about loss but helped people in the newsroom through it. Like his fellow reporter Jonathan Dahl: “He kept calling and checking in with me after my brother died,” Jonathan recalls. “Jeff had that way of deadpanning jokes to help you get through the grieving. Then he’d say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ I know he helped thousands get over grieving with his column, but in real life it was even more special.”
To see the extraordinary variety of people Jeff touched with his writing, you need only spend a few minutes reading the moving responses to his death on twitter or Facebook or in the reader comments of coverage in the Journal and papers across the country. He had the courage to explore the most complex of things — human emotion —and the insight and humor to say something important about it. Jeff seemed to hug the world during his life and career. And the world, quite clearly, hugged him back.
As for those of us at the Journal, Jeff gave me and my colleagues the enormous gift of his friendship and his love. And we’re all very, very grateful.