Jim Sheeler was not a big man. His spindly frame, topped by wire glasses that always seemed slightly askew, looked like it could have been swept away by winds howling off the Flatirons towering over his beloved Boulder.
But Jim’s appearance was deceiving. He had his own hidden superpowers.
Jim died at the age of 53 last week in Ohio, where he was a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University. It was in Colorado where he made his mark as both a reporter and a writer, first at Colorado State University, then at the Boulder Daily Camera and the Boulder Planet.
I was lucky enough to work with him at the Rocky Mountain News, where in 2005 we published “Final Salute,” the single most powerful story I worked on in my career as an editor. He and photographer Todd Heisler both won Pulitzer Prizes for their story of Major Steve Beck and how he helped the families of Marines who lost their lives in Iraq cope with the cost of war.
Today I don’t want to spend time talking about him as a man. Those who knew him know his extraordinary decency, humility and kindness. Suffice it to say, he was one of those rare people it’s easy to describe as a wonderful human being.
It’s how he approached his work, and his superpowers as a journalist, that I want to share.
Jim’s first superpower, as a reporter, was that he was able to slow down time. He could press against the hands of the clock and create the genuine feeling among the people he wrote about that they were all that mattered, that time was not an issue.
Too often, people feel like journalists are only talking with them to get something from them and once they have it, they’re gone.
That was not the case with Jim. When Jim wrote an obituary, he never wanted to do his interviews solely over the phone. He always visited with the family. He sat in their homes, shared their tears, and he listened. Jim once told me that to truly understand the life of a young person, he wanted to be allowed to enter their bedroom and see the world they had created for themselves.
Jim was quiet, an observer, a listener. Among the many intimate scenes in Final Salute, one stands out as an example of the trust he was able to build.
On the last night before the funeral and burial of Lt. Jim Cathey, his widow wanted a few minutes alone with her husband. Jim was still in the room when she asked Major Beck for the ultrasound of the baby she was carrying. Jim wrote:
She stood cradling the ultrasound, then moved forward and placed it on the pillow at the head of the casket. She stood there, watching for several minutes, then removed it.
“She walked the length of the casket, then stepped back, still holding the only image of James J. Cathey Jr.
“She leaned in and placed it over her husband’s heart.”
So much meaning in so few words.
The second superpower Jim possessed was the strength to carry the heavy burden of this kind of reporting. His wasn’t work he could slough off at the end of the day.
His approach meant he was carrying a heavy load that could make arriving at the end of his mission – the story – and even living with it afterward an ordeal. He had personal expectations that made it unbelievably difficult to live up to what he felt was his responsibility to the people who had let him into their lives. Once he was in, in a sense he never left.
There was a cost to that, a price he paid.
Jim’s third superpower was the ability to be lost in his reporting without feeling that he had to be found, that he had to be on safe ground. Jim didn’t grasp for easy answers or resort to tried and true formulas. Each time he met someone new as a journalist he encountered the person with a disarming openness. He would wait for the story to emerge, uncertain, uneasy, but never forcing it or giving the people he wrote about the feeling that they owed him anything or had to do anything for him.
I saw Colorado lose Gene Amole, the longtime columnist for the Rocky and the voice of Denver.
I saw Colorado lose Greg Lopez, a Rocky columnist who always found his own quirky way to answer his favorite question, “What’s going on?”
Jim was a giant in his own right. Not just in journalism. But as a man.
He taught journalists what we should aspire to, and he taught readers what they should expect from the people who tell the stories of their lives and communities.
I am grateful that I was one of his students — and friend.
John Temple is the former editor, president and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News.
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