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Littwin: How do you write an obit for Jim Sheeler, the brilliant writer who made the death beat his own?

Sheeler was a Pulitzer winner at the Rocky, a National Book Award finalist, a close friend, a deeply good person and the only great writer I’ve ever known who never had to fake humility

Writing an obituary for Jim Sheeler is like writing a primer on how to paint for Picasso or how to dunk for Shaquille O’Neal.

It feels, well, more than a little presumptuous. It also feels, in this case, like writing through a haze as I mourn a close friend. The calls came one after the other on Tuesday to whisper the shocking news, the brain-numbing news, the heartbreaking news, because Sheeler’s friends, and he had so many, needed to share their grief. It was only in talking it through that we possibly come to believe that the unfathomable must somehow be true. 

He was not simply, at age 53, too young to die. He had a life force that was so strong that it just doesn’t seem possible it could ever be extinguished.

Mike Littwin

Sheeler wrote the book on obits. Literally. It’s called, fittingly, Obit, a collection of obits he wrote for the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post and the Boulder Planet. If you know nothing of Sheeler, read the book. If you think you know everything about Sheeler, reread the book. It will move you and, though a book about death, which is really a book about life, often delight you. Read the obit on Della K. Evans, “The Woman Who Outlived Her Tombstone” and you’ll understand.

He didn’t write only obits, of course. But let’s just say you could die easier if you knew that Sheeler would be the one to tell your final story.  Back before he was a Pulitzer-winning reporter, before he was a National Book Award finalist, before he was an award-winning professor at Case Western Reserve University, before anyone had ever heard of him, he decided to tell what he would call the “inspiring stories of ordinary people who led extraordinary lives” as an obit writer — the death beat, Sheeler wrote, that is “supposed to be the worst job in the newsroom.”

The point of the book is that everyone’s life is extraordinary if we care enough to learn their stories, if we listen well enough to learn the details, if we are sufficiently compassionate to earn the trust of those we talk to. Sheeler had all those attributes and more. He could also craft a beautiful sentence, a beautiful paragraph, a beautiful page, each with a telling detail that perfectly captured the moment. He was a writer’s writer with that rare thing, a beating heart. 

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The great writer Janet Malcolm once wrote a devastating line about journalists, a gut punch to those of us who hope we do the job honorably. “’Every journalist,” she wrote, “who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

There is some truth — although I hope not the complete truth — in what she wrote. But what I can say for sure is that she didn’t know Jim Sheeler.

Sheeler was not a con man. He never betrayed anyone. All great writers, all the ones I know anyway, have a, uh, healthy ego. Sheeler had humility instead. Not fake humility. The real thing. I’m sure he felt honored by all the awards he won. I’m even more sure, though, that he never believed any of those awards defined him. He wanted you to remember the people he wrote about, not the author.

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I’ll tell you a story. When Sheeler was writing the story for the Rocky, Final Salute, that would win him a Pulitzer, he was struggling. The story would be 12,000 words about the death, and life, of Marines who had died in Iraq, and of Major Steve Beck, who led the team that knocked on the doors to bring news of tragedy to the families left behind. Jim’s editor and mine at the Rocky, Jim Trotter, asked me to take a look to see if I had any ideas.

Jim Sheeler accepting the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his Rocky Mountain News series “Final Salute.” (via pulitzer.org)

I knew much of the story because Jim and I and Todd Heisler, who made the photos for the story that also won a Pulitzer, had often discussed it. And when I was reading it, I realized that Major Beck had to be the focus of the story, the person whose story led us to all the other stories. And when I talked to Jim about it, he told me that Beck had only agreed to let Sheeler accompany him on this journey if Beck were not the central figure.

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This looked to be non-negotiable. Jim did not betray. He did not con. But I asked him if he could go back to talk to Beck, to explain what the story needed and how — I was certain— he would trust Jim to do it right. And, of course, he did.

He did because he had come to know the person who was Jim Sheeler. He knew the details. He knew the beer Jim loved, and the rock bands he loved, how his son James was his best friend, and, most important, the person he was. That was the person, as Heisler noted in Kieran Nicholson’s beautiful Denver Post obit, who would get on the floor to play with the children of the lost Marines as he spoke to the often-inconsolable widow who would invariably trust Jim to get the story right. He stayed. He listened. And he heard. I would meet some of the people he wrote about. He did always get it right.

Jim Tankersley, who also worked at the Rocky with Sheeler, offered up this story. Tankersley, who now writes for the New York Times, was assigned to accompany Joe Biden to Dover Air Force Base to meet the bodies of the 13 service members killed in Afghanistan, the last Americans to die in a 20-year war.

The first thing he did was to contact Sheeler and ask him how it was possible to do justice both to the men and women who had died and also to the moment. Sheeler was quick to offer advice. And when Tankersley filed his story, he also sent a copy to Sheeler because, he said, it was Sheeler’s opinion he most cared about.

As Tankersley noted: “He gave me ‘double Orwell points’ for the use of color in the story, a throwback to our old writing group at the Rocky (which … was like being in a neighborhood jam session with Charlie Parker). And then he wrote a perfectly Jim line, which I can’t get out of my head.”

The line from Sheeler:

“I hate that you had to be there — that any of us did — but glad you were there.”

That was perfect Jim Sheeler, who, in a more perfect world, would have had so much more to say. If you knew him, you already miss him. And if you only knew him by reading him, you miss him, too.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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