Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jeff Zaslow's Lasting Legacy

The late Jeffrey Zaslow, an amazing man and journalist


When February rolls around in New Orleans, the fever pitch of Mardi Gras parades and balls hastens and in typical fashion this year, the days leading up to the big celebrations prevented me from hearing the tragic news that Wall Street Journal columnist and author Jeffrey Zaslow had been killed in a car crash on a snowy Michigan highway on February 10. Zaslow, who had appeared in New Orleans to promote his book "The Girls of Ames" on November 18, 2010, was scheduled to reappear this year as part of the Jewish Community Center's "People of the Book" series of events to pitch his latest and, unfortunately now, his last tome "The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters." Some of us know of the incredible and intriguing story of Zaslow, an award-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who heard about a story that called out to him. A dynamic professor at Carnegie-Mellon University was going to be delivering to his students what had been termed as his "last lecture." Randy Pausch had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had been given only a matter of months to live by his doctors. Zaslow was in Detroit when he improbably heard about the lecture. The drive to Pittsburgh would take five hours and another five to get back. Lesser reporters might have opted for a phone interview or an exchange of e-mails. He elected to drive there and see for himself what this dying man might have to say to his students. The lecture so interested and energized him that he and Pausch became fast friends and Zaslow's writing about the lecture in the Wall Street Journal tugged on the heartstrings of the nation at large. Pausch insisted that Zaslow help him write his story in the short time he had left. Pausch became a viral video star on the Internet and a genuine celebrity, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and other TV news programs. With a very short time to prepare a book, Zaslow worked on a draft for "The Last Lecture" and after it was quickly edited and released, sales of the book climbed into the millions worldwide. The book established Pausch as a noted figure and Zaslow as a very capable writer and made them both wealthy. It wasn't long after that episode of his life ended with Pausch's passing that Zaslow seized on the story of the "Miracle on the Hudson." He focused on Chester "Sully" Sullenberg, the reclusive U.S. Airways pilot who had saved every single passenger on Flight 1549 when it ditched into the Hudson River in January of 2009. Again, with public demand for a book at high pitch, Zaslow set to work to get Sullenberg's story in print at great haste, but with great taste. The result was "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters." Zaslow's easy manner and cheerful disposition made his ability to connect with others like an uncertain airline pilot something of a fete accompli. I saw this myself when he spoke at the New Orleans JCC about the ten ladies in his book "The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship," all lifelong friends. It was as if he channeled each one of the various personalities, regaling audience members with details of their lives with immaculate recall. But that was what made meeting him so special. He had an amazing gift of empathy. He could look into your eyes and glean more of your soul than you thought possible. This gift proved especially important when he took on the happy task of writing about Gabrielle Giffords, the U.S. Representative who was the target of a deranged gunman. That attack, which left several others dead, left her partially blind and unable to speak for a time. Yet, it was Zaslow, along with her astronaut husband Mark Kelly, who captured for America her indomitable spirit in "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope." In just a matter of five short years Zaslow had established for himself a journalistic career as a prolific writer, who not only got the story right, but got it out fast. I remember what an impression he made on me when I showed him a picture of my dad I kept as the wallpaper on my phone that night in November. Knowing his close work with Pausch and the effect of pancreatic cancer on everyone who ever had had the displeasure of dealing with it, I told him this is "my dad who died of pancreatic cancer almost 16 years ago." Right away he honed in on what I was saying. He understood what those words meant and more. The two of us exchanged contact information. I was more than pleased when a few days later he accepted my request to be a Facebook friend. In his last book, “The Magic Room," Zaslow recounts in the forward of the importance of family. He speaks about his three girls and the importance of being there for them through their formative years and the hope he would be there for them as they grew older. By all indications he was a great father and reveled in being there to give each of them positive reinforcement and support. He mentions how the words "Remember, I love you" were endearingly spoken by an Illinois judge to his daughter as she went out the door one night never to return, the victim of an automobile accident. The judge took solace that the last words he said to her left no doubt about his feelings for her. It is sad that Zaslow was, likewise, a victim of a similar scene of carnage on the highway. There is little doubt that he shared his love for his daughters with his wife Sherry, a Detroit TV anchor and that she will have a difficult time dealing with his sudden, unexpected departure. But that is the happenstance of life and the unpredictability of nature. There should be great comfort in knowing that he knew of their love for him and that they deeply felt his. Since hearing of the grave news of his passing, I began to ponder just where Zaslow's remarkable capacity to connect with others came from and I remembered how, early in his career, Zaslow had won a contest at the Chicago Sun-Times to replace Ann Landers as the advice columnist there. He had already displayed his capacity to empathize with others and write about his feelings in a way that readers could appreciate and he was only 25 years old. What a remarkable man and what a remarkable career! While there are other writers who will bemoan the loss of their longtime friend and colleague like Bob Greene, I only had the luxury of knowing him for a few minutes. But those minutes were well spent and I am truly glad I had the opportunity to get to know him, however briefly, and to share my world with him. He set the bar as few other journalists have done before or probably will in the future. Jeff Zaslow was only 53 at the time of his death. With Pausch gone and Giffords still recovering, it was the courageous airline pilot “Sully" Sullenberger who gave the moving eulogy at the funeral service at Congregation Sharey Zadek in Southfield, Michigan on February 12. He described how Zaslow went after his own story and how he came to like him within the first 30 seconds they had met. They worked together over the phone and in person for six days a week and over a period of several months before the book was finished. He described their experience as a long-distance relationship, but one that worked. Sullenberger was charmed by Zaslow's quest for life and his appreciation for how fleeting the nature of life is. "Many of you think you know who I am," he said to the crowd. "Let me tell you who I am and why I am here. I am a friend of Jeff." For me, too, that pretty much says it all.

No comments: