Tankersley typically covers economic policy for The Times and has primarily covered politics and economics in Washington. This was a daunting descriptive and emotional assignment, one he wasn’t entirely sure he could handle. So he grabbed his phone texted Jim Sheeler.
Tankersley and Sheeler worked together at the Rocky Mountain News in the early 2000s. They didn’t overlap in the newsroom for long: Tankersley took his reporting career to Vox, the Chicago Tribune and the Toledo Blade before landing at The Times. Sheeler stayed at the Rocky, where his project on following the homecoming of those killed in battle won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The Rocky closed in 2009; not long before, Sheeler had moved into academia, teaching at the University of Colorado before becoming the Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
But the two stayed in touch, through emails, text messages and phone.
When Tankersley texted Sheeler and told him about the Dover assignment, Sheeler responded immediately.
“Call me,” Sheeler texted.
They didn’t talk for long, but Tankersley said his friend immediately understood the anxiety of writing a story that needed to respect the fallen service members, but also their survivors, the larger military, and the nation. Sheeler sketched out everything that would happen in the field. By the end of the short call, Tankersley felt calmer.
The next day, he was at the White House by 5 a.m. and then on Air Force One, flying to Dover.
“I spent a lot of that time thinking about how Jim had watched so many of these,” he said. “So many families seeing the return of their fallen heroes. It’s draining.”
After the ceremony, Tankersley found himself back on Air Force One scrambling to file a worthy piece on deadline. He had excellent editors at the Times and valued what they said about his first draft. But for this story, he cared most about what Sheeler thought. He sent it to him and got another quick response.
“The writing is simple and wrenching,” Sheeler wrote to Tankersley. “I hate that you had to be there, that any of us did. But glad you were there. Sheeler.”
“He mostly gave me validation that it’s how he would have handled it,” Tankersley said. “In the midst of all that chaos, to know that Jim was there with me, helping me with this piece, even though I hadn’t seen him in more than a decade — that is exactly the presence he was in my life and in other people’s lives.”
From workshop to friendship
I met Jim Sheeler in July 2007 at a week-long seminar on narrative at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. I was a reporter at the Columbus Dispatch at the time. The session was run by Thomas French, and we spent the week talking about how to report and tell compelling stories on deadline. I was hooked by Jim’s presentation on narrative obituaries more than anything, and when I got back to Columbus, I drafted off Sheeler’s “A Colorado Life” series name and created “An Ohio Life” for the Dispatch.
We both left newspapers for academia in August 2008. Two years later, he called my office at Ohio’s Ashland University and said he’d been offered a tenured position at Case Western Reserve University and wanted my advice. I was on a tenure-track and knew exactly what that process was like. I told him to take the job. I felt it was a smart move. But selfishly, I also knew it would put him just an hour north of me.
He invited me up to his classes when he had in star-power guests like Lane DeGregory and Justin Heckert. I did the same when Ben Montgomery came to Ashland to read from “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.” I moved to Connecticut in 2016 to teach at Fairfield University, but we stayed in touch, talking and emailing occasionally.
In 2017, my memoir on surviving childhood cancer was published. I used a line from Tim O’Brien’s epic Vietnam War book, “The Things They Carried,” as the epigraph:
“But this too is true: Stories can save us.”
That’s the line from the last chapter of the book, a chapter titled “The Lives of the Dead.” I used the lessons I learned from Jim at Poynter 10 years earlier to shape my book — to realize that it needed to be about those I knew who didn’t survive their own cancers as much as it was about me.
This is the significant thing Jim did throughout his reporting career and too-brief life: He kept the dead alive through stories.
I’ve never felt a person’s life needed to be kept alive through stories more than Jim’s.
Decency, integrity and humility
Thomas French first came across “Final Salute” when he was asked to write an essay on lessons gleaned from the 2006 non-deadline writing winners of American Society of Newspaper Editors’ award. He didn’t know Sheeler at the time, but as soon as he read the first sentence of the story that ran in the Rocky Mountain News on November 9, 2005, he felt he knew the essence of Sheeler.
The opening scene of “Final Salute,” the newspaper story, is set in a limousine parked on an airport tarmac. Inside that limo, a young woman, pregnant, waits for her husband’s remains to be brought off a jet that has just landed. It was the start of the story of Lt. James J. Cathey, and his wife Katherine, and Marine Major Steve Beck.
“You read these amazing scenes, where you can’t imagine how any reporter could gain that kind of access,” French said. “When you meet Jim in person, you understand it in a second. He emanated and radiated this inherent ocean of decency and integrity.”
French, who won the 1998 Pulitzer in feature writing for his St. Petersburg Times series “Angels and Demons,” invited Sheeler to join his narrative writing seminars at Poynter.
“He was a walking, breathing argument for a different approach from gotcha journalism,” said French, who now teaches at Indiana University. “What you got from Jim’s work was that people deserve was to be understood in a deeper way. He did that, and he encouraged me to do that. Every move that he had taught me something more about that basic goal that we all have in reporting.”
Another Pulitzer Prize winner said he also was learning from Sheeler before the two ever met. Wesley Lowery was in college at Ohio University when he read “Final Salute,” the book that grew from Sheeler’s newspaper project. Reading it, he said, showed how a great writer keeps a reader engaged even though the reader already knows the biggest plot elements. At the start of the book, the service members he features are already dead. Then Sheeler goes back in time to write about their lives and loved ones. He makes us care about them. We know their deaths are coming, but when it does, it hits us even harder.
“This is a book about dead soldiers,” Lowery said. “We know the soldiers are dead, and yet, there was still a way through the tension, through the storytelling, through the pacing, to create a sense of suspense and a sense of emotional payoff that keeps you in the story and helps you experience the story. It takes a really talented writer to do that in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative.”
Now at CBS News, Lowery was a lead reporter on the Washington Post’s project “Fatal Force,” which won the 2016 Pulitzer for National Reporting. Not long after, Sheeler contacted him. He wanted Lowery to talk with his students about how they should cover the Black Lives Matter movement and issues of race and diversity and violence, especially in Cleveland, Lowery’s hometown and a place where residents were dealing with those very issues.
Lowery was impressed with Sheeler’s humility and hunger to learn.
“Here’s someone who’s done some of the best and most evocative feature writing, some of the most empathetic writing that’s been done in modern journalism, and yet he was still a student of the craft,” Lowery said. “He was pouring his mind and his remarkable God-given talents into the lives and careers of the next generation storytellers.”
Learning to listen
Lane DeGregory frequently intersected with Sheeler on the journalism conference circuit. It was early in those interactions that DeGregory, a feature writer at the Tampa Bay Times, learned approaches from Jim that ultimately helped her when she reported her 2009 Pulitzer-winning story, “The Girl in the Window.”
DeGregory said she has always been outgoing and quick to speak. She would ask questions and then, as a person was answering, be thinking three more questions ahead. But when it came to reporting about Danielle, a young, nonverbal girl who often didn’t even realize that DeGregory was present, she knew that wouldn’t work. That’s when she thought about the things she had heard from Sheeler, like reporting through observation — just being able to sit and quietly watch things unfold.
“He was probably the best listener I’ve ever been around,” DeGregory said. “He made you feel like everything you said was so important and interesting.”
In 2014, Sheeler invited DeGregory to Case Western to talk with students about her work. While there, she said, she took note of how patient he was with his students.
“He didn’t just know the stories that they were working on for class assignments,” DeGregory said. “He knew where they came from and what they were dealing with and what their motivations were and what their weaknesses were and what their goals were. Jim took his students just like he took his subjects: He wanted to know everything about them.”
Two of Sheeler’s students at the time were Anne Nickoloff and Mike McKenna. Nickoloff went on to a reporting career at Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer. McKenna, who then was the editor-in-chief of The Observer at Case Western, is now a clinical psychology graduate student in his fourth year at Ohio State University.
McKenna and Nickoloff both said that Sheeler was a lifeline for the student newspaper. But more than that, he was a lifeline to students. Nickoloff came to Case Western knowing that she wanted to do creative writing, but thinking that eliminated journalism. Sheeler helped her realize that wasn’t true.
“The greatest thing I learned from Jim was that creative writing is journalism,” she said. “It’s telling someone else’s story instead of coming up with one out of thin air.”
McKenna is still using what he learned from Sheeler in his studies of neuropsychology.
“We do a lot of clinical interviewing and a lot of taking people’s history,” he said. “Then try to figure out how we can help them. I really enjoy that process because it’s an opportunity to get to know somebody, to get to know their story. I don’t think I was as patient or as skilled at doing that before meeting Jim or going through his work.”
Nickoloff also carries wisdom from Sheeler’s teaching that reaches beyond journalism. That lesson: Everybody has a story that deserves to be shared. But even more, everybody has a story that deserves to be listened to with care.
“That’s something I try to keep in my mind every day,” she said. “Jim, through his life and through the way he approached people and the relationships he kept, reminds me that everybody is going through something. Everybody’s living through their story, and it’s always great to hear those stories.”
Not a final salute
In the Introduction to “Obit,” Sheeler’s collection of feature obituaries, he mentions that he always asked this question when talking with friends and relatives of someone who had died: “What did you learn from this person’s life?”
From Jim, we learned compassion and kindness. We learned that reporting should often be more about listening than asking questions. We learned that we should never stop being students of our craft.
We learned that everyone has a story worth telling, over and over and over again, and those stories will keep memories alive forever.
Matt Tullis is director of Digital Journalism and an assistant professor of English at Fairfield University. He produces and hosts “Gangrey: The Podcast.”