After a 3-month, 14,000-mile road trip in which I figure-eighted the country during the summer of 2008, I arrived back in Colorado to start grad school for journalism. I was enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, nestled at the foothills of the Flatirons. The same Flatirons where, 8 months later, I would go hiking on a first date with a quiet, enchanting, whip-smart woman I met on eHarmony named Dani. A woman who would, 8 years later, give birth to the first of our two beautiful children.
But I already digress. Memory lane has that effect on me.
After several years wandering around North America and Europe, and then a few years working as a concierge in a ski town, I was thrilled to go back to school. I envisioned a budding career in print journalism, which in 2008 was a bit like if I had invested in telephone books or card catalogues in 1998. But I’ve never been known for my impeccable timing.
Nonetheless, I savored my first semester as a grad student. While my classmates paid a pretty penny for apartments in Boulder, I spent the first few weeks commuting from a small tent. A humble canvas abode that had sheltered me on many hiking and road-tripping nights. I staked out my own little spot at a campground that was tucked away in Boulder Canyon.
I loved crossing back and forth between two worlds: The academia I missed from my college days, and the drifter-laden fringes of society where I had spent much of my 20s.
I eventually found a small room in Longmont (where fewer pretty pennies were required to pay rent than in Boulder). This lodging arrangement made certain activities a bit easier. Not cooking so much, since I never got around to learning that skill, but definitely showering. An activity that comes in handy when you’re attending classes where other human beings are close enough to, um, smell what you’ve got cooking.
I adored most everything about being a student again, and I met an array of fascinating people. Fellow 25-to-30-something people with big dreams of changing the world.
I also loved living in a hub of cultural liberalism like Boulder, where I could hear a Thomas Friedman lecture one month, watch Christopher Hitchens debate Dinesh D’Souza about whether God exists the next month, and witness an entire town be overtaken by frenzied euphoria when Barack Obama was elected president the month after that.
My brain was fully stimulated, and my progressive heart felt at home.
In January 2009, the month when Obama was inaugurated, I started my second semester at CU-Boulder. One of the courses I enrolled in was Feature Writing with Jim Sheeler, who had just been installed as their Scholar in Residence. Remember that name, if you haven’t been fortunate enough to hear of it already.
A few years earlier, Jim (or Professor Sheeler to us) had won the highly coveted Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in honor of “Final Salute.” It was a 12,000-word piece that was, to quote the Pulitzer body, “a poignant story on a Marine major who helps the families of comrades killed in Iraq cope with their loss and honor their sacrifice.”
Sheeler had been a feature writer from 2002 to 2008 for Rocky Mountain News, and before that he freelanced and wrote for Boulder Planet and Boulder Daily Camera.
In addition to writing features, Sheeler was also a deeply empathetic, Colorado-renowned obituary writer who had recently compiled his work into a book called Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives.
You might think it would be a distinct honor to take a feature writing class with a Pulitzer-winning feature writer.
And you would be absolutely right.
Sheeler was a small-G god to all of us journalism students. He was who we wanted to be, and his career was what we aspired toward. We were each, in our own way, literary enthusiasts — and he was our very own Mr. Keating. How could we not carpe diem and take any class he taught? Heck, I would have gladly taken The History of the Stock Market from a man of his wisdom and intellectual caliber.
But I didn’t just admire Jim Sheeler for vocational reasons. It didn’t take long for me to realize that not only was he brilliant and impeccable as a writer; he was also one of the most clear-eyed and warm-hearted human beings I had ever encountered. A bona fide mensch. Someone I would be honored to have a chance to know on a personal level.
An obituary writer whose obituary, theoretically, I would be honored to write if I had the chance to get to know him on a personal level.
But here’s the thing. I dropped out of Jim’s class halfway through, that March. Or to be more accurate, I just stopped showing up — to his class, or any other. I fell off the map. I didn’t tell anyone why, out of shame. And because of how hard it would have been to explain why.
There were a handful of reasons that I dropped out of grad school, some pragmatic and some psychological. The pragmatic ones included not wanting to be sunk with tens of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt, and not being convinced (after talking to a few reliable sources) that a degree in journalism is absolutely vital for procuring a career in that field. Those two reasons worked in tandem to pump the brakes on my best-laid plans.
But the psychological reasons why I dropped out had to do with my tormented headspace that March. I’ll withhold the gory emotional details of what led to this, which is its own saga, but the gist of what resulted from that dizzying episode centered around my involvement in Jim Sheeler’s class.
I simply couldn’t bring myself to write the feature piece that was Professor Sheeler’s central assignment. Because in the space of a month, I had lost my confidence. My killer instinct. My feature-writing mojo.
I had submitted at least one assignment already, an interview piece about Andy Schneidkraut, a local legend who owned an iconic music store called Albums on the Hill. I remember that piece being reasonably solid B (maybe B+ if I’m generous) material.
But for the life of me, I could not seem to get past a towering mental block regarding the flagship assignment for the class.
I wanted to do a piece on the sizable homeless population that lived near the creek running through central Boulder. This seemed not only interesting to me, but also something that would resonate with Professor Sheeler, a compassionate man who cared deeply about those who were traumatized or forgotten.
So I would walk along Boulder Creek day after day, trying to will myself into talking to a homeless person. Late in an icy-crisp Colorado winter (although those sometimes don’t end until May), I, an extroverted person, simply needed to break the ice with a stranger so I could start building my story.
But I just couldn’t do it. Because I couldn’t break the ice in my own frozen mind. And I hated myself for that fact.
I had never experienced that kind of mind-obliterating mental block before. A recent embarrassing setback in my personal life, combined with a newfound uncertainty about my grad-school dream in general, had sapped me of all my previously ironclad confidence.
Every last bit of it.
In hindsight, I wonder if that was one of my first episodes of depression. It certainly bears some similarity with the anxiety-laced depression I experienced this spring and summer, which wiped out my willpower and made meaningful action nearly impossible.
But whatever it was, my confidence dropped out beneath me. So I dropped out of grad school. And I gave up the chance to learn from one of the finest minds (holding one of the sharpest pens) of the 21st century.
In the weeks to come, I was especially racked with guilt about that aspect of my unceremonious exit from grad school. Being so deep in my head that I had squandered the rare opportunity to submit a feature story to a man who had won a Pulitzer for that very type of writing.
It was a death of sorts. The temporary death of my belief in myself. And the death of an idealistic career dream. All of it cast a pall over my suddenly-halted journey.
But as so often happens, and like Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park as only Jeff Goldblum could have said it:
“Life, uh… finds a way.”
Two months after I dropped out of CU-Boulder, I met Dani St. John on eHarmony. On a pristine May afternoon we hiked the Flatirons Vista Trail, in the shadows of jagged rock fins that shot diagonally out of the earth. The titular Flatirons.
While we nervously broke our own ice, we were a stone’s (very long) throw from the campus where Jim Sheeler was, perhaps even on that very day, wrapping up his Feature Writing course, and where my former classmates were submitting their carefully crafted feature stories.
That first date led to a bare-bones but blissed-out wedding in the mountains, an equally blissed-out honeymoon to Austria, a cross-country migration, and the two most beautiful children who have ever walked on the face of God’s earth.
Out of all the possible lives we could live, each of us only lives one of them. I am genuinely curious what the alternate life looks like in which I had stayed in Jim Sheeler’s class, submitted a paper about Boulder’s homeless contingent, earned my graduate degree, and tracked down a career during the twilight years of print journalism.
But I wouldn’t trade this life — my actual, lived life — for any possible life I could have lived. Because this is the life where I tracked down my happiness.
Let’s get back to Jim Sheeler, who deserves as much spotlight as I can give him (given the brief overlap in our respective journeys).
Despite only being in his class for two months, Jim Sheeler was one of the 3 or 4 best teachers I have ever known. As I said before, to all of us in “J-school” he was our very own Mr. Keating. I think we fancied ourselves members of a Dead Journalists Society, a ragtag club of misfits who still believed in the power of the written word. Journalism was arguably almost dead in 2008, or perhaps on life support, but we were bound and determined to keep it alive.
I abruptly opted out of my membership in that club and in doing so, I lost the chance to sit at the feet of a Pulitzer-winning legend.
And last week, I learned to my sad shock that Jim Sheeler died at the painfully young age of 53. Jim left behind a wife, Annick, and a son, James. I can’t begin to imagine their devastation.
I will leave it to those who knew him well and admired him deeply to craft a true obituary for him, hopefully as lovingly as he crafted the obituaries of so many Iraq War veterans and other fallen souls.
Do a simple internet search and you’ll see that there is no shortage of people who have already jumped at the chance. Because there is no shortage of people who loved, and liked, Jim Sheeler. He was known and admired for keeping in touch with all the Iraq War veteran families he interviewed for “Final Salute,” well after his piece (and the subsequent book) were published.
To each of those families, Jim was not just a hero but an ally. And a friend. He left a mark that was truly boulder-sized, and of similar weight.
I wish that I could call Jim Sheeler a friend or a colleague, but I missed that chance.
For my small part, though, I will climb up on the desk that is this blog, a tiny island in the vast sea of the internet. I will stand tall, I will look west, and I will invoke the words of Walt Whitman to pay one final salute to a man whom I knew all too briefly:
“Oh captain, my captain.”
EPILOGUE: Thank you, so much, for reading. If you would like to learn more about the late, great Jim Sheeler, and see some of the most glowing eulogies I’ve ever seen, just click here or here. It will be well worth your time, and it might restore some of your faith in humanity.
That’s the Jim Sheeler effect. And maybe his greatest legacy of all.