by Chris Flint
As many of you know, when the English Department recruited Jim in 2010 to be Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing, he already had a distinguished career as a journalist, starting as a cub reporter in Boulder, and ultimately advancing to news feature writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where he specialized in stories about war and loss. What you may not know is that his first desire was to be a veterinarian, a sign of his abiding love of animals and nature in general. Jim was born and raised in Houston, but came to love Colorado, where he hiked incessantly and drove his beloved jeep recklessly along dusty tracks and mountain roads. After a semester of pre-veterinary classes, he quickly turned to journalism and never looked back, becoming a newspaperman specializing in feature writing, particularly stories about loss. While seemingly unconnected, there was a link in both of these career options: Jim’s deep concern for the hurt that comes to others. He was always turned outward to the world, using his verbal and emotional resources to heal pain and sorrow.
By the time he arrived at CWRU, Jim had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for a long story about a Marine he shadowed for over a year, Major Steve Beck, who was tasked with informing families of GIs killed in Iraq, helping them to navigate the difficult return of the body, commemorate the soldier, and deal with their loss. Jim expanded that story into the bestselling book, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives, one of five finalists for the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Those awards, coupled with appearances on NBC Nightly News, NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and invited visiting stints at institutions ranging from Harvard to the Sorbonne, marked him as a star. The extensive obituaries that have appeared in such newspapers as the Washington Post and the Denver Post testify to the range of his fame. But you wouldn’t know about Jim’s professional stature from his demeanor, which telegraphed humility, generosity, and kindness, combined with a wiry defense of those who are vulnerable and powerless.
Before the Iraq stories, Jim spent most of his early newspaper career working the death beat, a term that journalists use for obituary writing. Characteristically, Jim turned what was often considered a thankless task (even professional punishment) into an artful form of compassionate reporting. But doing that wasn’t enough; he also wanted to help others genuinely celebrate the lives of those who had died. He co-authored Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers in 2005 and was promptly inducted into the International Obituary Writers’ Hall of Fame the next year. Gathering a selection of what he wrote, Jim then published Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives.
Jim’s knack was not only to tell stories but to teach aspiring writers how to create them from the raw materials of everyday life. A beloved teacher, his English courses at CWRU included immersion seminars on local residents in one of the oldest operating African-American nursing homes in the United States, the Eliza Bryant Village in Hough, and on individuals at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, where students pursued stories of veterans with prosthetics, the rehabilitation of the blind, and a nurse who served with the Army infantry in Iraq – all of these courses required students to produce video projects of their subjects that they could circulate widely. Jim was also in high demand as an undergraduate advisor. He served as faculty supervisor for The Observer, and placed students in internships at local media outlets such as Cleveland Magazine and WCPN, and some farther afield, such as the White House. He received the University’s Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2016, having been nominated several times in prior years.
Jim’s students have created a gratitude box of reminiscences from faculty, students, and staff as a tribute to what mattered most to him. As one of his students, Halle Rose, notes, “Jim began the first day of every class he taught by pulling out his ‘box of gratitude,’ where he kept all of the thank you notes the families he worked with had sent him…he would always take a full armful of the notes, literally scoop them up in this sort of big loose embrace until they were overflowing from his arms, and tell us that THIS is why we do the work. He would then pick up the Pulitzer and say ‘I know this is what people always ask about, and it’s nice of course, but this isn’t what matters,’ before tossing it back in the box.”
Jim was no less committed to service. It is a testament to his abiding volunteerism that Jim was, at the time of his death, the English Department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, its Associate Chair, Faculty Advisor to The Observer, volunteer in the Provost Scholars Program, and member of several Department, College, and University Committees. Over the years, he served as an ambassador for the University—for President Synder, the Board of Trustees, Undergraduate Studies, Office of Admissions, and numerous others. In one of our conversations in August, he mentioned excitedly that he was awaiting confirmation on two important issues. One was news about his application to serve as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate for Cuyahoga County, defending the best interests of abused and neglected children in schools, courtrooms, and the community. The other was word on the refurbishment of his dusty old jeep, which had been left on his parents’ farm for others to use until the farm was finally sold this year. It was coming to a new home here on the decidedly less dusty roads of Chagrin Falls.
Finally, on a more personal note, I’d like to mention another passion of Jim’s. He was an avid rock fan and might, I believe, have just as easily been a music journalist. Jim and I routinely went to hear various groups play at local Cleveland venues. Invariably, after the concert was over, Jim would dash backstage scrounging for backstories on the musicians. Afterward, brandishing the band’s t-shirt or a vinyl record, he would tell me what he had learned or observed. He just never stopped being a journalist.
I will miss those concerts, but I will miss just talking to Jim much more. To me, as to many of you, he wasn’t just a colleague or teacher. He was a staunch ally and willing hand; he was an ethical beacon; he was a beautiful friend.
“He wanted to tell people’s stories”: Jim Sheeler, Pulitzer-winning Rocky Mountain News reporter, dies at 53
Journalism professor at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University remembered for his compassion, curiosity (September 21, 2021.)
September 24, 2021.)
by Matt Hooke (September 26, 2021.)
Journalists, from students to Pulitzer-winning pros, talk about the influence Sheeler had on their work (October 13, 2021.)
by Arthur Evenchik (March 23, 2022)