“What’s it been, two years? You’ve been a busy man.”
Those words are the words I would have said to Jeff Zaslow had I seen him yesterday. I won’t get that chance, because Jeff died in a car accident up north on Friday morning.
The reports and my friends indicate Jeff hit a rough patch on a snowy highway and he lost control of his car. For me, the circumstances punctuate the tragedy of this friend’s untimely death. Because, if ever there was a steady hand to hold when riding over a rough patch, that hand belonged to Zas.
A local news outlet called me last night, and I answered the phone while I was navigating my own stretch of snowy road. The reporter, a one-time student in our journalism department at Oakland University, asked me my thoughts. An hour or so later, they appeared online:
John Stoll worked in a cubicle next to Zaslow’s from 2005 to 2010 as a staff reporter for the Journal. Stoll said he listened as Randy Pausch would call Zaslow for his thoughts to be transcribed in The Last Lecture. The 2008 release, based on a lecture Pausch gave in September 2007, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, remained a New York Times bestseller for 112 weeks.
Stoll described Zaslow as the living embodiment of clarity and wisdom for himself and “generations” of other Journal reporters.
“Jeff was a mentor for me at a very important time of my career,” said Stoll, currently an editor at Reuters. “Generations, probably, of Journal reporters, relied on him for a lot of guidance. He’d come up to you and give you wisdom and clarity when you needed it. About three years ago, I had a rough patch in career and life and he was one of the steadiest people for me.”
It’s actually been three and a half years since hitting that patch. And I only sat next to Jeff for three of my five years at Dow Jones.
But the truth is my life needed to be restructured (much like the auto industry I covered), some childish habits needed to be given up. The first person who was there for me was my wife. Zas was next in line.
I came into the bureau burdened on my 31st birthday. There was a personal crisis going on – unable to really father my young family, unsure of my place and reason. As the big book says, my life had become unmanageable. That crisis had boiled over, and I had nowhere to hide.
Of probably a dozen people in the bureau, Jeff was the one who sensed that I was at an inflection point. He was a writer with not only a storyteller’s mind, but a writer with a shepherd’s heart. His books, columns and articles had so often worked to explain the texture and contours of the emotional trenches of life. But unlike many of us in this profession, Jeff’s ability to reach into that emotional trench went beyond putting the pen to paper.
I don’t remember the words he used, but I do remember the invitation. He looked at me, said it was obvious that life had punched me in the nuts, and said that he would walk through the forest with me until I found my way. That journey took several months.
Here’s the key moral underpinning to this ditty: I was surrounded by pastoral types thanks the relationships we had at a megachurch near our house. I didn’t walk into their offices, didn’t ring them on the phone. Instead, I spent this stretch in dozens of AA meetings and in I don’t know how many conversations with Jeff. Cubicle-to-cubicle. Jeff working on his books, me working on a restructuring.
Zas was an incredible journalist and writer. But, for me, he was a man I could trust.
Our last conversation was in the bureau. He wished me luck as I ventured on a new chapter in my life, and told me he thought I was making a mistake. He told me the truth. “You’re a good journalist and that’s what you should do.” It took me about six months out in the real world to figure that out. It took him hitting a rough patch on an otherwise sleepy Friday morning for me to figure out that the best gift I can give is telling you the truth when I have the rare and unique opportunity to do that.
John Stoll lives in Birminghan and is 34 year old writer and editor with Reuters, covering manufacturing and other midwest issues — such as the decline of Detroit and its struggle to rebuild. He also teaches journalism at Oakland University in Rochester.