The Hired Hand – Not just another blah-blah-blog

April 27, 2020

Our paths once crossed, and now his path has come to an abrupt end

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 6:33 pm

This post originally was published Feb. 11, 2012

While the music world is mourning the loss of Whitney Houston, the literary world is mourning the loss of Jeff Zaslow.

Jeff Zaslow and I were mere acquaintances, but I can’t keep from getting choked up as I write this. The best-selling author was tragically killed Friday in a car accident on a snow-covered road in Michigan. He had just done a book signing and was headed home to his beloved family — TV news anchor Sherry Margolis and their three daughters, Jordan, Alex and Eden.

Jeff Zaslow and I both worked at The Orlando Sentinel  (then called the Sentinel Star) back in the ’80s. He was an up-and-coming writer. I was a just-out-of-college copy editor. We both were young, Jewish and determined. (OK, I’ll admit it. I had a bit of a crush on him. I think I was mostly awed by his raw talent. If I could’ve, I’d have bought Zaslow stock.)

That’s where our similarities ended — although I just found out that we both were born in the same month, in the same year. Jeff hailed from the Philly area, where I now call my home. I remember Jeff regaling us with stories of his younger days as a hot dog hawker at Phillies games. He sure came a long way.

Our career paths led us in different directions. Jeff worked for big-name newspapers — The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times and USA Weekend. He got the Chicago gig, by the way, when he entered a contest to replace columnist Ann Landers at the newspaper for a story he was doing for The Wall Street Journal and beat out 12,000 applicants. I, however, worked as an editor at a small community weekly and a Tribune company before defecting from the media world to the advertising and corporate world.

Jeff went on to write best-selling books, including The Last Lecture, The Girls from Ames and Highest Duty. His most recent books were Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope and The Magic Room.

I, on the other hand, have had a couple of short stories published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. (Hey, a gal’s gotta start somewhere, right?)

Our paths crossed again a couple years ago. Well, they crossed because I made them cross. When I found out that Jeff would be the keynote speaker at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, I made reservations to hear him speak. That evening, I was afraid he’d be mobbed by adoring Zaslow wannabes after his speech, so I approached him before his keynote.

I wasn’t sure he’d remember me, but he genuinely appeared to recall our days at the Orlando Sentinel. I tried not to sound too much like a Zaslow groupie when I praised his latest literary contributions.

The thing is, while Jeff touched my life as a coworker in the trenches of a daily metropolitan newspaper, he touched my life even more as the author of books that dealt with love, loss and — yes — death. He touched millions of lives in this way.

He not only touched the lives of those who read his books, he touched the lives of those who were the subjects of his books. Jeff wrote about famous people as well as people like you and me, simply living our lives as best we can.

I’ve often compared Jeff’s writing style to that of author Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Have a Little Faith), another favorite of mine. Albom spoke highly of his friend: “Jeff was a master storyteller. … He always wrote with great sensitivity.”

The words of Capt. Sully Sullenberger, whom Jeff wrote about in Highest Duty, say it all: “Jeff was a beautiful writer, wonderful collaborator, loving husband, father and friend. Our whole family loved him dearly and he will be sorely missed.”

What I find ironic is that Jeff wrote about Carnegie-Mellon professor Randy Pausch and his courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. (Jeff graduated from Carnegie-Mellon.) He wrote about Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who cheated death, and her equally courageous battle following her near-fatal shooting in Arizona. And he wrote about Sully, who also heroically cheated death by piloting his US Airways plane to safety in New York’s Hudson River.

But, in the end, Jeff himself couldn’t cheat death. And we have all been cheated out of one of the most talented writers of our time.

Most importantly, his wife and daughters have been cheated out of a caring husband and father. Rabbi Jason Miller and others have called The Magic Room Jeff’s own last lecture. The book is subtitled “A story about the love we wish for our daughters.” 

Jeff had three daughters. I have two sons. And so I say this (having lost my own father when I was just 18) to Jeff’s daughters: Remember the good times. Know that he was so very proud of you and loved you with all his heart. And so I say this (following the advice of one very wise father named Jeff Zaslow) to my own two sons: Know that I am so very proud of you and love you with all my heart.

Rest in peace, Jeff. I’ve got a feeling that you and Randy are having one heck of a reunion up there.

May your memory be a blessing.


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