Remembering alum and Pulitzer-winning journalist Jim Sheeler

Jim Sheeler

Photo courtesy of Case Western Reserve University

I first met Jim Sheeler shortly after I started teaching at CSU in 1988.

Jim was in a broadcast news class, and he was very interested in being a television reporter. But he also worked for The Rocky Mountain Collegian, and after he graduated in 1990, Jim made the decision to write for newspapers instead of reporting for television.

That decision led to a master’s degree from the University of Colorado, and an accomplished career as a journalist. He was considered one of the best obituary writers of his time. He won many awards during a stellar career, including a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Then his book Final Salute was named runner-up for the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Jim was inducted to the CSU Media Hall of Fame in 2011 and later accepted an endowed professorship at Case Western University, where he continued earning recognition for outstanding teaching.

A number of links to stories about Jim are provided at right. Please take the time to read about the qualities that made him an iconic and unforgettable alumnus of CSU.

—Greg Luft, professor and chair of CSU’s Department of Journalism and Media Communication

I first saw Jim Sheeler typing at a keyboard in The Rocky Mountain Collegian newsroom, bright smile on his face, delighted to be doing the work.

Studying journalism at CSU, plus a gig covering entertainment for the school paper? His idea of fun. Mine too.

About five years later, serendipity had us again working together in a newsroom, this time as fledgling professionals. The (Boulder) Daily Camera is where we got to be friends, a couple of power pop fans trading mixtapes and geeking out over the likes of Matthew Sweet. Jim covered a variety of beats, including rock music and pop culture on the entertainment desk, where I had the privilege of editing his work.

Years later, we arrived at Denver’s Rocky Mountain News. Though assigned to different desks in the newsroom, we still sought opinions from each other before stories went into print. Jim certainly didn’t need my feedback on “Final Salute,” his eventual Pulitzer Prize-winning story, before it went to press. He asked me anyway.

That was one way Jim expressed friendship while also serving his love of the craft. Ink-stained veterans of the business are quick to grow jaded; Jim maintained sincere enthusiasm for newspapering and storytelling for decades. He was passionate about getting the story right. About searching for just the right word. About respecting and honoring the sources who made the story possible.

Jim Sheeler took his first steps toward achieving those ideals on the Fort Collins campus. I’m so grateful our paths crossed.

—Jay Dedrick (B.A. ’88), internal communications manager for the University of Colorado

Jim Sheeler

Photo courtesy of Case Western Reserve University

I remember reading Jim Sheeler’s impactful stories as I was just getting started as a journalist in the 1990s.

I was always amazed at how he turned the obituary into an art form, telling vibrant, detailed and emotional accounts of people’s lives. He captured personalities, color and depth that could only be preserved by taking the time to visit with family members and friends of the deceased in person, in their homes, as opposed to doing phone or email interviews. That’s not an easy job. In one of my former positions, at CU’s now-defunct faculty/staff newspaper Silver & Gold Record, we had our interns interview surviving family members for obituaries because it was a trial by fire. Jim took on that difficult task with a rare talent for getting complete strangers to relax around him and open up about their loved ones.

When I started teaching a reporting class as an adjunct instructor in what was then known as the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at CU, Jim was an instructor there. I reached out to him to get some advice for teaching my first course. He was kind enough to meet with me and share his syllabus, from which I borrowed liberally. He had already won a Pulitzer Prize for his Rocky Mountain News piece “Final Salute,” and later, I recall being saddened by the fact that he did not get a tenure-track faculty job at CU. Soon, he was lured away by an endowed professorship at Case Western Reserve University.

I used one of his obituaries in every journalism course I taught for the next 12 years, at CU and CSU. In those classes, I’ve always juxtaposed a formal obituary from the Silver & Gold Record against the more compelling, intimate portrait he painted in an obituary that he wrote for Daniel Seltzer, a boy who died at the age of 14. I had my students read the traditional, academic CU obituary first, and then had them read Sheeler’s. Invariably, they said they were struck more by Jim’s account, sometimes moved to tears.

Historically, the role of the newspaper included chronicling the lives of those who passed, as an archive of significant individuals in a community and a record for future generations. In class I used to make the bad joke that obituary writing is a dying art because the work that Jim did has become increasingly rare in this environment of shrunken news staffs and cash-strapped newspapers charging for obituaries penned by families.

But I still hold out hope that other storytellers will take up where Jim left off, even though no one could do it quite the way he did. He will be missed.

—Jeff Dodge, interim director of CSU News and Media Relations