Good People

The story was about two people with brain injuries who met in a support group and married. The woman had been hurt in a fall, the man in a car wreck. Now they were going for a walk.

They stopped to look at a crocus that had poked through the dirt.
"It's joyous," she said. "That's a word I've started to use."
"It's perfect," he said.

The story was simple, but it was just as joyous as the rest of Greg Lopez's People columns in the Rocky Mountain News. He had an uncanny ability to capture the right moment, the perfect detail to make a story ring true. It wasn't luck. Greg worked hard on his pieces, although they were so easy to read that anyone who hasn't tried to link words into coherence might not recognize the effort that went into them. Rather than going for the easy image, the literary sound bite or the first-person approach that makes it clear a writer considers himself more interesting than the people about whom he is writing (and on that, he is sadly mistaken), Greg would hang around his subjects--listening to them for hours, for days, for weeks--until he found that one true thing. And he always found it, whether it was the kids learning to play Monopoly in juvenile hall, or the teenage father more interested in the car he'd drive to visit his new child than the baby itself, or the rose embroidered on the dress in which Greg and his wife, Kathleen, buried their stillborn daughter back in September 1994.

The story about the head-injured couple appeared on Sunday. I got to the paper late, at eight that evening--at almost the exact moment Greg's truck was careening out of control down I-25 after being struck by a speeding BMW. The truck rolled three times and came to rest on an embankment. Greg Lopez was killed instantly.

They stopped to watch a mother pushing her child in a stroller.
"Look at that, just living for this moment," she said. "That's how we all should be."

"That's how we have to be," he said.
The spectacular hit-and-run made the ten o'clock news, although the victim wasn't identified. That came the next morning, in late editions of the News--the police found Greg's business cards in the glove compartment of the smashed truck--and on early newscasts and in disbelieving phone calls between the many people who were fortunate enough to find themselves friends of Greg's.

They stopped to look at the leaves budding on a cottonwood.
"Living for the moment is joyous," she said.
"Because you can never get anything back," he said.

Greg Lopez always gave back. He gave to his readers who, perhaps unaware of how rare his talent really was, still got to enjoy the insights that good writing and reporting can bring to a city. With Greg, they drank in the bars and boxed in the rings and rode the ranges and hung out at pay phones in Denver's worst neighborhoods. Through Greg, they met people across the state--good people--and came to know them in less than a thousand words.

He gave to his readers and he gave to his employer. While badmouthing editors and owners is a reflex in most newsrooms, Greg never had a negative thing to say about the News. And Lord knows, he had the opportunity. He was loyal and he was true--to his wife, to his family, to his work, to his subjects.

And he gave to his friends. At a small wake of colleagues from the Central City Press Club--an organization based on principles no more lofty than the necessity of drinking beer and raising hell--everybody remembered just how much. Oddly, though, they couldn't recall exactly how they had first met Greg. At one point he simply appeared, and his smile and good humor--Greg smiled so hard that he sometimes resembled one of those dashboard dogs whose head bounces incessantly--made him a constant, and crucial, part of their world.

You could never predict what Greg would write about--his subjects ranged from gangbangers to cranky cowboys--and you could never predict where he'd show up next, either. He'd appear when you least expected to see him--and just when, it turned out, he was needed the most. For the funeral of another reporter's infant who'd died shortly after birth. For a book-signing, in a generous--and typical--show of support for another writer. For a quick drink at a downtown dive that accidentally turned into a six-hour debate--occasionally interrupted by the rings of dueling cell phones--about the death penalty, journalistic ethics and just which city bureaucrat lies the most. Greg, who rarely had a bad word to say about anyone, stayed silent on that one. But his head kept nodding.

For all the time these people spent together, their memories of Greg are singular. They tell stories about Greg's Golden Gloves boxing, his annual planting of marigold seeds in his basement ("It seemed uncharacteristic," one friend remembers, "but then, there was nothing characteristic about him"), his purchase of 21 ice chests when he turned 21--a supply he only recently exhausted.

Everyone has stories about Greg Lopez, but no one has his talent for finding just the right one to capture a life.

You could find irony in the fact that Greg's last column was about a man who'd been in a car wreck--but that would have been too easy an insight for Greg himself to write. Life, as he made clear in his stories, is never that predictable. Besides, those looking for facile symbolism would be stymied by the fact that Greg spent three hours on Friday interviewing Jack A. Weil, the founder of Rockmont Ranchwear. Next week Jack will be 95, a milestone that would have been commemorated by a Greg Lopez column. Greg himself was stopped sixty years short of that mark.

They stopped to look back at the morning.
"We'll have to do this again," he said.
"I think we already have," she said. "But let's do it anyway. It's joyous.


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