David Chandler's spirit was willing, but his heart literally was not in it.
On Sunday morning, Chandler wrote the conclusion to his own story by ending his life.
His second life, really. Chandler's first is documented on a resume that made bad bureaucrats quake: an endless string of journalism jobs (and the prizes that inevitably followed), including stints in New Orleans (where Chandler met Lee Harvey Oswald and later landed in jail after running afoul of Kennedy conspiracy theorist Jim Garrison), in Florida (where he led a team of reporters exposing political corruption and won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize), in Virginia (where he investigated corruption in state government and was honored with the Scripps Howard First Amendment Award), and at Life (where he hounded mobsters and won still more awards). And he found the time to write books, including one, The Binghams of Louisville, that earned him a footnote in j-school texts when the publisher bowed to pressure from the powerful Bingham family and demanded cuts. Chandler, not surprisingly, refused.
By 1987 he was working for People and living in Colorado with his wife, Mary, who had just taken a job at the Rocky Mountain News. It was for People that Chandler wrote perhaps his most courageous story, the account of his own heart transplant. Chandler had undergone a triple bypass at the age of 37 and enjoyed generally good health in the twelve years that followed; now, however, doctors told him that heart was almost gone. Without a transplant, he would live perhaps three months more. "I found myself lying in the dark writing my own obituary," Chandler wrote. "I was shocked and utterly dismayed at how trivial my life had been. Whenever I got that out of my mind, I would switch to a too-vivid picture of my near-dead heart...I was constantly seeing the poor, struggling thing. I felt not only sadness but a great sympathy for it. We'd been staunch buddies for fifty years. Inseparable, you might say. I'd let it down more than it had me, after years of drinking, smoking and long hours."
Chandler parted with that heart, survived surgery and started his new life. The Bingham book found another publisher, and later Chandler did, too: Westword.
In 1992 Chandler turned his unerring instincts on a series of local boondoggles that ranged from the magnificent to the malign. Nothing pleased Chandler more than puncturing pomposity. (He kept quiet about his own considerable credentials.) And he found ideal subjects with his first Westword story, a look at the ill-fated alliance between the News and University of Colorado dean Marshall Kaplan, which ended in an "unseemly row" between Editor Jay Ambrose and Kaplan before a packed auditorium.
But Chandler also had an eye for the underdog. He wrote about Rose Medina, a former drug addict sentenced under the Habitual Criminals Act to four life sentences for simply snatching a purse. (Medina, who has spent six years incarcerated in Canon City, has a resentencing hearing set for Thursday in Jefferson County court--thanks largely to Chandler's efforts.)
He bagged bigger game in Jeffco, too. His exposure of the financial shenanigans behind the county's new government complex--forever to be known as the Taj Mahal, thanks to Chandler--ultimately cost two Jeffco commissioners their seats. The story was as big as the building on the hill, but no journalist had tackled it until Chandler sniffed it out. To a veteran with a nose for news, the stench was obvious.
Chandler's experience didn't just augment his own stories. He was unfailingly generous with other writers, praising their published efforts and asking what other ideas they might be working on. He sat with them at long lunches, telling tales about newspapering and encouraging them to try new challenges--to get on with this life because we may not have a second one.
We never knew where David's new heart had come from, but there was no doubting its size.
Soon there was no doubt that this one was failing him. Circulation problems drastically cut Chandler's mobility, and he was hospitalized several times. But even as his physical energy dwindled, Chandler kept refueling for his favorite topic: Denver International Airport. In early 1993, Chandler added up the hidden costs of DIA and discovered that Denver was getting not a $1.5 billion project, as the voters had been promised, but a massive complex that would cost $5 billion--before you threw in another $7 billion in interest payments. What Denver was getting for that money was detailed in story after story: cracked concrete, leaning towers and faulty floors that sent society dames crashing on their keisters at the ludicrous grand opening gala, the brain child of a billionaire's husband who billed the city eighty bucks an hour for his folly.
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Chandler's mind was back at DIA last week, working on an account of the much ballyhooed baggage system that appears in this issue. "It ate the luggage!" he hooted, quoting a witness. Chandler couldn't see this for himself: By then he could walk only a few feet at a time; his lungs were so full of fluid he could hardly breathe; his eyesight was sorely limited. He had told his wife that he never wanted to go back into the hospital; on Sunday this stubborn, marvelous man ensured that he wouldn't have to.
Chandler didn't live to see DIA open--at this point, who will?--or to finish his next airport story: one that would have enumerated the city's excessive number of PR people on the project. One of them is an outside consultant whose bills don't even appear on the bloated airport budget; when Chandler asked him for the numbers, the flack told him: "I won't deal with you. You're unprofessional."
Given the sorry state of journalism, perhaps the flack didn't recognize a consummate pro when finally presented with one.
We'll miss him.
So should you.