Remembering Jim Sheeler: An Obituary for the World's Best Obituary Writer

Jim Sheeler as seen during a 2014 presentation at Case Western Reserve University.
Jim Sheeler as seen during a 2014 presentation at Case Western Reserve University. YouTube
click to enlarge Jim Sheeler as seen during a 2014 presentation at Case Western Reserve University. - YOUTUBE
Jim Sheeler as seen during a 2014 presentation at Case Western Reserve University.
Back in April 2002, when I interviewed Jim Sheeler for "Dead Lines," a salute to "A Colorado Life," the beautiful and heartbreaking obituary column he penned each week for the Denver Post, I couldn't have imagined that I would eventually write an obituary for him. But on September 22, Case Western Reserve University confirmed that Sheeler, a 53-year-old member of its journalism department who'd won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006, had died at his home in the community of Chagrin Falls, Ohio — a name he would certainly have spun into narrative gold had he been chronicling his own remarkable life.

Unlike many of his subjects when he was writing "A Colorado Life," Sheeler was young, vibrant and clearly gaining narrative power with every keystroke. But he had an uncommon maturity that allowed him to realize the storytelling potential of an assignment typically used as a testing ground for inexperienced scribes.

"Writing obituaries is usually a beginning reporter's job," he told me. "I think that's usually why they're done so poorly. But obituaries can be stories that teach you a little bit more about life through death. And I don't really think it matters how old you are to learn those lessons."

His baby face proved to be a secret weapon. "A lot of people probably think I'm this sixty-year-old guy who's all burnt out," he said with a laugh. "They're surprised when they see me. But when they realize I'm there to get a real story with a beginning, middle and end to it and that I'm trying to learn everything I possibly can about this person, they really open up."

At the time, Sheeler's specialty was already in danger. Two weeks before "Dead Lines" was published, the Post and the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News began charging for obituaries; they'd previously appeared at no charge. But Sheeler was never a trend-follower — and his path to the obituary beat was suitably improbable.

After graduating from Colorado State University, Sheeler enrolled in a master's program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But before he could deliver his thesis, he got a job at the Boulder Daily Camera. He wrote about business and other topics before becoming the paper's music critic. Then, in 1996, Gregory Todd, the person who'd hired Sheeler at the Camera, launched a weekly called the Boulder Planet, and Sheeler soon signed up. "It was an opportunity to write for a small paper and do whatever I wanted to do," he explained.

Shortly thereafter, Sheeler came up with the idea of writing "feature obituaries that told the stories of people whose stories had never been told," and their success was subsequently duplicated at the Post, with which the Planet had a business relationship.

The Planet didn't survive, folding in early 2000 — and, of course, the task of writing its obit fell to Sheeler. But his byline got prominent play in the Post, with his obituaries and other articles — most notably profiles of local veterans — stirring up so much interest that the paper offered him a full-time position, which he graciously declined. He continued assembling "A Colorado Life" offerings, however, many of which involved the sort of detective work required for the Post's full-scale investigations.

A wonderful example was a 1999 piece about Johnny Richardson, whom Sheeler picked to memorialize simply because his official obituary was the shortest on the page one day: "Jonathan 'Johnny' Richardson of Denver, a shoe-shine worker, died August 13 in Denver. He was 74. No services were held. He was born June 24, 1925. His interest was listening to jazz. There are no immediate survivors." But as it turned out, there was much more to Richardson's tale than that. Sheeler discovered plenty, including an old lover turned friend who had ordered a headstone as a way of ensuring that some record of Richardson would remain. He'd always wanted to write a book about his life, the friend said, but he never got around to it. Being immortalized by Sheeler was the next best thing.

Sheeler, who loved the freelance life, eventually agreed to join the staff of the Rocky Mountain News, and in 2005, he wrote "Final Salute," an opus honoring fallen Marines that earned him a Pulitzer in feature writing the next year. The piece was so moving that he expanded it into a book — but prior to that, he published Obit, which compiled his finest offerings. In June 2007, prior to several book-signing events, I caught up with Sheeler, who stressed that the tome contained more than sad stories. "It may sound strange to say you'll laugh out loud when you read a book called Obit," he admitted, "but I've read some of these to people, and they do laugh out loud."

A reader comment about the Richardson piece reproduced on Obit's dust sleeve contended that "even the President doesn't get an obituary that good." The phrase neatly captured a major subtext of Sheeler's work — that the lives of prominent officials or celebrities are no more significant than anyone else's. "Especially with the problems newspapers are having now, focusing on local people whose stories have never been told is one of the few things we have left," he argued. "It's something that absolutely should be expanded, and something that readers would pick up the paper for. It's not something you can do in a three-inch brief on the web."

After the Final Salute book arrived, Sheeler was an even hotter property. But instead of jumping from newspaper to newspaper, he instead took a position as a journalism instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2008, a year before the Rocky went out of business. The gig eventually led him to Case Western.

Academia let Sheeler pass along his wisdom to a new generation of journalists while allowing him to focus on his family; he leaves behind his wife, Annick, and son, James.

According to the Associated Press, the cause of Sheeler's death "was not immediately clear." But the lovely work he did before his passing most certainly was.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts