James “Jim” Sheeler, a Pulitzer Prize winner for the Rocky Mountain News and journalism teacher who is remembered for his gifts as a deeply empathetic reporter and storyteller, died last week at his home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He was 53.
A longtime obituary writer, Sheeler championed war veterans and their families, including Coloradans who were killed in the Iraq War. His 12,000-word article “Final Salute” won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
The work, hailed by the Pulitzers as a “poignant story on a Marine major who helps the families of comrades killed in Iraq cope with their loss and honor their sacrifice,” was later the basis for a book of the same name, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction.
“Humility, compassion, curiosity — he had all the qualities that you can’t teach,” said Todd Heisler, a photojournalist, colleague and friend, whose own work on “Final Salute” earned him the Pulitzer for feature photography. “He was really a great listener. I think that’s why his work was so good, he brought that to every story he did.”
Heisler, now a New York Times staff photographer, said many of those families had kept in touch with Sheeler through the years.
“He’d sit in their living rooms, playing with their kids, just taking the time” to report and write in-depth, emotional stories full of detail, Heisler recalled. “He really cared about the people he wrote about.”
Sheeler started his reporting career in 1991 at the Daily Camera in Boulder, including time spent as a business writer. He also wrote for the Boulder Planet, a weekly newspaper, from 1996 to 2000. Sheeler went to work for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News in 2004, after writing for The Denver Post as a freelancer from 1999 to 2003.
Steve Knopper, who worked with Sheeler at the Daily Camera in the early 1990s, recalled Sheeler proposing and writing a story about a local bowtie manufacturer, and, in the piece, Sheeler quoted the University of Colorado’s then-President Gordon Gee, a bowtie aficionado.
“You could tell he had larger ambitions, he had all these ambitions to write,” Knopper said. “He was burrowed into his computer at his desk, with long printouts that he would mark up. At the time, we all thought he was crazy.”
Eventually, Sheeler turned to his journalistic passion, writing obituaries.
“He wanted to tell people’s stories,” said Knopper, a longtime friend. “Jim just clicked with (obituaries). He wanted to turn it into a high art.”
Born and raised in Texas, Sheeler moved to Colorado in 1986 to attend Colorado State University, from which he earned a journalism degree in 1990, according to his biography on the Pulitzer website. Sheeler contributed to “Life On the Death Beat,” an obituary-writing guide for journalists published in 2005. And in 2008, Sheeler’s book “Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives” was published.
At the time of his death, Sheeler was the Shirley Wormser professor of journalism and media writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
“While many of you knew Jim far better than I, his fundamental kindness and decency were obvious within a few moments of meeting him,” said Joy Ward, dean of CWRU College of Arts and Sciences, in a letter to the university’s community. “While he was a reporter, these traits inspired people to trust their stories to him — even at some of the most painful and vulnerable moments of their lives. When he became a teacher, those same qualities moved students to reach well beyond their own experiences to chronicle others’ most meaningful memories.”
On the university’s website, Sheeler said that his expectation of students boiled down to a compelling demand: “Tell me a story.”
“As a young boy, reading late at night with a flashlight under the covers, I reveled in stories of darkness and light,” Sheeler said on the Case Western Reserve website. “As a journalist and teacher, I continue to search for stories in the shadows, revealing everyday philosophy and wisdom hidden in people and places that are too often overlooked.”
In 2016, Sheeler won the Wittke Award for undergraduate teaching. He was a Provost Scholars mentor, working with students in East Cleveland middle and high schools.
Lynn Bartels, a former staffer with the Post and the Rocky, recalled her initial meeting with Sheeler. The two sat side by side in the Rocky’s newsroom for a time.
“‘Well, I’m Jim Sheeler’” was his introduction, Bartels recalled. “And I just said, ‘I’m not worthy.’”
At the time, Bartels was a big fan, as she had been following and reading his work — in particular, his glowing obits.
“He would hand me things to read,” Bartels said. “I’d brace myself because I knew I would be weeping for the next hour.”
Sheeler’s cause of death has not been determined, according to Joy’s letter to the Case Western Reserve community.
He is survived by his wife, Annick, and their son, James. Plans for a service had not been finalized.
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