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Earning the Story

Remembering journalism professor Jim Sheeler

By Arthur Evenchik

Spring | Summer 2022

Portrait photo of the late journalism professor Jim Sheeler

There were many lessons about journalism, and about humanity, that Jim Sheeler was uniquely suited to teach.
Photo by Annie O’Neill

In most of Sheeler’s obituaries, no one dies until the tenth paragraph. The reader gets to know the person, before learning of their death.

Matt Hooke (CWR ’20)
“What the Late Jim Sheeler Taught Me”
The Plain Dealer and
Sept. 26, 2021

When fourth-year student Aimee Wiencek started planning her senior capstone, a research project culminating in a presentation, she never considered working with a faculty mentor other than Jim Sheeler. He was one of the professors she had talked to before deciding to attend Case Western Reserve, and as a sophomore she had taken his introductory journalism course. To her surprise, Sheeler didn’t open the course with lectures on the fundamentals of reporting. Instead, he gave the students notepads and digital recorders and sent them out into the community. For one assignment, Wiencek spent a day on the job with a groundskeeper at Lake View Cemetery, learning about his life. The experience made her less timid about approaching strangers and asking for interviews. She’d come to realize, she says, that “people want to talk.”

In many ways, Sheeler built up Wiencek’s confidence. He encouraged her to pursue a double major, combining English with her initial choice, business management. He recommended her for a public relations internship in New York and made sure she got college credit for it. He even submitted one of her stories for the English department’s Arnaud Gelb Journalism Award—which she won. Whatever topic she proposed for her capstone, Wiencek knew that Sheeler would be on board. “If you shared an idea or a dream with him, he would never say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’ or ‘That’s too far-fetched.’” He was right there with you the whole time, helping you out and cheering you on along the way.”

For students like Wiencek, Sheeler’s approval meant a great deal. Back in 2006, he won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Final Salute,” a 12,000-word story about the families of soldiers killed in the Iraq war. While reporting the story for The Rocky Mountain News, he shadowed a Marine major whose duty was to support these families during the early months of their bereavement. In 2010, Sheeler came to CWRU as the Shirley Wormser Professor in Journalism and Media Writing. He often invited other prominent journalists, including fellow Pulitzer Prize winners, to speak to his classes; then he’d take everyone to the Barking Spider Tavern to continue the conversation.

After meeting with Sheeler in the spring of 2021, Wiencek decided to interview female veterans about their experiences in the military. When American forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan last summer, she consulted him about expanding the project; she wanted to ask the veterans how the pullout was affecting them.

Then, on Sept. 17, Sheeler died unexpectedly, at age 53, at his home in Chagrin Falls. English faculty members, alumni and students gathered in the Guilford House parlor to mourn and pay tribute to him. They also contributed to a flood of testimonials on social media, where journalists across the country expressed their debts to Sheeler, both for the example he set in his work and for his friendship.

Wiencek pressed ahead with her capstone, aided by Associate Professor Mary Grimm and other advisors from the English department. She welcomed their support but missed having Sheeler nearby, sharing his expertise. Late last fall, she dedicated her presentation to him.

“It was hard to do it without him there,” Wiencek says. “It was hard to stand up there and talk about this project that meant a lot to me but also to him. But I’m happy I stuck with it, for his sake. He was a major part of my college experience and one of my favorite professors. He’s going to stick around with me, I’d say, for a while. I learned a lot from him.”

There were many lessons about journalism, and about humanity, that Sheeler was uniquely suited to teach. Early in his career, he made his mark as an obituary writer, publishing candid, meticulously crafted portraits of people who had never been featured in the newspaper before. He would spend hours talking with relatives and friends of the deceased, sitting with them in their living rooms instead of asking questions over the phone. He brought the same style of reporting to “Final Salute,” which he later expanded into a book of the same name; published in 2008, it was a finalist for a National Book Award. One of Sheeler’s favorite interviewing techniques, says former student Matt Hooke (CWR ’20), was to jot down what someone had just said and then keep writing, as if he needed a few moments to catch up. Actually, he was giving the person time to think.

Jim Sheeler laying flowers at the grave of a Marine at Fort Logan National Cemetery

The morning he won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Final Salute,” Jim Sheeler visited Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colorado, and paid his respects to the Marines whose families he had written about. Photo by Todd Heisler

To Sheeler, journalism was all about connecting with people, says another former student, Halle Rose (CWR ’20). That’s why he had his students produce “a day in the life” stories, like the one Wiencek wrote about the groundskeeper. It’s also why he saved thank-you letters from people he’d interviewed. He kept the letters in a plastic bin he would bring to class the first week of the semester. At some point, he’d reach into the heap of pages and draw out his Pulitzer trophy—a glass sphere he’d show the students and then toss back into the bin. “Awards are always nice to get,” he’d concede. But then, as Rose remembers it, he’d gather up an armful of the letters and say: “This is why you do the work. You do it to build the relationships. You do it to make sure people’s stories get told; you do it to make sure the stories get told right.”

Forging connections was as central to Sheeler’s teaching as it was to his reporting. He had his students call him “Jim,” not “Professor Sheeler.” He gave out his cell number. He turned each class into a community of writers who felt comfortable sharing their work with one another. He served as faculty advisor to The Observer, CWRU’s campus newspaper, and guided alumni as they started their careers.

Some of those alumni have become professional journalists. Hooke, a former executive editor of The Observer, now works for two affiliated newspapers in Delaware and Maryland. When he isn’t covering school board meetings and other local news, he writes feature-length obituaries.

Rose, on the other hand, is now a master’s candidate in social work and public health at CWRU. But in her interactions with clients and communities, she still follows the principle Sheeler modeled for his journalism students: Don’t expect people to open up to you until you have shown your commitment to them and won their trust. As he often said, “You have to earn the story.”

Sheeler’s faculty colleagues gratefully speak of his extraordinary service to the English department—as associate chair and director of undergraduate studies, and as a volunteer whenever anything needed to be done. For years, he represented the department at open houses for prospective students, inviting those who were avid readers or writers to Guilford House. “He would just take them to faculty members’ offices and say, ‘Here’s a prospective student who’s really interested in your area. Would you be willing to talk to them?’” Grimm recalls. “And, of course, we always were. He took this great delight in getting people who were passionate about a subject to talk to each other.”

At his first newspaper, Sheeler did a stint as a music critic, and once he settled in Cleveland, he and Professor Christopher Flint often went to concerts together. Invariably, one or two of Sheeler’s students would emerge from the crowd, seeking him out. “Jim liked indie bands, and he would go backstage every time,” Flint recalls. “Then he’d come walking back, brandishing a vinyl record or some knickknack, and he’d have some scoop about the band. He was clearly still doing the beat, still getting the story.”

After Sheeler’s death, Distinguished University Professor Thrity Umrigar reread an email he once sent to several of his friends, inviting them to join him at a concert by the gospel singer Mavis Staples. “As far as I’m concerned,” he wrote, “Mavis and her music are some of the rhythmic superglue holding this world together, and I appreciate you all accompanying me to hold on and sing along.”

Echoing him, Umrigar says: “As far as I’m concerned, Jimmy was the superglue that held many people’s worlds together, including mine. He loved his wife, Annick, and his son, James, with an uncommon passion, and he cared equally about all of his students. He was Everyman and he was brilliant. He exuded joy and hopefulness and optimism and enthusiasm. His favorite words were ‘fantastic’ and ‘absolutely.’ That’s a good range within which to build a happy life.”

Page last modified: March 22, 2022