In newsrooms, obituary writing often falls to the cub reporter or the veteran approaching retirement.
At the Colorado weekly newspaper Boulder Planet, the assignment landed on the desk of relative newbie Jim Sheeler.
“This assignment came with an intense responsibility,” he said, because often an obituary is the last time a person’s story is told.
Telling stories of “ordinary people with extraordinary lives” eventually earned Sheeler the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his 24-page piece, “Final Salute,” which honored fallen soldiers from the Iraq War. The article, a stark illustration of the war’s impact on family and friends, ran as a special insert in the Rocky Mountain News on Veterans Day 2005.
This summer, Sheeler moved to Cleveland from Colorado, where he was a Scholar in Residence at the University of Colorado. He is the new Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing in the Case Western Reserve University Department of English.
English Department Chair Mary Grimm said Sheeler’s arrival is an important addition to the department.
“We feel that his skills and teaching interests in new media will take journalism courses at the university into a new direction, introducing and acclimating students to the changing world of journalism,” Grimm says.
Through introductory journalism and multimedia storytelling courses, Sheeler will share his immersion style of reporting and teach students how to find and follow stories to publication in print and online.
He fills the vacancy left by award-winning investigative reporter Ted Gup, now chair of the journalism department at Emerson University.
Sheeler admits to being nervous and even uncomfortable when he first started writing obituaries, but he didn’t shy away from the topic. Instead, he found himself fascinated by mortuary notices with intriguing personal details. They made him wonder how such stories could have been missed when the individuals were still alive.
Then he realized the opportunity to tell these stories still existed.
Over ham sandwiches and photo albums at kitchen tables, families and friends told Sheeler the details of remarkable lives.
“With my notebook in hand, I would ask questions about the one thing they wanted to talk about, which was their loved one,” Sheeler says.
At times, he laughed. At times, he cried.
Among Sheeler’s assignments at the Rocky Mountain News was to write a story about Lance Cpl. ThomasTommy Slocum, the first Colorado Marine killed in the Iraq War.
It was Sheeler’s first military funeral of a service member killed in action while on active duty.
He and photographer Todd Heisler (who also won a Pulitzer for his photography for “Final Salute”) then devoted a year to following Maj. Steve Beck, a Marine casualty assistance calls officer. Beck had the heart-wrenching duty of telling sons, daughters, husbands and wives that their loved ones had been killed in the line of duty.
After “Final Salute” won the Pulitzer, Sheeler took a leave of absence from the paper to expand the article into a book with the same title. Again, Sheeler received recognition for his writing as a 2008 National Book Award finalist.
Sheeler also has written Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives, published in 2007. He co-authored Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers with Alana Baranick (formerly of The Plain Dealer) and Stephen Miller (who now writes for the Wall Street Journal).
Sheeler began his career in journalism by earning a bachelor’s in technical journalism from Colorado State University. He later received his MA from the University of Colorado. He worked at three newspapers before joining the Rocky Mountain News in 2002.
http://www.case.edu/artsci/engl/Sheeler/Sheeler.html to learn more about Sheeler.