Apr 182006
Authors: Hallie Woods The Rocky Mountain Collegian

His journey to greatness began on these very pages.

“It actually started at the Collegian when I was an entertainment reporter,” said Jim Sheeler, a general assignment reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

Sheeler, 37, who graduated from CSU’s school of journalism, took his career to new heights when he received the Pulitzer Prize on Monday. Sheeler and the photographer on the assignment, Todd Heisler, won a pair of Pulitzer prizes for writing and photography for a lengthy feature article titled “Final Salute.”

Sheeler enrolled at CSU in 1986 with high aspirations of becoming a veterinarian. After a video editing class, however, his interests changed.

“I had all these math and science classes, but working with stories was more instantly rewarding,” Sheeler said.

During his time at CSU, several teachers greatly influenced his evolving career.

“There were several teachers in the journalism department who have since retired,” Sheeler said. “John Calderazzo had a huge impact on me in the English department.”

After graduating from CSU, Sheeler was hired by the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper where he worked for four years. It wasn’t long before Sheeler found himself yearning for more freedom and joined several other former Daily Camera workers to start their own newspaper, the Boulder Planet.

“I left so I could tell the stories that I wanted to tell,” Sheeler said.

While working at the Planet, Sheeler began writing as a freelance journalist for the Denver Post. When the Boulder Planet folded in 2000, he continued his position at the Denver Post until he joined the Rocky Mountain News in 2002.

As a general assignment reporter, Sheeler could indulge in his love for feature writing.

“It gives you a chance to be able to sit down and really meet somebody, and tell the true story,” Sheeler said.

It was a dark day when Sheeler began work on his prize-winning story. While attending the funeral of two Marines at Fort Logan National Cemetery, Sheeler met Maj. Steve Beck, a casualty assistance calls officer for the U.S. Marines. It was then his idea took flight.

The story, however, had been brewing in Sheeler’s head for sometime.

“I wanted to find out more about the people who hold and fold the flag for the last time,” Sheeler said.

Sheeler and Heisler then followed Beck for 10 months to learn about the duties and devastations that a casualty assistance calls officer must face on a daily basis. Sheeler watched as Beck moved from family to family reporting deaths to loved ones. It wasn’t long before the job took a toll on Sheeler’s emotions.

“If you don’t get emotionally involved, you can’t understand it,” Sheeler said. “It was incredibly draining but also incredibly rewarding.”

Sheeler’s article, along with Heisler’s emotionally charged photos, ran in the Nov. 11 edition of the Rocky Mountain News. The elaborate and heart-touching story reflects on Beck, along with all the families to whom he is now attached as a direct result of his job.

While thrilled with his success, Sheeler said he feels the Pulitzer should not be awarded solely to him.

“I definitely don’t take it as a personal prize,” Sheeler said. “I take it as something for these families and all the people involved in the story. It’s for them.”

Hallie Woods can be reached at regional@collegian.com

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