Sep 092009
 
Authors: Aaron Hedge

Jim Sheeler’s Facebook status read: “Heading back up to CSU. Wish I had time for an afternoon nap under the friendly trees at the Oval,” Wednesday evening.

At the time his status went active at 5:55 a.m. Tuesday, he was getting ready to leave his Boulder home to give a presentation to crowd of CSU community members who would gather later that day in the Lory Student Center’s Grey Rock Room about his book “Final Salute.”

The first thought in his mind was the simple desire to lie in the shady grass on the most famous piece of ground on CSU’s campus — a place he brought his notes to study before afternoon thunderstorms on late summer days before he graduated CSU in 1990 with degree in broadcast journalism.

But he didn’t have the time to lie there Tuesday. He had to rush back to CU-Boulder where his storytelling and civic engagement class would be waiting to head to a Boulder nursing home where students would find stories that Sheeler said might not otherwise be told.

Sheeler, who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for a version of “Final Salute” that ran in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, now attributes his success to CSU English professor John Calderazzo.

“In many ways, what he gave me was what I’m trying to give my students, which is that freedom to play with stories,” he said.

Getting to the Pulitzer

About two decades before “Final Salute” was published, a paper written by Sheeler landed on Calderazzo’s advanced creative writing classroom desk about a KCSU DJ who Sheeler had been hanging out with for his first class assignment.

During Sheeler’s reporting for the piece, he went to a concert with the DJ and ended up in the mosh pit, immersing himself in the story –/something most journalists don’t normally do.

“He had a very good eye and a very good ear for dialogue,” Calderazzo told the Collegian Tuesday.

That was the start of Sheeler’s reporting career that led him to publish “Final Salute” and a full-length compilation of many obituaries that he wrote for The Boulder Daily Camera and The Rocky Mountain News.

The obituary compilation, “Obit,” was published just after it was announced that Sheeler won the Pulitzer.

Now he teaches journalism courses as scholar-in-residence at Boulder.

A dying profession

On Feb. 26, Sheeler’s students were let out of class early.

The scholar-in-residence at CU-Boulder had stepped up to the podium and announced to the classroom that The Rocky Mountain News would print its final issue the next day.

“I actually choked up and couldn’t continue, so I cancelled class,” he says.

It was the end of an era and a newspaper that Sheeler said was the avenue he took to tell the stories that wouldn’t have existed without the Rocky, which, until that day, was Colorado’s flagship news publication.

“I stood in the parking lot with photographer Todd Heisler, and we looked back into the window. The sleeping widow reminded why we were there,” were the words in the fourth paragraph in a column that ran with Sheeler’s byline in the final Rocky issue.

“We could make people stop.”

Rocky Editor John Temple had a conversation with Sheeler asking to come write one last story for the paper, which he had left for the position at CU about two years before.

The column used his reporting for “Final Salute” as an example of the power behind journalism.

The scene described in the column was portrayed in a photograph of a woman lying on a mattress on the floor of a church listening to the song that played during her wedding to a man who was killed in battle on a laptop that illuminated her face.

The man was lying in a casket behind the mattress.

Passersby didn’t look in the window.

Sheeler and Heisler made people stop by shedding light on the woman’s story, as they did the stories of dozens of other people, with “Final Salute.”

Sheeler says the dying of the newspaper represents a sad trend in the history of journalism that is leading to fewer and fewer stories being told.

But at the same time, he says he and his students remain optimistic about their future careers.

“If they know how to tell a compelling story with a beginning, middle and end in a way that will captivate their readers, they will be fine,” he says.

Sheeler says that, while it’s “invigorating to live vicariously through my students, “he looks forward to a time when he can start reporting for a newspaper again.

Staff writer Lauren Leete contributed to this report.

Development Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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