Assigned the task of obituary writing at the Colorado weekly newspaper Boulder Planet, Jim Sheeler told the stories of average people through a unique style of immersion and person-to-person conversation. He went on to write a captivating 24-page article entitled “Final Salute,” which honored fallen heroes of the Iraq War. This work received 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing and its expanded version was a 2008 National Book Award finalist.
Enriched with powerful experiences and a passion for learning, Sheeler brings his background to CWRU as the new Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing.
Tyler Hoffman: To get things started, where were you born?
Jim Sheeler: I was born in Houston. Then, I moved to Colorado to go to school in order to become a veterinarian. I ended up taking some journalism courses and realized that’s where I really belonged.
TH: Wow that’s quite a jump. How did journalism develop into your career of choice?
JS: [Laughter] I think it started by making movies in the backyard, writing for the high school year book, and enjoying writing…I always have. Then, realizing in college the opportunities to tell other people’s stories and the ability of this little notebook [pulls out his notebook from his back pocket] to act as such as an amazing passport. People will tell you stories that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
TH: What would you say is the most valuable concept you learned from your college experience?
JS: I think college, as the notebook did, opened me up to the many stories that are out there. It helped me realize how great a privilege it is to tell the stories of others.
TH: What was your first assignment as a journalist?
JS: Hmm, my first assignment… I was hired as an intern on the environment desk; they had an environment page. One of my specialties was environmental journalism. I don’t remember exactly what my first assignment was, but I know it was something on that page.
TH: I’m very interested in the fact that your assignment at the Boulder Planet was writing obituaries, could you elaborate on that?
JS: We wanted to start a weekly newspaper that reflected the community even better than the daily had. We noticed that longer obituaries were missing from the paper. We didn’t want the typical formulaic obituaries, but rather we wanted the real stories and profiles that people deserve. You reflect that life in a way that honors it and in a way that teaches people about somebody that they may or may not have known and the lessons that are behind that life. It should be more of an in-depth story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’ve always been frustrated by obituaries that start with the ending. We know that the person died if they’re on the obituary page; why not start it was something fun, interesting, or lively? I don’t think obituaries should be about death at all, but instead they should be about the lessons of life: the good and the bad.
TH: I read that you often gained intimate knowledge of the people you wrote about by immersing yourself in their life and conversing with their family members. Can you explain this approach?
JS: I think that in order to really get the story right, you have to feel a part of it. You have to look through the books on that person’s shelf, look at their marked passages, and sit on the floor with the kids. You have to help people realize that you’re not there to dominate the conversation, but you’re there to really listen. This opens up a lot of doors in life that many people don’t have a chance to enter.
TH: I understand that your experience with obituaries and your sense of immersion played a key role in your article, “Final Salute.” How did these concepts help you write the piece?
JS: I think that if I had not spent so much time writing obituaries, there would have been no way that I could have written “Final Salute.” When the first Colorado soldier died in Iraq and I was sent to cover his funeral, I knew something about talking to grieving families. These stories are hidden in the shadows and it’s our job to find them. That’s what “Final Salute” was all about. I wanted the reader to be able to feel the war in some way. It’s not just about the explosions and the gunfire, but the smaller repercussions that are lasting for families all across America.
TH: So, overall, what would be the most important ideal you learned from that entire endeavor?
JS: I think it’s noticing the sacrifices that these people make. The sacrifices are not just by the people fighting, but by the people that are connected to them. You realize with greater intensity what it means to take a country to war. You feel it more. We should all feel it more.
TH: Given the essential vastness of what you covered with “Final Salute,” what would you say winning the Pulitzer Prize means to you?
JS: It was really quite bittersweet. I had spent so much time with these families that had sacrificed so much. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t something about me or the newspaper but about them. I told every family, each one, that this is just another honor for your son. This is not about winning prizes. It was an honor, absolutely, but the best reward is using it to help keep these stories alive.
TH: Why did you decide to expand this article into a book?
JS: The newspaper story was quite long, but it wasn’t long enough. I still had so much more material and so many scenes that were in all of these notebooks. I had more of these hidden stories and the difficulty was weaving them all together into one narrative. I think that I really wanted to make sure that as many stories as possible were being told. I wanted to include even more names of people whose stories otherwise would be forgotten.
TH: Will you be continuing this topic in the future, or are you moving on to new projects?
JS: I have a few ideas for other books or magazine articles that I’m just starting to research. One of them may involve veterans, but we’ll see where that goes.
TH: I think now we can move into more light-hearted territory. What brings you all the way from Colorado to Cleveland, Ohio?
JS: There are a number of benefits to coming here. This is an amazing job with an amazing department. The people here are so friendly and being able to teach from an English department where stories are really honored is comfortable for me. One of my main goals is to teach students how to tell real compelling stories with characters and scenes. Also, there are so many stories here. I’ve been in Colorado for the last 25 years. I do miss the mountains, but there are so many stories around here that I have a chance to tell through my students.
TH: Why did you decide to move from reporting to teaching?
JS: Well, I had started teaching while I was writing Final Salute (the book) and it was so emotional that I needed a way to escape. Through teaching, I was able to think about the reasons that I came to do this in the first place. I was able to realize why these stories are so valuable. By living through my students’ stories vicariously I feel like I’m continuing to help tell those stories.
TH: What classes are you teaching now or plan to teach in the future?
JS: I’m teaching Introductory to Journalism now. Next semester I’ll be teaching Feature Writing and a new class I’ve started called Multimedia Story Telling. In that class we’ll be using the immersion techniques. We’re going to spend the whole semester at a nursing home telling issue and personal history stories. We’ll tell them through print, slide shows, audio, etc. and then put the whole project on the web. In journalism today it is important to realize how such multimedia elements work. But without a good grounding in story they are useless.
TH: How is the Cleveland weather treating you so far?
JS: I don’t mind it at all, though some are warning me about the winter to come. I am familiar with snow. Part of the Colorado aspect that stays with me is an appreciation for nature. My wife, 11-year-old son and I have already been out hiking and we are planning to do cross country skiing in the future.
TH: What do you think you’re looking forward to most regarding your new time here at CWRU?
JS: I’m really looking forward to the stories that I haven’t seen yet and that I know the students are going to write. This is one of those jobs where you get to learn something new everyday, and that in itself is quite a gift.
TH: What do you hope those who participate in journalism courses take away from the classes?
JS: The skills that you learn as a journalist are so broad and they’re applicable in so many fields. I hope that a lot of the students end up as professional journalists or writers, but the skills of interpersonal communication, writing and telling stories are useful regardless of where you end up.
TH: One last fun question in closing. If you could take a vacation right now where would you go?
JS: I think I would go back to Colorado. It’s part of a long goodbye to the state and it is going to take me a little while. It has a large place in my heart, so we’ll be visiting from time to time.