Remembering Jim Sheeler

Remembering+Jim+Sheeler

Observer Staff, Executive Editor

After having only interacted with Jim Sheeler over Zoom or the phone, when I first saw him standing in the Corner Alley, I was struck by a single thought: So, this is what a journalist looks like. Jim was wearing jeans and a green flannel shirt—a rather impractical outfit for bowling with some of The Observer’s editorial board members. 

Jim’s bowling form looked equally impractical. It started out typically enough—he had a small windup and threw a heavy ball—but right after releasing, Jim slid his leading foot, making it seem like he was losing his balance. I was worried he was going to fall over during his first roll.

After we realized that was his form, though, none of us thought much of it again. We were too engrossed in our conversation, anyways. With Jim leading, we covered a variety of topics, getting progressively more profound. I don’t think any of us were paying that much attention to the score—I certainly wasn’t—and the game was passing quickly.

As we were bowling our last frame, I became aware of the score again. Jim’s tally was a good 40 points higher than our scores. Surprisedly, we asked him how he became such a good bowler.

With a boyish grin on his face, Jim told us that he used to bowl weekly.

As an obituary writer, Jim was better than anyone else at finding the fundamental essence of a person. Our time spent bowling illustrates a bit of Jim’s fundamental essence, I believe. 

Jim wanted the stories of everyday people to be heard and then told. In talking to us, Jim uncovered our stories. He was an amazing listener. While Jim never told our stories, I’m sure if he had the chance, he would have remembered the things we told him that day.

Jim’s quest to share people’s stories started with him telling them himself. Once he came to Case Western Reserve University, though, he found a calling empowering his students and advisees to tell others’ stories themselves, and in doing so, he helped many of us find our own voices. He always made me feel supported and helped build my confidence in my reporting. Looking back, it wasn’t Jim’s outfit that should have made him seem like a journalist to me—it was his unending desire to hear people’s stories.

The irony was that Jim was too focused on everyone else’s story to talk very much about his own.

During the last couple of days, I’ve been trying to reach out to past Observer members to give them a chance to write pieces in honor of Jim. Together, through all of these pieces, my hope is that we can tell a sliver of Jim’s story.

Nathan Lesch

Executive Editor

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Jim Sheeler was starting his journey at Case Western Reserve University when I was beginning my tenure at The Observer.  Jim immediately approached the student staff at the paper, offering to lend his experience and knowledge to the staff. 

He had a great philosophy—that to really learn something you have to be prepared to listen. The classes he taught were an amazing resource to the newspaper staff and Jim was a cherished member of CWRU who will be sorely missed. 

Eileen Sabrina Herman

Former Editor-in-Chief

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I’m thinking of my extended CWRU family as we mourn the loss of our mentor and friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and beloved professor, Jim Sheeler.

Jim’s passion for empathetic storytelling was contagious, but he never used his gift for his own self-promotion. Instead, he lived vicariously through his students. When they wrote a story, he would hang on to every word. When they needed help, he would give them his personal cell phone number. When they graduated, their success became his success.

For me, the legacy of Jim Sheeler lies in the fundamental truth that everyone has a story to tell. And if we just took the time to listen, the world would be a better place.

Eleven years ago, when I was a first-year student reporter for The Observer, I interviewed Jim. He had just begun his professorship at CWRU and through the interview we had an open conversation about storytelling and teaching. I feel it’s best to end with his own words.

“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.”

Tyler Hoffman

Former Executive Editor

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Earlier this week, the Case Western Reserve community said a tearful goodbye to Jim Sheeler, Pulitzer Prize winner, the Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing and my mentor.

In 1992, a fresh-faced Jim started his career as an obituary writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Boulder, Colorado. The “death beat” as it is so-called in the journalism world, is largely considered the rookie gig––a job that few people want and no one enjoys. They give up holidays, anniversaries and celebrations in order to interview and recount the lives of the everyman––individuals who would otherwise never make the paper. Although the job came with neither glory nor fame, Sheeler enthusiastically embraced the task of taking life’s most difficult moments and creating something that was both beautiful and heartfelt. By focusing on the lives of ordinary individuals, he proved that journalism could change the world, but it could also change just one person’s world. And sometimes that’s enough.

Jim has since spent much of his career honoring those who had passed while ensuring that those who were left behind could grieve with both dignity and grace. He was a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold and a comforting presence to all those who had lost the ones that they cared about. As a teacher, he prided himself on passing along these lessons with his ultimate challenge: “Tell me a story.” 

So here it is––a short story about a man who has had the most profound influence on my life in the years since I arrived at CWRU. There is no amount of artfully arranged flowers or meaningful cards that I can send that could ease the burden of losing a man beloved by so many. But I can use the tools and skills that he taught me to honor him in the very same way that he honored others during his 30 years of being a journalist. I can only hope that he would be proud of what is, overwhelmingly, the most difficult article I have ever had to write. 

I met Jim in September of 2018, the fall semester of my first year on campus. Although I could hardly ever be described as timid, that first couple of months on campus was one of the most unsure times of my life. After moving more than 1000 miles away from home, I had still not yet picked out a major or a career. The life of a budding young adult is one filled with uncertainty––I had no idea where I was going and very little guidance on how to get there. 

By accident, I stumbled upon a lecture being held in Kelvin Smith Library by former Washington Post journalist, Wes Lowery. Jim opened the session, lauding Lowery’s ability to navigate the complex world of journalism while still maintaining the nuances of a story. It was here that I was first introduced to the idea of written journalism. The impassioned way that he spoke about truth and equality could move even the stiffest of rooms. Lowery was an up-and-coming rockstar, but Jim stood as a beacon for the muckrakers who fought for transparency and virtue for decades. 

At the end of the discussion, I remember getting Lowery’s autograph like I was a preteen girl backstage at a concert. My only regret is that I didn’t have the foresight to get Jim’s signature as well. I had always assumed that I’d get it later, perhaps at graduation when I would tell him how much I appreciated everything he had done for me. We would hug it out and I could walk away knowing that I’d always have a small reminder of him to look at when I needed encouragement. Perhaps my writing this article is my own way of finalizing my memories of him, making sure I have every detail––every lesson––written down before I can forget them.

We chatted at-length after that seminar and though I was one of the youngest students in the room, I felt incredibly seen. His gentle demeanor and calming cadence could make even the most inexperienced student feel like they had importance. When you spoke, he leaned into the conversation with his head almost in a bow-–as if you were talking to an old friend and not an award-winning journalist. I didn’t know it then, but it was this same ability that allowed him to gain the trust of so many and create his ensemble of incredible, human-centered pieces.

After our chance encounter, I vowed to take one of Jim’s classes, a goal which came true a semester later in the form of his ENGL 309: Immersion Journalism/Multimedia Storytelling class. As a recent art-school film graduate, I arrogantly assumed that I wouldn’t need his help navigating the world of media arts. In truth, his documentary course was never about the technical intricacies of directing. In fact, he seemed to be learning about the art of editing as much as we were. But his ability to tell stories transcended the page, and instead the class acted as a how-to guide on getting to know the people in front of the camera. 

Jim’s ability to navigate those around him never failed to amaze me and I have spent the better part of three years trying to gain even a modicum of his talent for understanding people. Just like I am a brash person, I am also a brash journalist. When I am following a lead, I walk in with the expectation to get a story and do not give up until I have satisfied that goal. Jim’s quiet approach to story-telling could not be more different from my own, and yet it was almost tear-inducing to watch. The closest thing I could compare it to is our favorite journalist-turned-hero, Superman. Not only did Jim’s wide-framed glasses and trademark reporter’s notebook certainly resembled that of Clark Kent, but he had this way of approaching people that would almost immediately put them at ease. When you told him your story, it wasn’t through force or coercion. It was like a gift given to someone that you knew would appreciate it––someone that you knew would do you justice. When he worked on a story, he would sometimes place his trusty reporter’s notepad beneath his pillow so that when he woke up in a panic that night, he could check that every detail of his written accounts were both accurate and true.                             

For Jim, the beauty of a story came not in the extreme moments of life, but the subtle highs and lows that followed them. When he began working on his award-winning 12,000-word feature piece, “Final Salute,” he chose not to focus on the ongoing Iraq War, which had overtaken every media source since its inception in 2003. Instead, he became a constant companion to the families of soldiers killed in action as well as a friend to the man tasked with telling these families about their loved one’s passing. 

Jim held each person with the same reverence and respect that he afforded to leaders like the Dahli Lama and Desmond Tutu. Even 15 years later, he kept his Pulitzer––a prize that most journalists can only dream of one day winning––thrown haphazardly inside of a box beneath hundreds of letters that he had received from his sources over the years. It was these correspondences, the tear-stained missives from the wives of lost soldiers and thankful messages from readers, that were his most prized possessions. Not the awards.

That kind of unshakeable kindness and dedication to the everyday man only comes after years of commitment to the craft. After that initial class, I attended every lecture, every course and every seminar that I could. I declared an English major with a focus in journalism and quickly gained Jim as my official academic advisor. If there was a problem I didn’t know how to fix, a source I didn’t know how to approach or a task that seemed just a little too out of my reach, I always knew that he was one phone call away. During the summer of my second year, I dealt with unwanted advances by the head editor at one of my jobs––a struggle I did not mention to him until I returned to campus in the fall that year. Although he was usually a genial and peaceful man, Jim’s righteous anger towards my former boss at that moment was something to behold. He made it clear that I had every lawyer at my disposal if I ever felt the need to go forward with publishing a story or discussing my experiences. I never ended up publishing an article about my difficulties during that time, but there was an unceasing comfort that came with realizing that I had someone at school that had my back no matter what. 

By the time that I made it to my junior year, I could quote his lessons by heart. He would always laughingly apologize to me for telling stories and reading pieces that I already knew so well, but honestly, the impassioned way in which he approached teaching meant that the stories sounded new every time he recited them. Even through the exhausting internet classroom that is Zoom, he was able to capture an audience with hilarious and tragic articles in a way that only he could. My final class with him, a course on magazine writing, culminated with a 12-page capstone presentation that followed the experiences of sex workers during the pandemic. Up until this point, it was the most effort I had ever put into a singular article and it would not be half of the success that it was if not for his encouraging words and help along the way. He picked up every 10 p.m. phone call and read every sloppy rough draft and for that I will be forever grateful.

My senior year will be the first time during my collegiate career that I will not be able to take a class taught by Jim Sheeler. Instead, I am studying abroad in South Korea, a feat that would not be possible without the glowing letter of recommendation provided by Jim (even though I procrastinated until the last minute and asked him to send it the night before). As happy as I am for this adventure, I cannot help but wish that I was back in Cleveland so that we could have had one more coffee together or one more chat about the latest news hitting Washington. I’ll be home in just four months, but I know that when I eventually return to the all too familiar walls of Gilford Hall, it won’t be the same without his paper-covered office on the second floor.

To those students, friends and family who have had the privilege of knowing Jim Sheeler, I know what you are going through. I may be more than 7000 miles away, but know that I grieve his loss right alongside you. Finishing up my college experience without being able to email him for advice seems almost too difficult to imagine. He will continue to be one of the finest men that I have had the pleasure of meeting and I will always appreciate what he has done for me during my three years at CWRU. 

To those who did not have the opportunity to meet this great man, I hope that I was able to convey even the smallest amount of appreciation, respect and admiration that we all felt for Jim Sheeler. The Case Western Reserve community, along with the rest of the world, got a little less bright without him here. I still do not know where I am going in this life, but I am confident that his dedication to the field of journalism and willingness to help others will continue to inspire me until I find my way. I leave you with the same charge that he gave to me during my first class: “Tell me a story.” 

Hannah Allen

Director of Digital Media

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My most vivid memories from my first year are in Jim’s class. I can’t remember which chemistry test I failed or which calculus SI sessions I skipped. I remember being one of only a few first-years in Intro to Journalism, scared shitless, but immediately calmed and reassured by Jim’s equally anxious, but incredibly welcoming and supportive attitude. 

That deep rooted insecurity all writers have about their work was assuaged by Jim’s support. I was not the best writer in that class—far from it—but Jim always found the positive in my work and pushed me to improve my skills. For as anxious as I was, Jim’s support got me talking to strangers at concerts, going to religious celebrations I knew nothing about and speaking up in a class of upperclassmen who truly terrified me. 

Feature Writing with him over Zoom last fall was a lifesaver. Again, I can’t recall most of my classes from Zoom University, but seeing him—albeit on an LED screen—was a highlight of my isolated days. Jim went above and beyond that semester. What we couldn’t do reporting-wise, he made up for with incredibly talented guest speakers who Zoomed in almost every week. I remember being surprised at the breadth of amazing journalists he was able to get to talk to us. In retrospect, I think it’s impossible to have met Jim and not liked him. If I had ever been in a place to speak to one of his classes, I’d clear everything in my schedule to do it. 

Jim mailed us all a copy of his book that semester. He didn’t make us buy it or pay for postage. He just gave it to us. We never got around to reading from it in class. He lost power during a snowstorm but still came to class from his car where he had his phone plugged in. Selflessness wasn’t even something he thought about—he just was that way. There was such genuine kindness in everything he said and did.

Jim’s philosophy of “all you need to be a good journalist is a notebook and curiosity” has always stuck with me, especially when I doubt my work or skill. So many times I’ve been caught up in my own head or afraid to take that first step of talking to a stranger or making a call for a story. Jim’s philosophy is what gets me through those times of insecurity. A genuine interest in other people’s lives is what lead Jim to telling the best stories. Jim saw the potential in everyone to both tell a good story and report on another life. 

His encouragement and support put me on the path to becoming an English major, and he helped me land several internship opportunities. Gratitude is an understatement, but I wish I had thanked him. Thanked him for telling me to submit my work to The Observer, thanked him for helping me rewrite drafts, thanked him for helping me secure internships, thanked him for being one of the most influential people in my life. I think he knew, though, what his work meant—both his writing and through his role as a mentor and instructor. It is with so much pain that I remember him as a mentor, professor and friend. The way he engaged his classes and motivated us to engage with the world around us is an invaluable skill. So thank you Jim. Thank you for the gift of confidence, curiosity and a writer’s notebook.

Lydia Mandell

Staff Member and Student

———-

Jim Sheeler taught my Introduction to Journalism class in fall 2019. I was just an environmental geology student, but my roommate Matt Hooke was the Executive Editor of The Observer and he convinced me to take the class to help bolster his weekly article numbers. It ended up being one of those classes that change your whole worldview, where you leave class each day thinking in a brand-new way.  

Jim’s way of introducing himself was by showing us some of his most precious trophies from his years of journalism, which he kept in a big beige plastic tub. He reminisced about a shirt he got from doing a story on a high school that was healing from tragedy and letters from those touched by the obituaries he had written about their loved ones.  

“Oh, then there’s this,” he says, unburying his Pulitzer Prize from the bottom of the same tub.  “But this is not at all as important as anything else that I’ve gotten from being a journalist.”

This wasn’t just a clever way to brag, though. The man really lived by this. 

He gave each of us a “passport to the world.” It was really just a journalist’s notepad, the type that fits in your pocket and is as long as a pencil, but he showed us how much power it could have by sending us across the city to interview the most fabulously average people.  

We came back to read our stories aloud in class and he discussed them with us until the last possible minute. The takeaway was always much greater than just the writing. He taught us that everyone you see has a story. It is truly painful knowing that Jim is no longer with us, but we can find strength in knowing his story continues in all the people he inspired.

Rest in peace, Jim. We’ll miss you.

Lewis Nelken

Former Staff Member and Student

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To many students of our time, Jim Sheeler was a professor, an adviser, a reporter and, often, a friend. He believed everyone had a story—it was one of his fundamental truths. Of course, it’s one thing to say those words, but it was more than that to him. He believed it down to his core. 

I had the privilege of knowing Jim while I was on the staff of The Observer in my first few years at Case Western Reserve University and later on when I took a capstone class with him in my senior year. Some teachers were loud—drilling in lessons one by one—but I will always remember him for the opposite: a quiet strength who encouraged us to reach farther, to write a little more, to find a path that we were comfortable walking down.

As busy students often are, you could have described us as scrambling—running this and that way while putting together one essay or reading another chapter. He saw us in our successes and failures and gave us patience and understanding even when we didn’t always deserve it. He helped us share those stories that we had buried within us, oftentimes ones that we didn’t even know were there. He never gave up on the potential he saw in each of us, and for that we pushed ourselves to chase the image of what he thought we could become.

He always wanted the best for us, and he knew that stories never wrote themselves overnight. We were beyond just students to him. We had a voice, and he listened to each of us carefully. He wanted to hear where we had been and to know where we wanted to go. He’d want to know because he was a professor and a friend we could talk to. He’d want to know because each of us had a story we could tell him in time.

We all have professors as we go through our college experience, but Jim is one who is easily remembered. He will always remind me of genuine strength and kindness as he helped each of us shape our paths. When I look back, I’ll remember his guidance and wish for the same strength—the strength to look at the light and dark and write its truths. 

Mel Sayre

Former Staff Member and Student

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I never told him nor do I think he ever knew, but Professor Scheeler played a significant role in my decision to enroll at CWRU. As a high school student, I was interested in studying some form of English, either creative writing or journalism. During my senior year, I became increasingly drawn towards journalism. I was—and still am—interested in both politics and writing; journalism seemed like the perfect intersection between the two. My only concern as I was going through the college application process was that some of the schools I was interested in did not have specific journalism programs. I figured that a double major in English and political science might be an appropriate substitute, but I needed to learn more about how effective such a route could be before I committed.

At an open house my senior year, I had the opportunity to meet Professor Scheeler. I don’t remember our entire conversation perfectly, but I know that I walked away from that admissions event feeling very confident that my passions and interests would be supported by members of CWRU’s English department such as Professor Scheeler. I knew that CWRU was my top choice of school going into that open house, but the fact that I was able to have a one on one conversation with a member of the English department who showed genuine care and provided valuable insight into how I could study journalism at CWRU was essential to confirming that CWRU was the place for me.

I ultimately went on to declare history and political science majors instead of English, but my involvement with The Observer kept me in touch with him. He stood out to me as a very kind person during Observer and English department events and I appreciate the advice he sent me leading up to an interview I was supposed to have with MSNBC in September of 2020. I may not have gone down the path that I originally expected to at CWRU, but Professor Scheeler was essential to helping me confirm that there was one here for me for which I am very grateful.

To his family and friends, you are in my thoughts and prayers.

Caroline Kuntzman

Staff Member

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The second semester of my junior year at CWRU, I changed majors from electrical engineering to English. As a part of that, I enrolled in ENGL 204: Introduction to Journalism, my first semester as an English major. Professor Sheeler taught us early on that “everyone has a story;” they just need someone to ask about it.

Once the final semester of my senior year rolled around, I took ENGL 307C: Magazine and Feature Writing, capstone edition, also taught by Professor Sheeler. That time around, he taught me how to find the stories in people and places, and how to draw them out for the rest of the world to see.

Because of Jim, I visited places that I never would have gone. I found joy in places I previously had no interest in. I made friends with people I wouldn’t have even normally talked to.

When I think about my college professors, he’s the clearest one in my memory: leaning forward, listening to whoever was talking (me, other students, interviewees, class guests), nodding as they talked, with that expression that he got when he concentrated, making them feel like their story was the most important. Now, those memories will come with a little more sadness.

James Sheeler made me a better writer and a better person. I took two of his classes half a decade ago; I can only imagine how his family must feel. My heart aches for them. My heart breaks with his loss.

Hunter Knoxx Overstreet

Former Student

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Addendum: To honor Jim’s desire to empower his students to share stories, The Observer will continue to accept short pieces written in Jim’s memory. If you would like to submit something, please send that submission to observer@case.edu.