When your mentor-turned-friend is still a teacher

“Can you read something for me?”

Jack has heard that from me many times over the last 26 and a half years.

But I don’t ask him to read the final drafts of my stories anymore unless it’s a major endeavor; the kind where I’ve written on it for so long that I need checks and balances to make sure I haven’t lost my perspective.

All writers need that sometimes. I’m just fortunate to have had the same person by my side for almost three decades.

Jack was the editor of a suburban Seattle daily newspaper when I walked into his office looking for a reporting job in January, 1991. My persistence in following up with him eventually won him over, and he hired me. Thus began another kind of schooling than my undergraduate degree had provided.

By the time I met him, Jack had been a writer or an editor in several cities across the United States, as well as Hong Kong, for over three decades. He was highly-regarded because his writing was concise and flawless, and as an editor, he made other people’s work read the same way.

Jack’s most sage advice to me was that, “you know the story is ready when not more more word could be taken away” from the copy and have it still make sense. That is a concept to live by, because young and/or inexperienced writers use too many words to say what could be said with far less.

Throughout years as a fulltime journalist I worked for Jack and then other editors, but it was Jack that I always went to for final edits. He kept having less and less to say to me with each year, and then we got to the point where all he would say every so often was something like, “well, the lead could have been more interesting.” And of course he was right, so I’d go fix it. Last year he gave me the highest compliment as a writer that anyone could get from him. I was honored.

Jack started out as a mentor, but he evolved into a friend around the time I became 30. Outwardly we didn’t have too much in common, as his interests were foreign affairs, world politics, business and government, while mine were sports, psychology, coaching/training and working with teens. But we have similar lenses on life, and we were – and are – writers to the core.

These last two years, I have been surprised to see my friend morph into a women’s basketball fan. I took him to some Seattle Storm games in 2001, but I guess he wasn’t ready to embrace it at the time. Then Kelsey Plum came to the University of Washington, and Jack was hooked.

True to someone who has lived many years and seen so much, Jack is a keen observer. More than a few times last winter, I’d be driving somewhere and he’d suddenly call me to discuss a Pac-12 or another game he’d just seen on TV. He nailed the personalities of all of the Pac-12 coaches without me saying anything to him about them. I was highly amused.

Jack likes the fact that the women play sound, fundamental basketball. Like me, he views the NBA as more of a stunt show and a star parade than anything else. Jack has also had plenty of questions for me as he destroyed the learning curve in figuring out basketball: How is that a foul? How does the NCAA Tournament work? What’s the different between preconference play and conference play? He’s been thirsty for knowledge.

I was going through a long explanation one day in March and Jack said “Ah!” as understanding dawned. He laughed.

“Learning is fun!” he said.

I blinked. Then smiled.

Jack turned 80 years old last year. He still works as a writer in Seattle because he loves it. And he’s still learning.

“When I stop learning, I die,” he elaborated when I asked him.

Jack is teaching and inspiring by example, too.

Now I’ve just got to get him to come cover a game with me.