I remember Mike.

Well, this is very sad news. My former Columbus Dispatch colleague and friend Mike Harden died yesterday. Cancer of the throat and chest made quick work of him; he was only diagnosed in June. But he stayed in the traces until the end. “Semi-retired,” i.e., writing as often as Maureen Dowd does, he filed his last column on Sunday. It was about playing Scrabble with his daughter in his hospital room. A humor piece.

I always called Mike the best columnist you never heard of. A gifted writer and compassionate reporter, he was a throwback to an earlier era, before newspapers embarrassed themselves trying to be a “product” that you “use,” and were content to be something to read. He always told me the role model for his life’s work was Jim Bishop, another guy you’ve probably never heard of, but take my word for it — he used to be big. It’s the papers that got small.

Mike told stories, most often about other people, sometimes about himself. He could make anyone’s story interesting, and frequently noble. He wrote a piece about a day in the life of a neonatal intensive-care nurse that I used to read to writing students, although it frequently left me a little choked up, particularly the part about how the NICU staff handle the babies who are about to die. They’re taken from the warmers, disconnected from the tubes and monitors, held close and rocked by the nurses until the end comes. It’s the sort of killer detail a former Navy medic wouldn’t miss.

Vietnam is most likely where Mike honed the cynicism every newsman needs, and while he was capable of enormous empathy, he was never mawkish. He knew that the best way to tell a sad or sentimental story was just to tell it, that if the facts couldn’t speak for themselves or you had to pimp it up with bullshit rhetorical tricks to drag out a few sniffles, you were selling your readers short by insulting their intelligence. A musician and songwriter in his spare time, he had a lyricist’s way of getting to the point without too much dithering.

But he wasn’t all about dying preemies. He could be very funny, and wrote many one-liners I can quote to this day. On the subject of teaching his children about the birds and bees, he considered and rejected a textbook, because “trying to understand sex by reading a book is like trying to understand jazz by touring a saxophone factory.” And he wrote the single best description of what it’s like to write a newspaper column four or five days a week, one I’ve repeated more times than I can count. It was, he said, “like making love in a burning building — you get the idea it would have been so much more memorable if only there’d been more time and fewer fireman at the window.”

A column is basically a short essay, but once in a while he tried the longer form. He wrote a piece for Ohio magazine that remains the single best description of the Ohio State Fair I’ve ever read (granted, it’s not a mission many writers take on). And one of my absolute favorites was this one, “I Remember Woody,” which I dug up after…well, I’ll get to it in a moment.

It’s a marvel, this piece, published a month after Ohio State’s legendary football coach died. (Lest you think he took that long to work on it, I’m fairly sure this appeared in the paper’s now-defunct Sunday magazine, which had a three-week lead time, so it’s more likely he batted it out on the usual schedule, giving himself a day or two, tops. From its wonderful Western-movie open to its Scorsesean finale, it is the experience that every Central Ohioan had with Woody Hayes, carrying you through from childhood worship to adolescent scorn to adult reconciliation, and the reason I remembered it only recently was this companion piece, i.e., Mitch Albom’s blurtage on the death of Bo Schembechler in 2006.

You could almost make this a writing-class exercise: Two legends, two writers, two obits. Compare and contrast. For starters, this is a textbook lesson on the use and abuse of the first person, on economy of language, on organization and craft. Mike’s is half the length of Mitch’s and packs 10 times the punch. In Mike’s piece, every detail, every anecdote, is freighted with meaning and subtext, is visual — you can see the men, the armchair coaches, gathered around the Philco on football Saturdays, second-guessing their hero, see the crowd of student protestors jeering Woody during the nightmare spring of 1970. Whereas Mitch, as usual, mostly reminds us who had the magic access, and even with all that time spent at the great man’s elbow, he still couldn’t find a decent quote with a magnifying glass:

Bo was passionate about what he did. “Some of the finest people I know are football coaches,” he once told me. “They’re smart. They’re tough. Good thinkers. Hard workers. When I say I’m a football coach, I’m damn proud of the fact that I’m a football coach.”

Now, for extra credit: One of these writers is paid $250,000 a year and won the Red Smith Award, the other considerably less. Take your best guess and pass your papers forward.

Well, I could go on all day. I won’t. But I will say this: In Mike’s piece, you can see his instinctive knowledge of what makes a truly compelling portrait — not just the light but the shadows. Beginning art students learn it’s the chiaroscuro that gives a drawing dimension. So in that spirit I’ll tell you Mike was imperfect as a writer and person. He could be a little windy and ponderous at times. He went through slumps. But newspapermen, unlike many other writers, have the obligation of daily deadlines, and the disadvantage of having their bad days on display to 200,000 readers, not crumpled in a wastebasket somewhere. However, day after day, column after column, he defied the conventional wisdom of contemporary editors: A story about an old lady? What does she do? She’s afraid of leaving her apartment because she lives in a bad neighborhood? What utility does that have for suburban readers? Mike’s business card could have been four words long: Good stories, well-told.

Now it’s his epitaph. Farewell, buddy. Take good notes.

Posted at 9:20 am in Media |
 

30 responses to “I remember Mike.”

  1. Dorothy said on October 14, 2010 at 9:27 am

    I read Mike’s Sunday column and meant to mention it to you in comments on Monday and completely forgot. I’m glad I got to meet him in the office last year when Mark Ellis brought him in to interview my boss. A very sad loss for the Columbus Dispatch and its readers.

  2. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 14, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Thanks. Also well-told.

  3. adrianne said on October 14, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Very sorry to hear about your old pal Mike’s death. He was one of the unsung greats of the paragraph factory.

  4. alex said on October 14, 2010 at 10:17 am

    This week also marked the passing of two old pillars of Fort Wayne society, Dick Doermer and Allen Steere.

    Allen was my dad’s boss at one time and lived to be 102. He was still sharper mentally than a lot of people half his age and I have to say I’m quite surprised he’s gone. I thought surely he’d live forever. He and his wife would go with my parents to Bloomington to see IU basketball games, although a couple of years ago he started insisting that my dad do the driving.

  5. nancy said on October 14, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Just remembered another great line of Mike’s, in a column about taking his grandson Christian to an amusement park:

    “When I was Christian’s age, we had to pay extra to see the illustrated man and the fat lady. Now they walk freely among us on the midway.”

  6. brian stouder said on October 14, 2010 at 10:57 am

    This life-affirming installment of nn.c is a superb bookend for yesterday’s installment (and thread) regarding the Chilean short-changing of death

    By way of saying – thanks!

  7. Bob (not Greene) said on October 14, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Thanks for the column link, Nance. Never heard of Mike, of course. Really great column and writing. The comparison to Albom’s is apt. I couldn’t make it through the thing. What a complete twerp. I love magnificently witty phrases like the “illustrated man” one above. Typically, they’re simple observations, ones where you say to yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It looks so easy, but it’s not. It’s like people who look at abstract art and think they could do the same thing by throwing some paint all over a canvas, too. They end up turning out to be Mitch Albom, because like Mitch, they take the easy way out.

  8. Scout said on October 14, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Nancy, your descriptions of Mike’s writing are how (if I could write as well) I would depict yours. (“the best way to tell a sad or sentimental story was just to tell it, that if the facts couldn’t speak for them­selves or you had to pimp it up with bullshit rhetorical tricks to drag out a few sniffles, you were selling your readers short by insulting their intelligence.”) I’m sure that from somewhere in the beyond Mike is smiling at your words.

  9. 4dbirds said on October 14, 2010 at 11:40 am

    So sorry about your friend. Now I have some reading to do.

  10. moe99 said on October 14, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Another wonderful column, Nancy. Thank you.

  11. paddyo' said on October 14, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    What a fine posting, Nance — nice to see, both here and in the Dispatch, that artful obituary lives. A friend and ex-newspaper colleague of mine died unexpectedly last week, and when his obit ran in yesterday’s DenPost, another ex-colleague remarked on Facebook that “at least newspaper veterans get good obits.” We all could only hope for a smidgen of the care that went into these.

    And you took the words out of my mouth when you mentioned “uses and abuses of the first-person.” Your friend’s strategic use of himself in the Woody piece was masterful, tucked so carefully and sparingly within the story. The Detroit Blowhard, meanwhile, was, so predictably, all me-me-me-me-meeeeeeeeeeee and I-I-I-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi about Bo . . .

    Having grown up in L.A., I loathed Woody Hayes and the hated OSU juggernauts he would bring into OUR Rose Bowl to face SC or UCLA or, occasionally, Stanford or another Pac-8 team (before they were 10). Your friend Mike’s piece helps me reassess the man and his relationship with Buckeye folk. And damn, what a fine, fine read . . .

  12. paddyo' said on October 14, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    P.S. — New favorite word: “blurtage” . . . perfection.

  13. baldheadeddork said on October 14, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    The next time you have the urge to link to Albom, could you spare us a little pain and divert instead to some YouTube clip of nails on a chalkboard?

  14. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 14, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Nails on a chalkboard…

  15. Peter said on October 14, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    BHD, thank you so much for the lead in, but speaking of nails on a chalkboard, did anyone else see the Delaware Senate debate last night? I don’t know where to begin on that train wreck of a candidate, except to say:

    1. Got to give Mr. Coons credit – if I was the other candidate I would have reached over, start choking her, and yell “WILL YOU STFU!!!!”

    2. The GOP has turned into a Monty Python sketch. Some of them belong to the Loony Party, and and some belong to the Really Loony Party.

  16. MarkH said on October 14, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    paddyo’ got to it before I did, but, I’ve stolen “blurtage” three times already today versus co-workers. I know you won’t mind, Nance.

    I got an fbook message from the C/J page yesterday that the end was near for Mike. Was going to post here, but knew you were already aware. I’m trying to remember my earliest awareness of Mike at the Dispatch and am sure it was when I got to OSU j-school in ’72, when I was such and enthusiastic j-junkie. Funny what stays with you after you’ve been gone for nearly 30 years. Couldn’t recount any specific piece he did from that time, but Mike stands out in Dispatch consciousness. As does Borden, also Keckstein, Hunter and May in sports; and, of course, Nancy.

    I, too, had a friend here who was taken quickly by cancer. Diagnosed in April and gone by the middle of June. Turns out the docs missed a lot in the initial diagnosis.

  17. mark said on October 14, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Thank you for the very nice piece, Nancy. Well done.

  18. Jeff Borden said on October 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    I really hate to hear this news. He really was as fine a man as he was a writer. And 64 is simply far too young.

    His passing made me remember Tom Fennessy, another wonderfully talented writer at the Dispatch who also died far too young after a brief battle with cancer. Just as Mike fooled people with his Scioto River tale, Fenn was notable for writing about the “freeze-dried man” during a particularly long spell of bitter cold. I cannot recall it exactly but the premise was along the lines that someone waiting on a street corner shattered into a million pieces because they had been frozen. . .I do know that, like the Scioto River gag, more than a few people took Fenn’s column seriously.

  19. coozledad said on October 14, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    You wrote earlier about coming up on an age of grief. I have it on good authority there’s nothing you can do to prepare for the worst of it. Sometimes you wonder if the kindest thing isn’t being the biggest jerk possible so no one will feel the loss.

  20. brian stouder said on October 14, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    That makes Shotgun-Blast Dick Cheney about the kindest son of a bitch ever born!

  21. LAMary said on October 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Peter, it’s the Silly Party and the Very Silly Party (their candidate was Jethro Q. Walrustitty.) I have to consult with the in-house Brit to get the full name of the Silly Party candidate. It’s long. There was also the slightly silly party with candidate Kevin Phillips Bong. I use that as an alias occasionally.

    There is a real party in UK called the Monster Raving Loony party.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Official_Monster_Raving_Loony_Party

    I think that’s a much more honest name than Tea Party.

    edit: here’s the silly party candidate’s name:

    Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F’tang-F’tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel

    It’s all explained here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jethro_Q._Walrustitty

  22. Deborah said on October 14, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Nancy thanks, sorry to hear this about your friend and colleague. Good post.

    Also Jeff (tmmo) I found myself watching that finger nail scratching You Tube link to the bitter end, and for that matter I read Nancy’s linked Albom piece to the end too. Both similar in some ways. Ewww.

  23. coozledad said on October 14, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Brian: I was thinking the same thing.
    LA Mary: We used to have a cat that went by Jethro Q. Walrustitty, sometimes.

  24. Linda Deitch said on October 14, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your thoughts so well. Mike was such an amazing person.

    Some of your blog’s followers may be interested in joining the Facebook group “Columbus Citizen-Journal Alumni and Friends,” where we reminisce about the C-J and Cols. journalism of the past. Best regards…

  25. Jenflex said on October 14, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    JeffB @ 18: Yes, it was the article about the guy who shattered to death. Milton or Morton something or other. I still remember that one.

  26. Dave Jones said on October 14, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Great, Nance. You’re right there with him.

  27. Jolene said on October 14, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    You wrote earlier about coming upon an age of grief.

    My mother used to say that the worst part of getting older was not infirmity, but losing your friends. Living in a small community, they were at the center of a circle that had great times together, and they picked up new friends wherever they went. It’s really impossible to think of them without thinking of these connections, and it was heartbreaking for them and for us as these ties were broken by death.

    Sorry for the loss of your colleague, Nance. A person couldn’t ask for a finer tribute to what his life really meant than yours.

  28. Deborah said on October 14, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    We lost a friend last year (or maybe it’s already the year before?) right after the Christmas holidays, he had esophageal cancer, he was 64. I agree getting old is accompanied by losing friends.

    This vacation is becoming the lame leading the sick. Right after my birthday party Little Bird came down with a bad head cold. Then my husband had to leave on Monday and return on Tuesday for an important business trip, one of the guys he met with had a fever and now he has it in spades. So I’m having to do more than I expected on my bum foot. Lots of driving back and forth to Santa Fe. Today I took Little Bird to the train and we head back to Chicago via plane on Sunday. I’m looking forward to it much as I love New Mexico.

  29. Denice said on October 15, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Sorry, Nancy about losing a good friend. Any of us can scarcely afford to lose friends as we grow older. I’m really frightened about Mitch’s sentimental butchering of Ernie Harwell’s legacy with a tear jerking play about him. Ugh.

  30. Jim Hunter said on October 15, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Nancy:
    Nicely done. Mid to late 80’s the Dispatch newsroom was like family losing Mike hurts.