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.