Episode 101: Jim Sheeler

Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2006 for his story “Final Salute,” which ran in the Rocky Mountain News. The piece focused on Marine Major Steve Beck, who notified families when their loved ones were killed in Iraq and helped them through the mourning process. The story ended up being more than just about Beck, though, as it brought memories of the lives of the dead service members and their families to millions of people. 

The story was expanded into the book “Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives.” That book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008. Sheeler made a name for himself as a reporter by writing feature obituaries about ordinary, everyday people. A collection of those stories can be found in Sheeler’s book “Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives.”

Sheeler never appeared on Gangrey: The Podcast, although many reporters talked about how they learned lessons from him and his work. He died unexpectedly on September 17. He was 53 years old. 

This episode remembers Sheeler through stories from a variety of people who knew him. 

Included in this episode:

In the introduction, Josh Roiland, an English and journalism professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington tells Matt Tullis about how Sheeler helped him out a couple years ago when he was struggling.

Part 1: In October 2019, Tullis interviewed Sheeler for a writing project he was working on. Tullis recorded that interview and found the audio file after Sheeler died. It’s presented here. 

Part 2: In the days after Sheeler died, Ben Montgomery tweeted a story he’s heard Sheeler tell about his middle name – Expedite. Montgomery tells that story.

Part 3: Steve Knopper, a freelance writer of 25 years, worked with Sheeler in Boulder, Colorado, in the early 1990s. He also tweeted a remembrance, and tells the story of how he and Sheeler stumbled out of a bar one night at 1 a.m. and found adults riding Big Wheels. They wrote a story.

Part 4: Anne Nickoloff and Mike McKenna were students of Sheeler’s at Case Western Reserve University from 2012-16, and stayed in touch with him afterward. Nickoloff is now a reporter at Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer. McKenna is a fourth-year graduate student in clinical psychology at Ohio State. They tell us what it was like to have Sheeler as a professor.

Part 5: Jim Tankersley is a White House correspondent for the New York Times focusing on economics. Back in the early 2000s, he worked with Sheeler at the Rocky Mountain News. They became friends and stayed in touch. Then, in August, Tankersley was named the pool reporter who had to follow President Biden to the Dover Air Force Base to receive the bodies of 13 service members, the last to die in Afghanistan. He reached out to Sheeler for help with that article. 

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