When I think of Jim Gordon, I can’t help but frame my knowing of him between the first and last substantive conversations I had with him. Both of these conversations took place in the fellowship hall of the church where we both were members, the First Unitarian Church of Hobart.
The first conversation must have been in the fall or winter of 1999. I was sitting at a table during coffee hour with my youngest daughter on my lap and began a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me. He mentioned something about the work he did and I looked at his face more intently and then at his name tag and said, stupidly, “Oh, you’re THAT Jim Gordon?” He ducked his head and said something akin to “guilty as charged.” I gushed about his columns, that they were what I read faithfully in the Post-Tribune at a time when, with three young daughters, I didn’t do much of anything faithfully. Then I ducked my head and said “I’ve had a thing or two published on the editorial page there,” certain he’d heard that from a kook or two throughout his 23 years at the Post-Tribune.
In my mind, the conversation pretty much ended there. But the next week, he found me and said “I looked up your stuff. You’re a good writer. I talked to so-and-so (the editor of one of the sections) and she’s expecting you to call and set up an interview.”
And that was that. In January 2000, I began writing as a correspondent for the Gary Post-Tribune, and soon was offered space as the family columnist. I would have kept doing what I was doing, writing when I had time or inclination and given it away for free, but for Jim Gordon saying aloud what I had waited years to hear: “you are a good writer.” Jim was the first person I knew with a byline to say such a thing to me, and I’m not sure even he knew what a gift that was.
Fast forward to less than a month ago, when I came home from California after visiting my parents after learning that my father had a new growth in one of his lungs. I still didn’t know then, when I saw Jim at church, that the growth was, indeed, cancer. Nor did I know for sure, yet, what the prognosis of that cancer was. During check-in at a meeting at church, Jim had shared that a tumor had been found on his liver, but they were still undergoing tests to find out what it was. (This news in light of a series of heart-related issues he had shared with the congregation over the previous few months.)
I had to leave the meeting early and he and I found ourselves alone near the dessert table while the meeting continued on. I offered him a hug, and he asked me to stop looking so sad, with that elfin twinkle in his eye (a description I’m certain he would loathe, but feel the need to speak it as I saw it). I whispered that his news on top of my family visit just made it hard not to look sad. He asked for another hug, and I headed home.
A day or two later, the girls told me that Jim had stopped by our house while I was at work. When I finally caught up with him the next Sunday at church, I asked if there was something he needed. “I just wanted to apologize for being so insensitive,” he said. “I’d forgotten what you were going through with your father …” I interrupted him then and said, no, I needed to hear his news and that I’d never felt like he’d been oafish about any of it.
I’m not going to pretend that I knew Jim much better than anyone else who read his columns, because I didn’t. Even though we shared a connection through the Post-Tribune and through our writing and through our church, we didn’t often get an opportunity to get to know each other beyond that. Sometimes I’d seek him out for some guidance, but more often than not, we really had our separate lives that overlapped in the two spheres that were, truly, important ones to each of us.
Oh, and then there were the bonfires and other parties we attended together where let me just say, if you thought Jim Gordon could write a story, you don’t know the half of it. He could tell a story to bring tears to your eyes and a doubled-over bellyache from laughter.
But I do want to tell you that many of us at church got to know Jim in a different way over the last year. Jim spent a lifetime revealing himself to his readers in a way that was genuine and yet, I think, also safe. Since his retirement from the Post-Tribune, he changed in ways that may have been subtle, but would explain that last conversation he and I had together. Jim didn’t become someone else in the last year, I think he just became more fully who he was supposed to be all along. Don’t get me wrong, his humor still bent toward the “pull my finger” variety and he still shared ribald and funny, funny stories. But he also shared the other part of himself, the scared part, the worried part, the part that ached for connection.
Last May, Jim shared his story with the congregation as a part of our annual “This I Believe Sermon,” where three members of the congregation try to distill (or expand) the system of beliefs that works for them in 6 minutes or less. This was a turning point for me in my relationship with Jim. He stood before us and told us of the hardships he had faced since deciding to retire from the Post-Tribune. But he also shared that he had never been happier in his life. Part of the happiness he was feeling was coming from a deeper connection to not just the church or the people, but to the work of the church. Jim said he was learning to say ‘yes’ to things he would never have before. He took over editing the newsletter from me, he was the chili cookoff poobah, he began his service as a Trustee, he joined with others in forming a Small Group Ministry, and, of course, he kept on with the choir (the reason he came to church in the first place, I think).
Through these expanded duties, he came to know a greater variety of people, became connected to the church in a new way, became connected to his own vision of truth, faith, and service in a much deeper way. And this is the Jim I came to know over the last few months. One who would be concerned about me as he diminished his own health issues in those twinkling eyes. And having said all that, he would have really appreciated how my morning got derailed earlier on the day he died, when I found out that our religious-based website at work was broadcasting porn from an old url. He would have come up with a slew of one-liners (both groaners and gut-benders) to remind us he was still Jim, afterall.
His heart stopped beating suddenly and much too soon. I would have liked to have known him better and would love to have had the opportunity to thank him, once more, for giving me the gift of calling myself a writer. But it is comforting to know, too, that he had reached a place that looked like contentment.
Please keep Judy and the rest of Jim’s family in your thoughts as you remember Jim today and in the future.
And, for those who didn’t know Jim as a church guy, I just want you to be assured that (and I think I can speak for the whole church on this) the church loved Jim just as much as he loved us. We are a better community because of Jim, just as many of us are better individuals. Thank you for sharing him with us.