Jeff Nardone taught me the power of words, but sometimes there are things for which words don’t suffice. You try to cling and grasp at the topic with adjectives and allegories and every piece of linguistic style in your arsenal, but inevitably fall over the metaphorical cliff you’re trying to describe.
He also taught me, among all sorts of journalism style, to never use a name as the first word in your lead. I break the rule here because it fits the one exception given: when the name is important enough to begin the lead itself.
Within the halls of Grosse Pointe South High School is the small room 144. It consists of a separate phone room, 12 computers and a number of the most dedicated students in the school at any time between 7 a.m. and as late as 9 p.m., committed to the continued production of The Tower newspaper. A weekly tradition since 1928, Jeff was the paper’s advisor, only the third in its history.
The paper was a powerhouse, winning Best in Show awards and Pacemaker Awards on the national scale despite its four-day production cycle, and Jeff was its consummate advisor who always deflected all the attention and glory to his students for their work. But if it was us students who were the engine of the paper, Jeff was always the one making sure our engine had the fuel and maintenance to keep going.
It took an entire year class of training alone to be a staff member. Weeks spent on writing effective leads, an overview of all law associated with student journalism, practice with interviews and mastery of all the little things that Jeff knew were integral to being a good writer. And like the true teacher he was, Jeff demanded perfection, in the nicest way possible.
Once I joined The Tower staff, every high school morning started with me walking into the Tower Room a few minutes after the bell rang. Jeff would promptly call me a knucklehead or some other word of endearment, knowing I had no reason for my untimeliness. And every Monday night, our deadline night, ended with words of “Go home, do your homework for once.” But for all the time spent together in the Tower Room, all the paper business and stories we discussed, the times I remember most were words of “David, how are you?” when things were tough, because Jeff was the best a teacher could be by every definition of the word.
Last year, just before walking into Spartan Stadium to see the Michigan vs. Michigan State football game, I got a call from a friend from high school, a former editor of our school paper. The call was just a few simple words, that Jeff’s battle with cancer was coming to an end other than which we had hoped for. Jeff was a model Spartan fan, and I had planned to talk football with him and perhaps some words of rivalry trash talk after watching the Wolverines win in Spartan territory; neither would happen.
During the game I stood in the middle of the Michigan State student section that I had snuck into, rain jacket covering up all my maize gear as my team was battered, dominated and dismantled in every way possible. The jacket partly covered up the shame of defeat, and partly kept me dry from the pounding rain and sheltered from the cold temperatures. Yet still my face was wet because rain jackets do not keep you dry from tears.
Jeff would die a few days later, one year ago. I use the word “die” instead of phrases liked “passed away,” because it was what he taught us to do. Journalism is not meant to muffle words and euphemize. Journalism tells stories how they are.
The day after I sat in Bruegger’s with all the former editors of The Tower who are now students at Michigan. We ate a lot of bagels as part of The Tower staff, and probably single-handedly could’ve kept our hometown Bruegger’s in business. On this day we ate a lot of bagels too, because when you couldn’t come up with the words to speak, stuffing your mouth with a bagel was the only viable alternative. Jeff would always say, “The best way to kids’ hearts is through their stomachs,” words that continued to ring true.
After graduating high school, I forgot to take writing with me. I had traded words on a page for strings in C++, editing stories for debugging programs and page design for formatting technical reports for my engineering classes. Before I left home I told Jeff I’d probably join the paper here. Two years later, though he wouldn’t be able to see it, I finally delivered on those words, and walked into the newsroom of The Michigan Daily.
I still print out and edit all my writing like Jeff did. Sometimes it has the entire first paragraph circled with remarks like, “This lead sucks,” partly out of humor and partly because such bluntness taught me to expect perfection myself. Other times it’s light on the red pen comments with a simple “Good job” at the end.
Jeff may never have had the chance to read anything I write here, but a bit of him lives on in each word here. And for that no words could suffice.
David Harris can be reached at email@example.com.