On Monday morning, Tom Kowalski died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
I expect that most of you reading this have little-to-no idea who Tom Kowalski was. Tom was a media figure here in southeast Michigan. Primarily, he was known as the senior beat reporter for the Detroit Lions, having been working that beat for --- literally --- 30 years. In recent years, he had started to branch out into other forms of media, such as TV appearances and a regular sports/talk radio show in Detroit.
I listened regularly to him whenever the opportunity presented itself. He was extremely knowledgeable, to be sure ... but more than that, he was just darn entertaining to listen to. He came across on the radio as a big, gruff-looking, fuzzy bear ... someone who would gladly rip you a new one in the middle of an argument, and then buy you a beer (or two or three) to make up for it. He was genuinely fun to listen to.
His death came as a shock to everyone ... he had posted what turned out to be his final story to the newspaper earlier that morning, only later to have been found in his apartment unresponsive by his fiancee.
I always thought of "Killer" (as he was known) as a local phenomenon: someone that appealed to a niche audience, people who didn't like the two big newspapers in the region or the 3-4 big radio stations. I was wrong. The memorials to Tom Kowalski have been pouring in online almost non-stop for the last 48 hours ... from national figures as well as local figures.
As I've read all of these memorials, I've been moved to tears. Which is a little odd, considering that I never met the man, and he certainly never met me. Of course, I'm a big old softy, and times like this move many folks to tears.
But the thing that's struck me the most about the memorials I've been reading is the common theme. Yes, Killer was well-known for the great skill with which he practiced his craft. But what people returned to talk about again and again was not the quality of his work, but the quality of his life. How he befriended almost anyone who came across his path. How he gave selflessly of his time and energy and position to help others. How he enjoyed life --- and helped others to enjoy it too. Perhaps the line that strikes me the most was one from Bob Wojnowski (Detroit News columnist) who said (paraphrasing) that Killer had already lived enough life to last three lifetimes.
It's an old saying that people on their death beds never wish they'd spent more time at the office. And that makes sense. Of course, it's awfully abstract. It's much harder to make that choice when you have before you the option of playing Candy Land for the fifth time this evening versus trying get some reading done for a research paper you'd really like to write.
As I look back at the last fifteen years of my professional life, I honestly find that I have few regrets. I've thrown myself into my work, to be sure. But more importantly, I've thrown myself into people's lives --- my wife, my kids, my church, my co-workers, my students. When I think of the things of which I'm the most proud, they all involve people, not products. And I don't think I'd change a thing.
I pray I continue to remain content.
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right. --Elder Joseph