Monday, February 13, 2012

Miracle on the Hudson Co-Author Jeff Zaslow Dead at 53

Jeff Zaslow photo courtesy jeffzaslow.com
This is the truth, Jeff Zaslow knew how to tell a story. This is critical skill for journalists to be sure but Jeff elevated it to award-winning levels and I mean that literally.

I met Jeff in 1987 when he was the surprising winner of a Chicago Sun-Times competition to select a successor to the internationally known advice columnist Ann Landers who was retiring. At the time, my husband worked at the Sun-Times and I was a television reporter at WGN-TV. Jeff was at the Sun-Times and married to a television journalist. For a while we both had commuter marriages and we laughed at the parallels in our lives.  
I did not know Jeff well, but over the years we’d be in touch about one thing or another and we had made tentative plans to meet up in Detroit next weekend when I have to be there on personal business. That meeting is not going to happen. Jeff died in a car accident on Friday, leaving a wife, three teen-aged daughters and countless others who know their lives were made richer by the stories Jeff wrote.

Randy Pausch and Zaslow photo courtesy jeffzaslow.com
What Jeff knew that many journalists don’t is that writing is all about listening. In 2007 he heard a lecture delivered by Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch and went on to help him write the book-length version of the dying professor’s lessons on living. The Last Lecture has sold 5 million copies in English and has been translated into 48 languages. 

Jeff Zaslow helped tell the stories of the Arizona congressman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot by a would-be assassin in 2011 and Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot in command of the Miracle on the Hudson flight in 2009. Jeff’s ability to penetrate the hero worship that surrounded USAirways flight 1549 made the book Highest Duty which he co-wrote with Sullenberger an important work that went beyond the events of that day. 

I moved to Connecticut in 1993 and I became friendly with a neighbor, an avid reader and writer named John Robben.  Coincidentally John was a great fan of Jeff’s though the two men never met. John knew of my association with Jeff, so he would share with me some of what they corresponded about. In addition to the ideas they shared about the writing life, John was appreciative that Jeff always took time to answer his letters. 

So Jeff Zaslow’s death is sad news for John and for me and so many who encountered him or were touched by the stories he told. 

Last month, Jeff latest book The Magic Room was published. Set in a Michigan bridal salon; it is the story of the love parents hope their daughters will find. "I hope the reader will see their own daughters and their own lives as they read the book," Jeff says in a video released to promote The Magic Room. Once again, Jeff has written someone elses’ story but as the father of three girls, it is surely his as well.


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