We had the same May birthday, and in the early years, I would trek up to the library and say, “Happy birthday, Chris” and she’d say, “Happy birthday to you, too.” Later, when work took me out of the office, we’d call each other on the phone and race to beat the other to it.
In the years after she left the newspaper, we’d send cards, hers always arriving before mine. Then, in the last year or two, nothing.
I asked if anyone knew where she was, because she wasn’t answering the phone or her email. Chris had been born with cerebral palsy and over the years, due to various complications, things had gotten worse, from canes to walkers to immobility. She had told me, in our last conversation, that she been diagnosed with bone cancer, and I remember wondering why the most giving souls on this Earth always seem to get the worst breaks.
Then, a month ago, I learned Chris was in an assisted living facility. I was traveling overseas but planned to visit her once I got back.
I never got the chance.
Chris Kucharski was not a name you saw above the fold in the Free Press. She had no column mug shot. She wasn’t credited for editorials, photos or even the crossword puzzle.
But for decades, she was as integral to this newspaper as the ink with which it was printed. Chris was Google before Google existed. She was research. Archives. The library. And the number of stories in the Free Press that owe their facts, accuracy or punch to her are uncountable.
More than a walking library
What young folks reading this may not understand is as recently as 25 years ago, you couldn’t just “search” for something on a phone that fit in your pocket. Searching was hard work. It involved going through old newspapers, or microfilms, or card indexes for books, or the primitive mechanics of something called LexisNexis.
Chris was the key to LexisNexis. It was a computer-based archive platform. She had the password. That made her a research god to many of us journalists. I would go to the library and tell her I was looking for feature stories about, say, the Alaskan Iditarod. And later that day, I would get a massive computer printout and a note in her unmistakable handwriting, “Hope this helps — Chris.”
Statistics on gun violence. Old headlines. What a politician said about a topic 20 years earlier. Chris was a sleuth. She could find anything.
She was also integral to a more trivial exercise. Some of you might remember a sports column I wrote occasionally on Fridays called “The Live Albom,” which featured photo lookalikes of famous athletes. Well, in those days, the photos were real prints kept in countless library files.
Chris and I would sit for hours going through them, with me saying, “I think Scottie Pippen looks like Downtown Julie Brown” and Chris dutifully pulling the files on each. We’d hold the photos up alongside one another like puzzle pieces, until we found angles that proved the point.
We laughed a lot over that — and other things — but it was always in the office. We never had dinner together. We never visited each other’s houses. We were what you commonly call “work friends.”
Yet there were days where we spoke 10 different times. She knew about my family, my outside life. I knew about her love of old rock music and her heart for charity.
I would often marvel at how much physical work she had to go through just to fetch a file, the slow, deliberate steps she had to take, her gait awkward yet, thanks to her determination, unfailing. Someone called her ”tiny but tough.” That’s accurate. And like libraries themselves, Chris felt permanent, as if she would always be there.
But human beings are not libraries. And nothing in the newspaper business is permanent.
Or in life, for that matter.
A beautiful soul
On Friday morning, around 35 people gathered at St. Anne’s Church in Warren to say goodbye to Chris, who left us at age 71. In a lavender-colored coffin lay her small earthly body, finally, blessedly, no longer in pain or twisted from the CP.
The priest offered words of condolence and faith. The small gathering nodded and sang hymns. Chris was an only child, her parents are gone, and she didn’t have much other family. There were a number of old faces from the Free Press who came out, folks who, like me, appreciated her gentle spirit, her tireless work ethic, her dogged determination to live life on her own terms.
Her godson, Andy Kucharski, spoke about a time when, knowing how much he loved Eric Clapton, Chris picked him up and said, “You’re coming with me. No questions.”
She proceeded to take him to a Clapton concert where, thanks to her handicapped status, she was able to get front row seats. “She knew what she was doing,” he said. “I still have the ticket stubs.”
Andy was the one Chris would call in her final months, when the bone cancer had spread wildly and she suffered bouts of paralysis, and fell, and needed to be lifted from the floor. Still, she fought. Her mind remained sharp, even as her physical form withered, and true to someone who researched reality, she seemingly accepted her impending passing. She told friends about the Korean dress she wanted to be buried in, and how she wanted Andy to take her vinyl records collection after she was gone.
Last weekend, having fallen and broken several bones, which apparently energized the cancer, she passed away. And this world became a slightly lesser place.
Have you ever had a work friend that you so admired that you wondered, years later, why you hadn’t spent more time together? Maybe it’s because we get used to the boxes we live in — this person is an office friend, this one a gym friend, this one a church friend. We don’t cross the lines.
But we should. Chris Kucharski was a beautiful soul who for years delivered information to the writers of this newspaper so they could write stories that were substantial and true. It’s only fitting then to write something true about her.
Here it is. She made us all better. She cared about this place. And if she got to know you, she cared about you.
One day, maybe on a certain birthday in May, someone will search through the files the way she did and come upon her name, and her story, and learn how it sits behind so many stories you’ve read in this newspaper over the years. She’d like that, I think. She deserves it. She is missed.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.