FAREWELL TO THE MAN WHO GOT ME HERE

Today is the first day of football season, and I will again watch a game from the press box. I have enjoyed this perch for many years now, but there was a time when it was the furthest thing from my mind.

That memory came back to me last week, sadly, when I got the news: Ed Guthman had died at 89.

Ed got me started in this business, and he might have got you started in it, too, he was that pure and that enthused. I have never in my life found a naysayer about this lanky gentleman, a former soldier from Seattle with a folksy way of talking and a nudging way of making you feel you could be better than you were.

He had straight white hair and bushy eyebrows and large ears and wore rimmed glasses and his voice was a high, friendly drawl. He was once a press secretary for Bobby Kennedy, and he was once national editor of the Los Angeles Times. and he won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter and a Silver Star in World War II, and back when he was editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, our paths crossed, on a Sunday like today.

I was a musician then, but my career was foundering. I was visiting my parents on Super Bowl weekend. They suggested I watch the game with “Mr. Guthman,” as we called him then.

He lived near us in Philly, in a townhouse, with his wife. I didn’t know him well, but I was happy to have a viewing partner. I walked to his place and knocked on the door.

And my life changed forever. Inspiring a young mind

We sat together, on a couch or in chairs, and over the three hours, he got to talking about journalism. He gushed about the work, the writing, the deadlines, never having the same day twice, the chance to do some good. His voice fairly squeaked with enthusiasm, but in his clever, gentle way, he dangled ideas that lured me into questions. And I asked a million.

Something stayed with me that night. I figured if a job could make a guy like him that satisfied, there might be something to it. I soon applied to a weekly paper in New York, took an entry-level position (working for free) and sent him my first byline.

“Way to go!” I remember him saying.

Over the years, Ed followed my work. When I shared some upbeat news, he would often say, “Well, that’s just terrific” and I felt like I was in a Jimmy Stewart film, good and bad were easily identified, and I wanted to be good, like him.

No doubt many reporters and editors were moved the same way by Guthman, who was chronicled in Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” He was a perfect mentor, and isn’t that what a mentor does? Inspires? His teachings will live on

In his later years, Ed taught journalism at USC, and I visited his class, even one time sharing the podium with the outspoken wide receiver (and former Trojan) Keyshawn Johnson. We had a spirited debate over media and athletes, and the students loved it, but Ed loved it more, minds grappling, brains at work. Only a guy like him could pull the two of us together on a stage.

He should have gone on forever like that, out in the California sun, molding young minds. But bodies get old, and old bodies get sick, and Ed contracted a rare disease, amyloidosis, in which abnormal proteins attack the organs and tissues. When we spoke over the phone last year, he seemed disoriented, and I choked up hearing his amazing mind now muddled and confused.

We almost lost him last Christmas, his son told me, but he rallied, and this summer, I called his house and he sounded like Ed, excited, proud. I told him I would see him soon.

I never got the chance. He spent his final days with his family, watching the political coverage on TV. And then, last Sunday, he was gone.

You think about how people change you, how one life veers into another. I will never be as good a journalist or as noble a man as Ed Guthman, but thanks to his entry into my world, I have always known how high to aim. Not a sentence I have written would ever have happened without him. And I’ll remind him of that, today, at kickoff, when he sits beside me as he did on a Sunday decades ago. He has never really left.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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