You couldn’t miss Bob. To begin with, he was too tall. I may be average height, but when we stood together, I felt Bob bent over me like a huge tree looking down at an acorn it had dropped.

Or maybe I was intimidated. Bob McGruder could do that to you — not because he spoke loudly, because he didn’t. And not because he was quick to anger, because he wasn’t. Not because he glared, stared, looked over you, through you, or dismissed you altogether as some bosses do.

No, Bob could intimidate you with dignity. In his quiet presence, you felt the breadth of his childhood in the segregated South, his isolation in early newsrooms as the only black reporter, his long climb to executive editor, his unyielding devotion to respectable journalism, and his remarkable personal courage, the courage he’d shown in fighting polio as a child and cancer as a man.

Those things stacked up in Bob, making him larger than his 6-foot-4 frame but somehow also softer. When you looked into his eyes, you felt like you were diving through his glasses, through his pupils and into his soul. There was endurance there, and from endurance came patience and from patience came a gentle voice that set a tone for this newspaper, a gracious lid atop our ever-churning bottle.

A newspaper sails each day like a ship, taking a loop around the world, returning to port to do so again the next morning. Mr. McGruder was the captain of our ship.

You couldn’t miss Bob.

But now we do.

That wonderful laugh

He came to the Free Press a year after me, in 1986, and my first recollection, besides his height — which was at least two inches higher in those days, thanks to his hair — was his laugh. Oh, that man had a laugh. It was a hearty thing that began deep in his chest, and ended through his nose in a high-pitched cackle. You could hear it from the other room. You can hear it today. It broke ice and it broke barriers. You wanted to hear Bob laugh.

Sadly, from his arrival, there was little to laugh about. He came to the Detroit newspaper scene when two papers, the Free Press and the News, were merging in an unnatural creation called the JOA. Later, he would endure a newspaper strike that no one, labor or management, should ever have to endure.

Bob was supposed to steer our ship through such things. This was serious work. He needed to make weary newsroom staffers believe that — putting money and profit and business issues aside — we were here for one thing: to be good journalists.

He did this. It was no small feat, but he did it, every day, walking through the newsroom, sitting on the edge of reporters’ desks. He did it in interviews, encouraging hires that would make the paper more diverse. He did it in editing, urging writers to take chances, to be brave, to be assured of the paper’s support in the truth.

More than anything else, he did it with his presence, in his glass-walled office where he was visible for all to see, hunkered over his desk, leaning back in his chair, switching ears on his phone, or poring over galleys of our day’s work, with pride, with skepticism, with a desire to improve.

You couldn’t miss Bob.

But we have no choice.

A final opponent

To be honest, his office has been empty, on and off, for a while now. Since the day Bob announced a year and a half ago that he was taking on a new battle, cancer, which might call him away from the newsroom now and then, staffers at the Free Press began a grim ritual, a glance through the glass to see whether Bob was in. Was he late? Was he out of town? Or was he, you know, not going to make it today?

Cancer does this. It robs you of your routine. It steals your health, your cells, your hair, your time. Bob and I spoke easily about his disease, perhaps because I had written a book about a dying man, perhaps because we weren’t afraid of talk. There was a sense that Bob knew what he was up against, that he had two hands to punch with and his enemy had six. He could swat away the jabs for only so long.

Still, he made it back to even several times, returning to the newsroom, bald but there. He talked about positive thinking. He talked about hope. Always, he talked about the pride this publication provided him. If good work could ever be good medicine, it was for Bob McGruder. He simply loved when the Free Press did well.

Not long ago, his office was empty again. Then we heard he was in the hospital. Then, worse, we heard he was out of the hospital and in hospice care, and that his wife, Annette — whom he once called one of the “three women who raised me” — was by his side.

He died Friday, having just turned 60. His obituary had been anticipated — he would have been weirdly proud of our preparation — and Saturday’s Free Press detailed his accomplishments, which were numerous (first black reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, first black executive editor of the Free Press, director of American Society of Newspaper Editors), and his personal tributes, which could have gone on forever.

What those stories showed was how much Bob McGruder filled a room. They can’t show how much he empties one.

Which is what the Free Press faces now. It is Monday morning. The stories will be written. The presses will roll tonight. We will take the ship out of port, yet again, for a loop around the world, but the captain is missing, and the ride is not the same.

You couldn’t miss Bob.

But we always will.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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