Remembering Jon Anderson, newsman, gentleman, mentor

From his hospital bed several days ago, Jon Anderson asked his daughter Abra Williams to email some of his friends.

"He wants to express gratitude for all of your support over the years," she said in her note. "I am sure that he has more to express, but his words have been few."

She didn't say he was in his final days, only that he was struggling, but it wasn't hard to read between the lines.

When I got the email, my first thought was, "Oh no." But hard on the heels of the distress came a happy thought, "Thank you."

My thanks weren't just because I'd heard some final nice words from him. I was equally glad for the chance to say some nice words back.

If you're a longtime Chicagoan, you may recognize Jon's name. A Canadian by birth, a gentleman by demeanor, a master of the quip who could make the bawdy sound highbrow, perhaps with a splash of French, he came to town in the 1960s to work for Time magazine, later wrote for the Chicago Daily News and the Sun-Times and capped his career at the Tribune, where he retired in 2006.

When I arrived at the Tribune, I became one of many fledgling reporters he took under his wing. He particularly enjoyed explaining the ways of Chicago high society, an alien stratosphere to me but one that he passed through with a panache that seemed straight out of a 1940s movie.

In the line of journalistic duty, he once took me to a high-society cocktail party, though by then he himself had given up drinking. In that plush room, he stuck by my side, confiding sotto voce, with the undercurrent of a chuckle, who came from which gilded families, and which families were coasting on the status of yesteryear, and who was just flat-out faking it.

He knew all that and he loved as a reporter to go out into the gritty city too.

I hadn't seen Jon much since he left the paper to enjoy life with his wife, Pam Sherrod, though he occasionally emailed in response to a column. The last time was in November. He was bothered by something I'd written and said so a little testily. I wrote him back and told him that he must not have been following the news closely.

He wrote again. Indeed, he said, he hadn't been following the news.

"We are on a strict news diet," he wrote, "instead reveling in the beauties of what is truly a marvelous planet. A triumph of nature, in which it is always calming to simply look up and see the clouds as members of my eccentric English group, the Cloud Appreciation Society, do every day. You can Google them."

He didn't mention how sick he was, and I didn't know.

The night I got his daughter's email, I immediately emailed back with the first memories that popped to mind.

How he'd taught me what he laughingly claimed was the motto of the wealthy, "Never apologize, never explain," a sentiment I don't abide by but love to quote.

How he'd once told me that he learned to stand on his head in middle age and how exciting that was to him, how dismaying to his children.

And how once — after he'd quit the Tribune for a while, in his 50s, and gone to study at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop — he sent me a list of writers' tips that I kept tacked over my desk for years. I've lost the sheet but am still guided by the first tip: "Listen for how stories come."

These recollections were short and hastily typed, but as I emailed them to his daughter I felt a swell of relief and gratitude. What a gift to be able to deliver a eulogy that its subject gets to hear.

We all have people in our lives with whom we feel a significant connection that falls short of close friendship. Those are often work colleagues, people we may not see much once the work routine ends, but whose ideas still walk around in us, people we'd like the chance to thank one last time.

Jon gave a few of us that chance. I hope his choice inspires others to do the same.

A couple of days after he died, I finally Googled the Cloud Appreciation Society. I could see why he preferred it to the news.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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