In Denver's downtown convention center last week, just before the first snowflakes started to fall, I was hit with the coldest news I'd gotten in years.
“Brent died last night,” a colleague whispered to me as the din of voices at break filled the hall.
My ears rung. I couldn't believe it. Brent Felgner was a part-time copy editor for the magazine whom I had known for five years. He worked part time and had taken off just a few weeks ago complaining of back pains. After a visit to specialists, he was diagnosed with cancer that had advanced beyond the doctors' ability to contain it (see page 32).
I was stung particularly hard because I hadn't thanked Brent the last Friday he was here, as I typically did every Friday when we raced through the brutally time-compressed process of closing the magazine for the week. In a rush, and itching to get home, I made the 6:20 p.m. to Stamford, but missed a good-bye drink with my old buddy.
He was certainly the oldest guy here, by more than 30 years for some. He was a rotund, balding 57-year-old with a wicked sense of humor and a weakness for single-malt scotch. His age allowed him to get away with far more than I'd tolerate from any reporter or editor — before or after him. He'd watched Mel Brooks movies (Young Frankenstein was a favorite) at low volume on his personal laptop as he edited.
But he was a wizard with words and a pro at the art of headline writing. He never failed to improve our first drafts. He was a seamless freelancer and his work earned him journalism's highest awards as a reporter at other publications. He was one of the silent workers at the lower rungs of every corporation that do the hardest work, make the least amount of money and get the tiniest of praise. And without them, companies would simply stop working. We assume they know we care — but they rarely hear it.
The news business is not pretty these days, and it's the folks who actually talk to sources, edit copy and distill the news who have gone first. Roiled by the economics of online news, print publications are folding, layoffs are rampant and the future is, well, murky at best.
One day about two years ago, working with a dedicated staff emaciated by layoffs, we busted deadline by 30 minutes for the second week in a row. I let the staff know in no uncertain terms how I felt.
I looked up from my office desk to see Brent standing in the doorway. I don't know how long he had been standing there. “You could have handled that differently,” he said quietly. And he walked away. I felt hollow.
Waiting at DIA for my delayed flight back to New York, with four hours to kill¸ I sat and tried to mathematically guess the exact number of snowflakes flying horizontally outside the massive cold windowpane.
The blizzard was the biggest in a decade. Then it struck me: Life is a series of moments, more like a slideshow than a movie.
At the Cable Hall of Fame, the honorees seemed to genuinely glow in the fruits of their success. They crystallized their careers as a string of special snapshots — when they got the job, met their spouse or clinched the biggest deal of their lives.
And it reminded me yet again that these moments are as fragile as moths' wings. I swore then to take time to watch the snow fall — and to thank those whom are rarely praised but contribute most.