Friday, October 24, 2014
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I'm teaching again this fall, at the University of Montana Journalism School. The class is called "How to Start a Magazine, in Print or Online," a subject which really couldn't be more appropriate, though I sometimes wonder whether I should be teaching the class or taking it. (Starting a magazine, like quitting smoking, is easy enough to do, it's being successful at it that's the hard part.) My teaching gig also comes with a very personal twist: the class is called the Jeff Cole Seminar, in honor of a UM alum and Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed in a plane crash in January of 2001. Jeff was a very close friend of mine, and not only does the memorial fund established by his wife Maria cover part of my teaching stipend, I really owe much of my entire experience in Montana to Jeff.

In Honor of Jeff Cole

I’m teaching again this fall, at the University of Montana Journalism School. The class is called “How to Start a Magazine, in Print or Online,” a subject which really couldn’t be more appropriate, though I sometimes wonder whether I should be teaching the class or taking it. (Starting a magazine, like quitting smoking, is easy enough to do, it’s being successful at it that’s the hard part.)

My teaching gig also comes with a very personal twist: the class is called the Jeff Cole seminar, in honor of a UM alum and Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed in a plane crash in January of 2001. Jeff was a very close friend of mine, and not only does the memorial fund established by his wife Maria cover part of my teaching stipend, I really owe much of my entire experience in Montana to Jeff.

It was because of Jeff that the attachment to Montana that I developed in my 20s was powerfully renewed in my 40s. It was with Jeff that I first saw a Griz game on a stellar fall afternoon. It was with Jeff that I traversed some 1500 miles of this great state in five days, ducking into countless cowboy bars and (mostly) listening to my gregarious friend chat up the locals. It was through Jeff that I met the folks at the Journalism School who, after the demise of the Industry Standard, invited me to come here for a visiting professor gig that turned into a life-changing move.

Jeff was born in Butte and grew up in Darby, and after working his way through school built a great journalism career on super-human energy, a natural gift for reporting, and rabid determination to never get beat on a story. He always hoped he’d be able to return to Montana – maybe even persuade the Journal to make him a roving reporter for the Rocky Mountain West – and shortly before he died he and Maria bought 20 acres outside of Stevensville and contracted to build a log home.

That home is finished now, and Maria lives there, and sometimes I feel a strange kind of guilt that Jeff made possible for me a life that could have – should have – been his. Without a doubt, I would not be here and New West would not exist were it not for Jeff, and it doesn’t seem at all fair.

Mostly, though, when I think of Jeff I miss him terribly, and pity myself for the loss of such an extraordinary friend. And sometimes, when I sit in my backyard and take in the magical beauty of the Missoula Valley, I think of what it might have been like to have him here, maybe even working with me on New West. I hear his laughter, and see his radiant smile, and think about Maria and their beautiful home and all the great times that we should be having, but can’t.

When I start class this week I’ll try, as best I can, to tell the students about Jeff, and why he was not only a great friend but a great role model for aspiring journalists. They will listen politely and get on with their day, because for busy college kids there is nothing all that interesting about people who are dead, even if they are responsible for the class you’re sitting in. But I’ll keep him alive in spirit as much as I can, honor his memory, be there for Maria, support the things he believed in. He gave me the gift of Montana, among many other things, and that’s the very least I can do.

About Jonathan Weber

Comments

  1. Maria Cole says:

    Thank you, Jonathan. This is a remarkable gift, honoring Jeff on what would have been his 50th birthday. He lives through you and many other journalists who devote themselves to getting the story–and getting it right. You do us proud.

  2. Anne Marie Squeo says:

    Jonathan,

    I too have developed my special affinity for Montana thanks to Jeff, as you well know. When he first hired me at the Wall Street Journal, he’d always be taking these weekend excursions from the Seattle area to Missoula and I’d half-jokingly suggest, “Montana is one of the Canadian provinces, right?” He’d get frustrated with me, but not nearly as much as when his clunker of a truck would break down on most of those trips. On my first trip to Montana two years ago (there have since been three others), I felt Jeff welcome me to the state, his state. We rode part way to Helena together, listening to loud music and taking in the sights. Since his death, his widow, Maria, has become one of my dearest friends, a special gift Jeff left, and his home has become one I long to make my own — a crazy thought for a New York City girl. I thank him often for the gifts he left behind, and wish he was around more than just in spirit.

  3. Jim Carlton says:

    I didn’t know Jeff personally, but since we started at the Journal about the same time I always kept up with — and admired — his stories. I just have to add to these comments another part of Jeff’s legacy which keeps him alive: The scholarship program at the Univ of Montana in his name. This summer, we in the San Fran buro were fortunate to get the very first recipient of this scholarship, Chelsea Deweese, as an intern. Chelsea worked with me on the enviro beat, and right out of the box did a Pg1 ahed on the phenomenon of wolf fanatics in Yellowstone. She went on to do a string of other solid stories — including another ahed that is about to run. Anyway, I know Maria and a lot of other people who know Chelsea were thrilled at both her success, and the fact it reflected back on Jeff as sort of a spiritual mentor.

  4. Manuel de Ezcurdia says:

    Strange. When Jeff Cole died in Mexico I searched the web for information. I got the other Jeff Cole who died elsewhere. Jeff Cole was also an athlete — a distance runner of remarkable dedication. His wanderings through Mexico had begun to be expected, but some of us believe he went there to die. He was only 50.