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.