I met Jeff Zaslow about 20 minutes before he was scheduled to keynote our 2010 conference. He and David Wilson were making last minute adjustments to the multimedia presentation Jeff would use to talk about his experiences in writing HIGHEST DUTY, THE GIRLS FROM AMES, and, of course, THE LAST LECTURE.
What followed, as anyone who has had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff can tell you, was an unexpectedly hilarious, poignant story, not just about the writing of three incredibly touching books, but of a writer – of a man – who was able to, in a style uniquely Zaslow, to find the unexpected, honest stories about real people who would rather not have had their stories told.
Despite the thorny, often difficult material, and the deep vulnerability of his subjects and their extended communities, Jeff was able not only to help them tell their stories, but to remain close to these people until his tragic death.
Jeff’s keynote concluded and dinner followed, where various awards were given to conferees in acknowledgment of their writing accomplishments, and when many keynote speakers might slip out rather than endure another such affair, Jeff hung out.
And when the evening concluded and most people made beelines for the door (or the bar), Jeff hung out some more, patiently offering his time to speak to everyone who wanted a moment. Posing for pictures, signing programs, and making plans to connect about this and that after the conference.
I have to admit, I didn’t know much about Jeff before I found out he would be our keynote speaker that year. Our budget for such things is not the biggest, and it can be a challenge for us to bring a big time name to the podium for our annual banquet, so when Jeff’s name didn’t ring a bell with me, I wasn’t surprised. Our keynote speakers often have ties to the Philadelphia area, as Jeff did, or a warm spot in their hearts for our conference, or they’re friends of the board, as Jeff was – or we have compromising photos. But make no mistake; it isn’t for the honorarium we pay, which, by the way, Jeff generously and graciously requested we donate to the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation on behalf of the Pausch family.
Eventually the crowd dwindled, until all that remained was Jeff and a small handful of board members. He asked if we were happy with his talk, and if there was anything else he could do, and when he was comfortable that he was no longer needed, he left.
I exchanged a few emails with Jeff since then. I’d send him bits of things I thought he might find interesting or funny, and he always responded. Always gave me a reason to believe he’d not only read what I sent, but thought about why I sent it. Even some of my good friends seem to have a hard time doing that, but with the outpouring of sentiment in the wake of his tragic passing, I’m learning too late, as we all too often do, what an amazing human being Jeff was.
I feel blessed to have crossed paths with him, however briefly, and on behalf of the board of directors, offer our heartfelt condolences to Jeff’s family, friends, colleagues and extended family of writers and journalists.
- Don Lafferty