Between the Wichita Eagle and The Des Moines Register, you would think that newspapers are doing just fine. Publish around 10,000 words on one story? No problem. Maybe editors think that people will flock to stories that make us weep around the holidays.
On Friday we talked about the giant piece on sex abuse, religion and forgiveness from the Wichita Eagle titled "Promise Not to Tell." Now we have another tearful series from The Des Moines Register on a mother of five whose husband died in a plane crash (story via Cathy Lynn Grossman). I hope that people in these communities are writing the editors to say more, more, more of these kinds of pieces!
The reporter does a nice job of following up on a story that started several years ago, and his editors give him the time and space to follow through. This particular story sounds like it fell out of a movie: The woman discovers a video tape of her husband after he dreamed that he might die. He gives instructions to his friends and family, including that his wife should remarry. The photos and videos create a really nice multimedia package.
Without getting too picky, I wondered about a few specifics as I started reading the piece, which begins with the husband's plan to film the video.
Then Eric Jacobs--a father who devoted every Sunday to family day, an evangelist who'd handed over his soul to Jesus Christ, a man whose life was filled with joy and promise--turned on the lights, sat on the floor next to the furnace closet, looked into a camera mounted on a Dell laptop, and clicked record.
You probably guessed what word jumped out to me in this paragraph: evangelist. I kept waiting for the article to tell me that he was some sort of preacher or someone who puts on services, but the story doesn't indicate that he did any of that. The reporter seems to draw conclusions from the video where Eric evangelizes, though choosing the word "evangelist" may not be the best fit.
...Eric had become a more vocal Christian, joining the building and education committees at church, studying up on the history of the Mormon religion to better argue with a Mormon friend. The family went to St. Paul Lutheran Church in Ankeny every Sunday morning, then spent the rest of Sunday as family day.
These are great details that help us better understand some specific religious practices. I would be curious if his wife Heather was as religious as he was, and perhaps whether she struggled with her faith after his death. The second story in the package goes into the video the husband had recorded. The following paragraph is key for the rest of the story.
Then his words turn to his wife. Eric's voice starts to break.
"OK, Heather, this is tough," he says. "But I need to tell you that I don't expect you and I don't want you to be single. Raising these boys is way too tough. Your job--if you choose to accept it--no, you don't get to choose, you have to accept this: I need you, I want you to remarry." He's crying. "I'm not crying out of jealousy. I'm crying because I'm thinking of being gone from you."
A dozen times, he says this: That Heather must remarry. That she must find a good Christian man to be a spiritual leader for their boys. That if he's not a Christian, she should keep looking. At one point, he brings his nose to the camera for emphasis. At another point, he closes his eyes to pray for her future husband.
Another interesting part of the video is his continual attempt to convert his colleagues to Christianity and a fantastic quote about heaven.
One is an atheist: "If this is all this life is, it's worthless. But there's a lot more to life, and I need you to find it." Another is a Mormon; Eric tells him he is in a false religion. Another is agnostic: "If you die without knowing Jesus Christ, you will end up in hell."
He's been talking more than 20 minutes. "Whew, pull it together, pull it together," he coaches himself. He talks about heaven as a giant party, and says he'll be waiting for each of his sons with a cold beer in hand. "I hope there's beer in heaven," he interjects. "If not, it might be hell."
Generally, we have a lot of religion-filled quotes from her husband but fewer from his wife. The reporter paraphrases a little bit in the following paragraph.
Heather realized she had to move forward into an uncertain future. But thoughts kept popping into her head: Did Eric know? On some subconscious level, some spiritual level, did Eric know that death was coming, that he needed to get his affairs in order? Was this video a blessing from God, a way Eric's loved ones could remember him, a final piece of evangelism before leaving this earth?
Or was this all a coincidence?
No, Heather decided. This was no coincidence.
This feels slightly vague, and I was curious why she didn't seem to use the same kind of religiously-filled quotes as her husband did in his video. In the same section of the series, there is a laugh out loud moment one part of the story about how her son Brayden reacted during his little sister's delivery, but you'll have to read that part for yourself. Sadly, I can't just block-quote the whole thing.
The third story in the series refers back to her husband's instructions to remarry. She becomes interested in another man, but his past might set off some alarm bells for some Christians.
She needed to do her homework about this guy, learn more than just the basics: that he was 42, had five kids and worked at a Des Moines veterinary supply company. The baseball coach was Dan's boss, so Heather asked the boss's wife about Dan. He's a great guy, she said, a hard worker, a solid Christian. But then she mentioned a huge roadblock: Dan was divorced. Three times.
Yes, acceptance of divorce varies widely between churches, but I would be surprised if this wasn't an issue for some of her church friends. In a journalistic context, what is a "solid Christian"? Does he attend church somewhere?
For more than an hour, Dan explained: He'd married young, he said, and started having kids when he was young. Each wife left him, he said. He'd fought to get full custody of his two oldest boys, and he had partial custody of the other children. All his marriages seemed more like two people co-existing than true love.
His explanation calmed Heather's nerves. She had worked in human resources, and she trusted her instincts.
Those are about all the details we get on the thrice-divorced love interest before the rest focuses on the future of their relationship. I'll let you read that part, because I don't want to spoil anything. Despite a few editing nitpicks, it's a good read.
The writer uses the epilogue to tie up a few loose ends, especially some of the details of the impact from the video Eric had made.
A megachurch near Chicago, the fourth-largest church in the country, caught wind of the video and focused a Sunday service on its message. Another megachurch in Kentucky also played the video. A woman in that congregation was so touched by it that she contacted the Jacobs family and bought the family a dinner a week for an entire year.
...Co-worker Keith Kmett, who has watched the video, was supposed to be on the fateful 2006 business trip before Eric took his place. He has "survivor's guilt," and still gets nightmares every November. In the video, Eric tells Kmett he's in a false religion.
...Eric also mentions colleague Levi Rosol. He has not become a Christian, as Eric had hoped. Rosol continues to manage a group Eric started that encourages Iowa information technology leaders to get involved in the community.
When I wrote about the Wichita Eagle story, Ray Ingles suggested that I should have asked for more specifics about the neighbors of the girls who had been abused by their family members (the neighbors, who appeared very motivated by their faith, ended up helping rescue the girls). I told Ray that I thought because the neighbors were part of the story but not the story and the reporter cited the name of the church they attend, it didn't necessarily feel like something was missing.
This story was a little bit different. In a several-thousand-word piece where religion is clearly present for the central "characters," I would have liked to see more details about the wife's faith and the faith of her new love interest. Still, I hope we keep seeing more of these juicy stories.