It was about 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday here in the Pacific Northwest when I heard that longtime Godbeat pro Jeffrey Weiss had died at home at noon Dallas time, surrounded by his family. I’d last seen Jeff in September at a Religion News Association conference in Nashville. Members of his family said he would probably last until January. Less than seven weeks later, he is gone.
Last December, he learned that he had glioblastoma, a terminal brain cancer and the same ailment that has hit Arizona Sen. John McCain. Not wanting to use the word “death” to describe his fate, Weiss came up with “egress” and used it with much humor during the last year of his life. He decided to “go out with fireworks,” as he told his employer, The Dallas Morning News, so he spent his last few months writing a column on dying for Religion News Service and pushing the Food and Drug Administration to move quicker in finding solutions for terminally ill people like him.
Clink here for a fabulous sketch by Morning News staff artist Michael Hogue of Jeffrey climbing a Mt. Everest-like slope shaped like a brain.
Last month, the RNA gave its Lifetime Achievement Award to Weiss. After receiving the award at the RNA banquet the night of Sept. 9, he presented a speech read by his niece, Lindsey Weiss. As you can see by my photo (above), he stood to her left during the entire thing, wearing his trademark fedora with a card stuck in it proclaiming "Cancer sucks."
It's a bit of a tearjerker, so I’ve transcribed it below (and here’s the video of him delivering his speech) for those of you who wish to remember Jeff’s last words to the reporters covering a beat he loved so much. “It’s kind of like his home room of beats,” his wife, Marni, told us.
I appreciate this award, even more so than when I was told my first time about this. And I’m here. I am working better than I am not working. I have loved this organization, even from my odd angles. I'll admit it might not have been a ton of angles and at times more so than I’ve expected. At the moment, I know I may have a particularly short amount of time because of my brain cancer. My glioblastoma may be setting a clock for me and maybe my egress will be at the time of my 63rd birthday this coming January.
But, no kidding, I’m not trying to get extra pity from you all. It’s been a few years since I’ve done the subject and, in fact, having a career in this may have pumped up my own faith since the diagnosis. Yay!
Not all of Jeff’s career was as a religion reporter but he was there during the salad days of the Morning News’ six-page religion section, which at one time had four full-time religion reporters, plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor, page designer and lots of freelancers.
It was shut down in 2007 and Jeff was switched to covering regional public education issues. Imagine: No consistent approach to religion coverage IN DALLAS (click here for the GetReligion post on that development). Back to the Weiss speech:
So my point here is for me to be doing some thinking up front. I have this in writing because I’m not taking any chances. Here is where I came from:
I was mostly a dope as a kid, though my parents and a couple of friends kept me alive and not universally stupid. A dream that I would become a physicist was squashed in my first year of college with a C in calculus. So, I picked writing. And while it took a few years, I eventually became a full-time journalist. That started from my hometown with the Miami Herald. And then after about eight years, I switched to the Dallas Morning News.
I never left with my professional writing for as long as I could stick with it. I had to drop out in December 2016 as my brain cancer issue kicked in. I was never able to come back as a full-time professional but I had spent some years doing journalism and some time because I had wanted to do it even with this head thing.
And I’ve been able to write some, even now; for the Dallas Morning News and for RNS. And I want to give free credit for the freedom that I got from the RNS, starting most specifically with Yonat Shimron when I was literally in a hospital recovering from my brain surgery last December. I have had such fun for what I’ve written here and for their audience. No kidding. It’s really been fun.
Do read them for a view on how a ‘Jewish agnostic’ faces death. Back to Weiss:
Here is what I have to leave all of you. I became a journalist because I enjoyed it. Yes. But I stayed with it so long because I believe that my stories offered a little bit of a better chance to make humans a little bit better. It has never ever been more important than now to do what you all are chasing. Not where your area is limited to. Not how local your stories are. What the news stories are.
Yes, I mean related to the current president. Everyone reading our work needs real and true journalism. I am telling you that and I know that no matter how my brain works, I suggest that my new mental limits did not kill my contempt with some of the top political folks of this era.
As for me, a few of my examples of work I think did help: I hope even late that there were other people who have been following my experience from various modern versions of journalism. That was a bit of legacy that I was hoping for.
Several of his columns got picked up by USA Today, exposing him to a much larger audience. Many people keep their battles with cancer private. Jeff made his very public.
Even when bosses didn’t exactly set my priorities, I did stories that I remained proud of for a very long time. At the Miami Herald, I covered some tales that were crazy and interesting. And that included some of the insanity of Florida politics back in the 1980s and some early stories about the AIDS crisis that mattered to many of the readers. All of this included the best and worst of humanity.
I joined the Dallas Morning News in 1988. I never expected to stay forever but obviously it was a good place for me. I was there for the rest of my years as a professional news (unintelligible). I met my wife Marni in 1990 and she has remained my priority since then. She had pretty some good jobs in Dallas so we stayed in the area for many, many years.
I had worked a lot of Christmas days because I was Jewish. My most meaningful Christmas story, though, was about a couple who had lost their children that very day -- a son and a daughter that they had adopted a few years earlier. I wrote a story about how donations of organs could help save many lives.
Jeff may not have been religious but he liked the Talmud (a vast selection of Jewish commentaries on the Bible), his niece posted on Facebook. There’s a ton of tributes on his page.
I did one story tied to the faith of a crazed Muslim sheik tied to Islam. This was about a fellow heading al Qaeda. Two years before the 911 attacks on the United States, I had given myself some credit for a story that explained why Osama bin Laden presented a clear and present danger to the United States and why he was even more a danger to many, many other Muslims in the world.
I’d also written a detailed explanation why the attitude of extreme Jews and Muslims would probably kill a peace plan that intended to use Jerusalem as the central component. The old section was -- and continues to be -- smaller than any one single terminal in the DFW airport. I will take credit as the one who reported that. It’s been fascinating for many, many years.
My GBM is likely ending me sooner rather than later. My message to you will probably be at some point this: That my life has been pretty good, if a little bit faster than I would have preferred. My wife and my brother and my mother and my family and friends made an effort beyond all , for me. And that did not lower my sense of gratitude.
May your best path be your best one. In a wonderful future, maybe I’ll have the opportunity to look down and check in on everyone. I only wish that I could write journalism if I learn a tale after the egress. Inshallah.
Naturally, the reporters there jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. Approaching the podium, Jeff added:
Thank you all. This is a great thing what you belong to. You can make a difference. That is the only thing I want to tell you. You can make a difference very much.
Jeff made a difference, too. Sayonara for now.