Jan 31, 2020

Jim Lehrer Propelled Me Onward

By Ed Goldman

In the haunted days, fog-shrouded weeks and seemingly infinite months after my wife Jane died in 2007, Jim Lehrer helped keep me sane.

His steady, caring but unsentimental delivery of the day’s happenings on the PBS NewsHour gradually made me realize that not even personal tragedy would prevent the world from twirling—sometimes out of control, but twirling nevertheless.

Momentum is the key when your own planet stops dead in its orbit. David Lowe, the general manager of the local PBS affiliate KVIE, tells me that Lehrer’s favorite sign-off to emails was “Onward!” I started using that more than a decade ago, too, completely unaware that he did (we never exchanged emails) but it was a helpful personal mantra.

In Jim’s novels, he reconnected between the lines with his own childhood.

 When I met Jim, who died last week at 85, it was, for me, quite emotional. And it turned out he was far from being the dispassionate, barely smiling fact-purveyor off-camera. In fact, when we met, we embraced. And both cried a little.

Painting of Jim Lehrer from “The Collection of PBS KVIE” donated by the artist, David Lobenberg

Let me back up even more.

When Jane’s nine-year war with breast cancer ended,  I took our daughter Jessica to Europe to celebrate her graduating from UC Berkeley in three years—she’d wanted her mom to see her graduate so she loaded up on class units (and, sadly, missed by a semester). We went, also, to simply change the scenery, which I’d been told could be a component of healing. That makes sense since, if you’ve been a caregiver of any duration, you probably haven’t granted yourself so much as a full day off, much less a full-blown vacation.

About a year after we returned home, and I’d more or less resumed my life, I read that Lehrer was going to appear in Sacramento in a couple of months as part of the now-ended California Lectures, a program founded and directed for years by Suzette Riddle (and not to be confused with the still-thriving Sacramento Speakers Series). I sent Suzette, a friend, an article I’d written for Sacramento Magazine about how Jim’s calm demeanor helped soothe the roiling turmoil that had literally threatened to end my life. Unbeknown to me, Suzette showed the story to Jim, and he asked that I be invited to a pre-speech reception when he came to town.

Well, that’s where the crying game played out.

To be sure, Jim had a very tender side for others, including what Gustave Flaubert called in his classic 1869 novel, “A Sentimental Education.” In Jim’s novels, he reconnected between the lines with his own childhood. Reading an excerpt of his newest book onstage a couple of hours after we met, he briefly choked up—not because he was enamored of his own prose but because, in reading aloud a particularly delicate passage, he seemed to recall the living and loving that had gone into its creation. He apologized to the audience.

No man ever had less to apologize for. You were a prince, Jim Lehrer. You took your work and your audience seriously. If there’s a Heaven, all I can say is “Onward.”

*Painting of Jim Lehrer from “The Collection of PBS KVIE” donated by the artist, David Lobenberg

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).