Farewell to Jeffrey Zaslow: Chronicler of ‘The Last Lecture’

Jeffrey Zaslow (right), who died yesterday, with Randy Pausch (left), the Carnegie Mellon professor whose "Last Lecture," delivered shortly before he died from pancreatic cancer, was immortalized in a Wall Street Journal story that Zazlow wrote.

Saddened to hear that Jeffrey Zaslow, the Wall Street Journal reporter who immortalized Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” died yesterday.  Tragically, his car went off course on a snowy street and crashed into a truck.

Zaslow covered Pausch’s last lecture, bringing the Carnegie Mellon professor and his life philosophy to international renown.  Pausch died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 but not before he gave us some wonderful guidelines for living our lives — guidelines that found their way to a worldwide audience thanks to Zaslow:

“Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.”

“Wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you.”

“If your kids want to paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let ’em do it.”

In a field in which covering money, power and politics is considered the pinnacle of one’s career, Zaslow never lost sight of what was really important.  He deployed his jaw-dropping writing talent to spotlight not only Pausch but also many other “soft” topics — such as fathers who tuck notes into their daughters’ lunchboxes, and the sadness he felt when he saw the wrecking ball demolish a stadium he loved in his youth.  In a world thirsty for real heroes (and not just celebrities with savvy public relations advisors), he helped write biographies of two: “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed his plane in the Hudson River, and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

His reporting was thorough, honest and heartfelt without being mawkish.  It appealed to both blue-state cynics and the red-state family values crowd.  And in a world preoccupied with billionaire tax returns, Mideast tribal warfare and the latest Kardashian capers, Zaslow wrote about what was really important.

I’ve read that many fathers, powerful men, started writing lunchbox notes to their daughters after reading his column about it.  Imagine the hundreds of women who will now have higher standards for the men in their lives because of this.  And on a broader scale, imagine the many thousands if not millions of people who’ve vowed to follow their dreams, work harder, believe in themselves and be better spouses, friends and parents because Zaslow introduced them to Pausch’s ideas.

One nagging question is how Zaslow found a platform at the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that celebrates money, power and the ruthless people who pursue it.  Especially in the past few years, as part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, the Journal has moved so far to the right that I barely recognize it any more.  I think it’s a testament to the power of Zaslow’s writing that he was able to command a following from this unlikely base.  And while I hate the fact that the Journal has become such a mouthpiece for the right wing, I am glad that they recognized the value of Zaslow’s type of reporting.

I often get disheartened when I watch the news.  We have so many ways to get it now, but the focus never wavers from bad news and sensationalism.  The anchors and reporters are blow-dried, focus-group-tested, strident and often righteous. Some deliver the news in an aggrieved voice and I always wait for an eyebrow to arch up, involuntarily signaling where they stand. I especially hate when a group of panelists try to out-shout one another.  It gives me a headache.

We need more reporters like Zaslow – people who are willing to train the spotlight on what’s right with the world, and on people who show us how to live, with both journalistic rigor and gentleness.  RIP, Jeffrey Zaslow.