How will your life’s work be remembered after you’re gone? Consider that for a moment. Of all the ways to gauge what our lives add up to during our brief stay on this Earth, one of the most eloquent measures is how our colleagues will commemorate us. No matter what we do for a living, after all, it seems safe to say that the only things we can leave behind are friends, family and good work. We were reminded of this bittersweet truth recently, when we heard of the untimely death of one-time Missoula journalist Jeff Cole.
In the field of journalism, Cole was a local-boy-made-good if ever there was one. A Montana country boy and UM grad, he got his start as the Missoulian’s correspondent from Deer Lodge, later moving on to become a business reporter and editor. From there he moved to Minnesota’s St. Paul Pioneer Press in the late ’80s, until his flair for writing and his unique knack for fact-finding quickly caught the attention of none other than The Wall Street Journal. After making his bones in the Journal’s Los Angeles bureau, Cole was tapped to become the paper’s aerospace editor, and it was in that capacity that he was serving when he passed away. On Jan. 24, Cole was aboard an L-39 jet to interview its pilot, the airline magnate Michael Chowdry, when the plane crashed two minutes after takeoff from Denver, killing both men instantly.
Now, few tasks are more doleful for a journalist than having to write an obituary for a colleague, but in its Jan. 30 issue, The Wall Street Journal published the most fluent remembrance of a fallen comrade that we’ve ever seen. Penned by the Journal’s managing editor Paul Steiger, the piece tracked Cole’s career from Missoula (“… he covered whatever passed for airlines out there back then,” former Missoulian colleague Theresa Walla said) to his vault into hardball journalism on a global scale (“He redefined the meaning of tireless,” an old L.A. bureau chief eulogized). And through it all emerged the figure of a reporter who always got his story, and got it right, and got it before anyone else. By Steiger’s reckoning, his was a life’s work built on passion, knowledge and canny instincts.
Closer to home, unfortunately, the Missoulian did little to remember one of its own, save for a 400-word AP story that ran the day after Cole’s death, featuring a description of the crash and a brief foray into Cole’s career. But even that does not take away from the thoroughgoing potency of the Journal’s commemoration. An expanded tribute to Jeff Cole is available on the paper’s online archives at www.wsj.com. Jeff Cole was 45.