February 17, 2012

Jeffrey Zaslow (October 6, 1958 – February 10, 2012)

Jeffrey Zaslow made his living as a writer but it was his unique ability to communicate life’s “permanent things,” and to help others do the same, that endeared him to those who knew him and the millions of readers who made his books best sellers.

Recognized widely as the co-author of books chronicling the incredible stories of Randy Pausch, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, Jeff combined his optimism, care for others, and his ability to narrate life’s important stories into what can only be described as “life lessons”—and we’re all the better for it, especially following his unfortunate passing one week ago today in an automobile accident. Jeff made a real impact on me and on all of Northwood University.

A creative writing major in college, Jeff graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1980 and started his career at the Orlando Sentinel. From there he moved on to The Wall Street Journal and then to the Chicago Sun-Times where, interestingly enough, he was picked to succeed the legendary columnist and writer Ann Landers. His talent earned him several awards during his career including, “Best columnist in a newspaper with more than 100,000 circulation” (two times, no less!) and the "Will Rogers Humanitarian Award" from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists as well as "the Distinguished Column Writing Award" from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association.

But it was the book he co-authored with Randy Pausch in 2008 that put him in the living rooms of seemingly every home in America. A computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, Randy Pausch was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and in one of his last acts on earth he left his children “a last lecture” that also allowed the rest of us to listen in. In one of the most moving and memorable books of our lifetime Randy, with his friend and co-author Jeff, reminded us the key to happiness is “...not about how you achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way…the dreams will come to you.”

Jeff visited our Michigan campus in October 2008 as the author of our fall term Omniquest selection, The Last Lecture, and we will have that connection to him forever. Expecting an audience of 200-300, he was met by a standing-room-only crowd of over 1,200 in search of more insight, understanding, and direction in their own lives. The look on his face over the crowd that came to see him was priceless. Jeff had never, until that night, spoken to a crowd so large and engaged. After the event, he stayed to sign copies of his book, and to talk with our students, faculty, staff, and other members of the community, until late into the evening: http://www.northwood.edu/idea/2008/winter/

Following the success of the The Last Lecture and The Women of Ames, Jeff assisted Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in writing Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters (2009), and then Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, to write Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope (2011).

His most recent work, The Magic Room released this past January, is another narrative with “insights on marriage, family and the lessons that parents—especially mothers—pass on to their daughters about love” as seen through the four decades of experiences in a small bridal shop in Fowler, Michigan.

To the very end, Jeff could be found helping others tell their stories. But those who were paying attention know he, like Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture, was sharing with us a couple of his life lessons. In the process of helping others tell their stories, Jeff shared his own unique and incredible story. And even more importantly, he helped us, his readers, understand and relay the stories that should and will forever matter most when all is said and done—our own. 

Jeffrey Zaslow will be remembered for many things but it was his ability to help others “know well” that made him well-known. His sudden and untimely death leaves us living in a world that is a little emptier—but one that is certainly far better for his having been in it.

Have a great weekend.

Keith

Keith A. Pretty, J.D.
President and CEO
Northwood University
4000 Whiting Drive
Midland, MI 48640
989.837.4203 (phone)
989.832.9590 (fax)

pretty@northwood.edu