Wings in HeavenWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
J.P. Bender died Aug. 4. A peerless journalist and a flawed human being, he was a role model in both of those capacities. He had a teddy bear’s heart and an alligator’s disposition. He had the soul of a poet and the patience of a wolverine. He wore profanity like some men wear a $10,000 suit. He was dangerously overweight, a sloppy eater, an overalls-clad slob who took chauvinism to breathtaking levels and did not suffer fools at all, much less lightly.
He was fiercely loyal to his friends, extremely suspicious of authority and a fearless journalist who believed that investigative reporting is a righteous occupation that should only be practiced by those willing to bite the hands that feed.
I shared a newsroom with Bender in South Florida as the 20th century gave way to the 21st. He was a reporter and I was a mid-level editor, so technically I was his boss, but he and I both knew who was really in charge.
His back story was as simple as his personality was complex. He was born in Ohio in 1942, one day shy of St. Patrick’s Day. He was a paperboy in Cleveland, ran helicopter rescue missions in Vietnam and earned five Purple Hearts. As Bender’s best friend, fellow journalist Ed Duggan, said, “His experiences in Vietnam made him somewhat fatalistic in that he knew any day could be his last.”
He was an entrepreneur in real estate, health care and transportation. He was married — and divorced — three times. As a South Florida journalist, with the Pompano Ledger, South Florida Business Journal and Pompano Sentry, he won numerous awards for his investigative writing and reporting. He was a tough employee to manage. He swore, berated incompetent co-workers and made comments about women in the newsroom that probably deserved a stack of lawsuits.
In addition to learning a lot about how not to behave in a newsroom, I learned textbooks’ worth of lessons on the heart of journalism and the importance of, never, ever, letting the bad guys get you down.
We shared a lot of lunches and story discussions; his appetites for both were voracious. Bender did not fear elected officials or industry bullies. He treated them like the chicken wing-sauce stains that often soiled his shirts; they were temporary inconveniences to be brushed aside, not fretted over. His reporting was honest, ethical and accurate to levels rarely found in modern journalism. He did not hesitate to ask, re-ask and ask again.
As a role model for stubborn righteousness, he was tops.
I learned from Bender what many of us learn from those whose art we seek to emulate: Sometimes, the people with the lousiest personal habits and traits are the greatest professional artists.
My greatest adventure with Bender was a March 2001 tag-team interview with O.J. Simpson when he announced a new business venture.
Simpson and Bender were both late for the meeting, so a receptionist suggested I pass some time at an art gallery in the building. The gallery was showing an exhibit of Peter Beard’s photographs, “50 Years of Portraits” — images of naked women, torn bodies and bloody limbs, accented with snake skins, police tape and bloodstains.
As I waited to interview Simpson, Beard’s images of predators and death crawled through my brain.
Simpson, then in his 50s, was fit and trim. He did not step out of the elevator, he exploded from it, his booming laughter preceding him from two floors below.
Dressed casually, and noticeably expensively, in a taut white undershirt and an unbuttoned purple shirt, Simpson was with several lawyers and 25-year-old Christine Prody, his on-and-off girlfriend.
Bender and I were seated in a conference room waiting for Simpson. I quickly told Bender what I had seen at the art gallery and how that would color the interview in my head.
“Listen to me,” Bender said, leaning in close. “You leave that stupid opinion s*** downstairs and face this man with a fair, on-topic interview. You write what you want to after the fact, but you do not sit here with a job to do and play ‘In Cold Blood’ when you have a business story to write.”
During the interview, which was supposed to be a business story, Simpson talked about being a single man who had quite the history with women, a man who could “have sex with whoever I want to.” He alluded to experiences past, present and future, with simultaneous multiple partners, in front of Prody, with a boastful cavalierness that suggested he did not have much concern for her feelings.
Business questions were asked, but Simpson’s conversation drifted back to his personal and legal problems like the tide returns to the sands of South Beach — and just as fondly, with a caress of familiarity that might be termed loving, if that weren’t too hellish to contemplate.
Back in the newsroom, Bender and I discussed the interview and how Simpson had used the session, not to promote a business venture, but to wallow in the murder case.
“Those gallery images you talked about before the interview?” Bender asked. “Go for it.”
I did, and with Bender’s help pulled out some of the best, most visceral writing of my career.
In October of 2008, Bender emailed a document titled “Swan Song,” meant to serve as the posthumous summation of his life and career. He wrote it nearly four years before the effects of a stroke and stage 4 cancer took his life.
Here are some of J.P. Bender’s final, written thoughts.
“I leave this life and my profession with some regrets but none greater than how I have seen our society degrade and the perverse gain a strong foothold over the media. Of one particular concern to me is how certain members of religious beliefs have used religion as a provocation. Today, the norm is religious fervor, and it is the nitroglycerin of the 21st century. It affects our daily lives in so many corners: from judicial appointments to formulation of social norms. Politics and religion — it doesn’t get more volatile than that.
“What I won’t miss is the indifference, the laziness, the monetary waste or the political good ole boy network of cover-ups. For sure I have learned that you can’t make excuses, alibis or explanations for this kind of behavior. Unfortunately, without a vigilant press these negatives would grow at a rapid pace and soon would be in complete control of the city. Without the watchful eye of the press — only vague charges would surface and would quickly be ignored by those in power — as a matter of inconvenience rather than an issue to be resolved.
“I have spent a lot of my adult life in the service of honest journalism and its ideals. I have never lived a day, in good times or bad, that I wasn’t grateful for the privilege.
“As I leave the public eye — in pursuit for the ultimate personal challenge and investigative story — I am neither afraid nor concerned about the outcome. I have always looked to the challenge and found if it were easy, then there was no fun in the pursuit. I always believed that opportunity knocked — and when it did, I was never afraid to open the door — and release my hand from the doorknob — because I was always interested in the unknown and where it would lead me.”
J.P. Bender has opened that final door and walked through it. If he is in Heaven, I hope they serve chicken wings. And if Heaven has a newspaper, I hope its editors are prepared for a hostile takeover.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.