I learned yesterday that a former colleague and dear friend passed away from a massive stroke back in December. I loved the man.
His name was John Van Doorn, as the headline states, and he was a remarkable man. He was 78 when he left us.
His skills as a writer were unmatched. His skills as an editor were exacting and frustrating because I was not good enough to put into place his instructions. Johnny came from top-flight editor positions at the New York Times, the New York Post, the New York magazine, among others. He won the Ernie Pyle Award for reporting for the now-defunct New York Newsday for covering the Vietnam War.
His ability to write encouraged me to find new words in the dictionary. To study my writing and to see if a word mattered or not. Maybe I could find a better one. Maybe not. But I should at least try. The writing demanded it. He was amazing. That’s the plain truth of it.
One day I was sitting at my desk and one of our reporters at the North County Times submitted a column about the Iraq War. The reporter, I forget his name, was covering the war in Iraq.
Johnny was pissed. He thought the column was sophomoric and shouldn’t be published. Our editors disagreed. I mean, the paper had paid the reporter and a photographer to cover the war and so they were going to publish it.
John sent me a column he had written back in the ’60s when he was covering the Vietnam War. It was brilliant. It was a marvel. I read it with awe. “How does he do it?” I thought to myself. I sent him back a note telling him how great this was and reminded him he was at the North County Times, where writing was perhaps not at his level.
He shot back that good writing comes from every level. He was right, of course.
Johnny and I also shared a love of basketball. They set up a basketball hoop in the back parking lot and we used to play. He was good. His outside shot was excellent. We played the editors and whipped them. Not because of my stumbling about but because of his shot. He was that good. And this was when he was 67.
In one of many travesties in my life, I kept telling him I was going to come down and visit him. I am working in Los Angeles now and have been for more than the past 11 years. He was slugging it out at the North County Times down in Escondido. I never did make it down. I should have only because I loved the man. I liked hanging out with him. There was a dignity in him not often seen in newsrooms.
I only worked at the Times for about nine months. I did have an impact on the people there because I treasured an aggressive, honest newspaper. Sometimes, the coverage was shocking, but it was always honest. You need to cover your area like the morning dew and you needed stories that presented the scope, edge and context; wonderful three words. We needed to get the story first, absolutely, but you needed to get it right. And you needed photos that helped move the story forward. God, that was vital. and you needed to support those doing the work. Johnny agreed with this all.
When I was finishing up my last shift at the paper, John stood up and announced: “Mr. Whitmore is leaving. The captain is leaving the ship!” The entire newsroom stood up and applauded. I wept on my way home.
A strong wind, a presence, has left this planet. We will be the worst for it. He was special. There aren’t too many on this planet like John Van Doorn. I thank God for the John Van Doorn’s of this planet. I am lost without him. And when I’m whole again, I will bless his name. John Van Doorn. A Man for All Seasons. Thank you for gracing my life with yours. I am all the better for it.