A wave of sadness swept over me last night when I got news that Steve Buttry had passed away. Many of us felt it was coming, as Steve had said he had started palliative care some days ago and both he and his wife Mimi had not written much since. But still, even from across two continents, news hit hard. This morning I’d rather cry than write, to be honest. Also, one thing that Steve allowed us to do by being very open about his illness was to say real goodbyes in person, and not withhold any professional tribute or sign of affection while he was still around. Few things were left unsaid. It was challenging, but it allowed for realness and fullness. Then I remembered, something Steve said in public last September, at the ONA conference in Denver, about the duties of being the writer in the family. Since he helped raising a metaphorical family of writers, we kind of know where our place is – on the page. So here I am.
One of the few perks of the disruption in journalism is that in the last 6/7 years it has put us grown-ups back in the classroom, and everyone got to pick their teachers. Steve was a very real teacher for many newsrooms, including the ones he created, but he was as real a teacher for us who followed his work and listened to his speeches and read his blog from far away, and had rare chances to meet him in person. My first international panel at the Journalism Festival in Perugia was by Steve’s side, in April 2013, and I was in awe of him. Being still young, and always learning himself, I think he felt a little awkward about all the deference. His panel was very practical, and I still have a few pics of his slides on my phone – one of them was about steps for “authentication.” We spoke in the hall of a former bank, surrounded by old wood and glass counters, and he was amused. Then Steve and Mimi were naturals at becoming part of Perugia’s Italian dinner parties, where not much is said about journalism, but a lot about travelling, and art, and jokes, and food.
Since then – and I still find hard to believe how packed with action and failure and trying and success and failure again these very few years were – Steve became one of our heroes. Without fail, some of the best people I got to know turned up to have worked with him, or have learnt from him somehow. When Steve announced his illness was terminal, me and others did all we could to make sure that we were going to be at the conference in Denver – and told him – as it could well be the last time we met him. Steve was in good shape and incredibly gracious. I told him I’d never seen him looking so young and it was incredibly true – his boyish spirit was taking over the professor. I bet tacit goodbyes proved even harder for him than for us, and not all moments of the day he felt okay, but he made it look like a breeze. It was a privilege to witness a packed room award him for his lifetime achievements, and to watch him being taken by surprise and walking up onstage to get the Rich Jaroslovsky Founder Award with humor and pride, and to be able to run back and forth between tables with other friends to hug him and Mimi. So many hugs, so many handshakes, and Mimi braving tears.
So here comes the last and most important takeaway of Steve’s career and life for me. I think it only hit me last night when I knew he really was no longer with us. For a brief moment, when he started blogging about his illness and therapies, I wondered why he was choosing to share such a private and difficult process. With time, it proved a way for him to celebrate and treasure all of life’s events, to investigate what was happening to him, to feel the love, to keep all the scattered people informed, to receive strength and encouragement even on social media. He kept it real for all of us. I bet sometimes he kept writing even when all he wanted to do was curl up in a ball. More than anything else, it was clear to me that writing was his way to walk through life with his eyes open. And most important, to own his life. To be the one who picks the words that describe one’s world, to be in charge of it, to choose what is public and what is private, to reject cliches, to command one’s narrative, to claim one’s affections, and identity, and history, and character, and uniqueness.
Stand up straight, and own it. Don’t let anything take it away from you. What a lesson. What a fine man. Thank you, Steve Buttry.