As a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Jim Sheeler penned evocative articles about lives lost and loved ones left behind. As a Case Western Reserve professor, he inspired undergraduates to recognize the possibilities in their own lives—and to seize them.
Today, all who knew Sheeler through his writing, teaching and friendship are mourning his loss—and absolutely aching for his loved ones. The 53-year-old husband and father passed away late last week at his home in Chagrin Falls.
As the tragic news began to spread Tuesday afternoon, students he taught in class and mentored at The Observer began exchanging phone calls and emails.
“I can confidently say I wouldn’t be a journalist if it wasn’t for Jim Sheeler,” wrote 2016 CWRU graduate Anne Nickoloff, now a reporter at cleveland.com. “… I was full of self-doubt—but Jim’s enthusiasm and encouragement helped me believe in myself.”
Added Mike McKenna, The Observer’s executive editor in 2015-16 and now a graduate student in clinical psychology at The Ohio State University: “Jim was one of the most supportive and genuine people I have ever met. He was amazing at creating community, highlighting others, and sharing his love of journalism.”
A native of Texas, Sheeler earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Colorado State University and began working for local newspapers around Boulder. As he helped type up obituaries faxed from local funeral homes, he started to notice intriguing details—for example, a woman who worked as a butcher and a florist. He began writing weekly features about people who had died, and later freelanced similar stories for The Denver Post.
Those experiences informed his work for the Rocky Mountain News, where he began writing about soldiers killed in the Iraq war. In time he met Major Steve Beck, the officer charged with the grim duty of notifying families that their loved ones had died overseas. The major allowed Sheeler and a photographer to shadow him for a year; the result was a 12,000-word story that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and became the basis for the book Final Salute, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.
Charlie Scudder, now a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, wrote on Twitter Tuesday that reading Sheeler’s book in high school “changed everything for me, put me on the path,” he explained. “I was lucky enough to tell him that once. Never meet your heroes? Bah. Jim was always generous with his time and talents.”
Matt Tullis posted about meeting Sheeler at a journalism seminar and being inspired to launch his own series of obituary features at The Columbus Dispatch. Sheeler later shared a draft of Final Salute to request his feedback and they continued to keep in touch after Sheeler joined the Case Western Reserve faculty. In 2017 Tullis published his own book, Running with Ghosts, about surviving childhood cancer.
“It never would have happened without Jim, and I don’t think I ever told him this, and now I’m wishing I had,” Tullis wrote. “I’m going to miss you Jim. You had a greater impact on my life than you could ever imagine.”
It was while writing Final Salute that Sheeler first taught a journalism class. He found that the University of Colorado students’ enthusiasm inspired him, and later became a scholar-in-residence at the campus.
In 2010, Sheeler became Case Western Reserve’s Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing. In one of his first classes after arriving, Sheeler brought students to the Eliza Bryant Village senior complex in Hough, where they met 77-year-old Andrew Bailey and learned how his wife had changed his life. A few years later, another class did a multimedia project with patients at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center called “For Those Who Served.”
“I really wanted to show them that there is truly a story behind every door,” he told cleveland.com at the time, “and the best ones are the ones that haven’t been told.”
Sheeler also used his journalism networks to help provide students professional opportunities. In 2016, for example, he worked with a national media company to secure press passes for CWRU students to cover the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. That same year he won the Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
“He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist,” a student nominator wrote at the time, “who is the nicest, most humble person I’ve ever met.”
Longtime English faculty member and former department chair Chris Flint noted that Sheeler was equally generous in his service to the university and surrounding community. This semester, for example, he was the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Associate Chair for English, The Observer faculty advisor and a Provost Scholars mentor.
He had recently applied to volunteer as an advocate for abused and neglected children through the Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program of Cuyahoga County.
“Jim was not only an incredibly loyal friend and colleague,” Flint said, “he also was an exceptional ambassador for the university.”
Sheeler is survived by his wife, Annick and their son, James, a recent graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Daily will share information about campus or community memorial services when details become available.
Students who would like support at this time can contact University Counseling Services for a same-day appointment or call 216.368.5872; your call will be answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Also, faculty and staff can access assistance by calling IMPACT Solutions at 1.800.227.6007; more information about their programs can be found at myimpactsolution.com using code cwrueap.