I’ve slogged away in many newsrooms over the years but the very first one I ever worked in was at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where, in the early 1980s, students published a plucky little weekly paper punningly titled the Parkside Ranger. It was there that I met Rick Luehr.
Rick was a gangly and bespectacled young man who would have been quite tall had he not had a perpetual stoop, this due to the fact that he had lost the use of his legs at a young age and was left to make his way through the world on crutches or, later, a wheelchair. The reasons for his infirmities involved a complex and troubled medical history, but the larger point is that Rick never spent much time dwelling on his problems, so I never really knew nor cared why he was what people used to crudely call crippled, because Rick was not a disabled person to me but a buddy and a good one.
We were students in name but kindred spirits in that, for us, attending college was just an excuse to work on the Ranger. He and I wrote for the arts section, and it quickly became apparent he was possessed of a love of film and a rambunctious sense of humor that he used to good effect in his well-crafted reviews and articles. He couldn’t drive so I’d pick him up in the morning and we’d head to campus for a day spent in the cramped and dingy newsroom, banging out stories on typewriters (yes, typewriters), bullshitting about politics, music and philosophy, and occasionally attending class. At week’s end we’d gather in the student union to do what reporters the world over do after the paper has been put to bed: drink prodigious amounts of beer.
Since then I’ve worked in newsrooms large and small, around the country and even overseas. But those years at the Ranger were about the most fun I’ve ever had in journalism, and that was due in no small part to Rick. He was funny, smart and quirky. He could be cutting with his wit and even raucous, but he was always – always – kindhearted. But mostly he was brave, braver than most of us will ever be or ever have to be. Born with a body that was fated to never work quite right, he traveled a rockier road than most, a long, tough climb that always pointed uphill. Because of this I imagine he possessed a greater sense of his own mortality than those of us who were lucky enough to be healthy, a sense that time, and the times we have with the people we meet along the way, is fleeting indeed.
In the decades since Rick’s health followed a trajectory of slow but seemingly inevitable decline. Though only middle-aged he had been on dialysis for several years and more recently was hospitalized with pneumonia. His brother Robb, himself a successful reporter, had been posting updates on Facebook, and things didn’t sound good. So when a friend from those days messaged me this morning that Rick had died last night, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. But even grim expectations can’t allay the kind of grief that settles in as you realize that a part of your life, a part that was more important than you knew at the time, is gone.
I left the Parkside Ranger and my home state of Wisconsin some time ago and had seen Rick only sporadically since. Once we attended an outdoor big-band jazz concert, drinking beers to Duke Ellington tunes on the shores of Lake Michigan. And in a spartan town hall years ago in Massachusetts, on a balmy August afternoon, he was there as my wife and I were wed.
Just last week, my wife happened to be watching our wedding video with her parents, and at one point her father spotted Rick in the picture. “Who’s that?” he asked, pointing to the screen.
“That’s Tony’s friend,” she told him.
This was originally published on About.com in 2010