A eulogy for Jack Loftis

Note: This eulogy for former Houston Chronicle editor Jack Loftis was first published on my earlier blog after his memorial service in January 2015. The accompanying art was done especially for Jack’s memorial service by longtime friend and artist Bill Hinds.

About 10 years ago, Jack called me one morning on my cell phone. I was in Los Angeles at an SMU event, and when he called it was about 6:30 local time and I was a bit startled. Jack would always say, “Tony, this is Jack,” to start our conversations. This time, literally the first words out of his mouth were, “Better get your blue suit pressed.” I knew that was Hillsboro-speak at its best. In Hillsboro, if you had a suit, it was dark blue. And getting your dark blue suit pressed meant getting ready for a funeral. It turned out that Jack was facing some difficult surgery dealing with a faulty heart valve, and he was getting himself and his friends prepared. He openly joked about his death, and as we all know he faced several life-threatening medical issues over the last 20 years. And I think it was his wonderful sense of humor that helped him cope with them and come through them the way he did.

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In fact Jack had some interesting experiences with his medical issues. He loved to talk about what had happened to him and give details about his ailments and treatments. He seemed to have strange reactions to medications, especially the pain medications after surgery. After one of his difficult procedures at St. Luke’s, one night he had a dream, or perhaps more accurately a vision, about an argument that took place in the next room. Jack heard what was a loud disagreement, and he could relate specific dialogue between two people, right up until the time that a woman was killed, including a description of her scream. Chronicle managing editor Tommy Miller happened to be the next visitor to Jack, as Tommy stopped off at the hospital early the next morning on his way to work. Jack related in detail what he had heard, and he made Tommy open the door to what Jack thought was the room next door. The opened door only revealed an empty storage closet, and Jack became even more agitated. He was convinced that hospital staff had come in, cleaned up the crime scene and in fact had rearranged the structure of the room just to trick him. He told that story for years afterward.

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I met Jack in 1974. Our friendship developed immediately. We had similar roots in terms of the families we came from, the geography of Central Texas and of course Baylor. On one of the first times we had lunch, Jack shared with me his favorite story. And it’s one we’ve all heard, and I’ll never forget his telling it to me. It’s the story of a man sitting on a park bench. There’s a dog sitting on the ground beside him. Another man approaches, and asks if the man’s dog bites. The man on the park bench replies no. The second man sits down on the end of the bench, whereupon the dog nails the man with a sharp bite on the hand. The startled man says, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.” The man on the bench replies, “That’s not my dog.” I’ve thought about that lunch, and that story many times over the years. Of course it involved Jack’s love of dogs, but it also spoke of a man with a simple and straightforward approach to life, work and relationships. Jack had respect for everyone. I think I knew him about as well as anyone ever did. I saw him in good times and bad. I saw him make difficult decisions.   He was approachable, likeable and by any measure he was a product of his upbringing in Central Texas. He treated everyone the same, whether that person was the president of the United States, the governor of the state of Texas, a nervous intern covering City Hall, or a street person who crept into a downtown hamburger joint and wanted the French fries Jack had left on his plate. True story, by the way. He was the most decent man I’ve ever known in my life.

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There’s a story my uncle used to tell. He was the storyteller in my family in Waco, and he loved to tell stories that would make my very proper Methodist mother cringe. I told Jack this story once, and he appreciated it. He liked stories about church, and I can’t tell you how many times he reminded me that he was an old Church of Christ boy from Hillsboro. This story is about the old man, bent over and rail thin and with a full mop of gray hair, and he sat on the front row of the Baptist church every Sunday. One Sunday morning the preacher was getting started on a stem-winder of a sermon, and he told the congregation he wanted to talk about the forgiveness of enemies.   Whereupon the old man got up and walked briskly down the isle toward the back door. The preacher was stunned, and he said, “Excuse me, sir, are you leaving?” The old man replied, “Yes, preacher, I’m leaving.” The preacher was even more perplexed, and he said, “Do you mean, sir, that you don’t need to hear about how we should treat our enemies?” “No, preacher,” the old man said. The preacher was now a bit incredulous, and said, “Sir, do you mean to tell me that you don’t have any enemies?” “No preacher,” the old man replied, continuing toward the door. “I’ve outlived every one of those sons of bitches.”

If Jack had enemies, he indeed outlived them. But the truth is, he simply didn’t have any. That really is the measure of the man whose life we remember today.

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Jack and I never really talked much about newspapers or even the Chronicle after I left and moved to Dallas to teach at SMU. He did that with others who were here in Houston, but not really with me. He tried to engage me a bit in the first couple of years I lived in Dallas, but I usually changed the subject. One day he finally said to me, “You’ve really left Houston and the newspaper business, haven’t you?” And I said, “Of course I have. I face a bunch of 20-year-old students every day who are a lot smarter than I am. They don’t care about the past, certainly not mine. They only care about the future, and it’s a good lesson.” The last time I saw him was about three weeks ago, and he was in the nursing home. And we did for some reason get into newspapers and the economic struggles that newspapers have had. And he talked about what we had done here in Houston, and I think it fair to say that working together we had some degree of success.  As most of you know, it was my honor to be with Jack as his managing editor and then executive editor until I left the paper in 2003. On this occasion, Jack looked at me and said, “I think what worked for us was that you and I had a pretty good good-cop-bad-cop routine. You were the bad cop and I was the good cop.” And it was true. Jack was always reluctant to fire anyone. He was the good cop in every sense. It’s because he saw the best in everyone, and the potential in each individual, pretty much regardless of what had happened.

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Sometimes after events like this, people get together and there’s a toast or a celebration of some kind in remembrance. You might be tempted, tonight or in the next few days, to have some nice Champagne, or even some Scotch, which Jack used to drink. Which is actually another interesting story. Jack consumed more than his share of Scotch in the first two-thirds of his life. He realized it was a problem. And he stopped when he became editor of the Chronicle in 1987. He simply never wanted to do anything that might embarrass the paper. From then on, when we were at social events, he’d have perhaps half a glass of wine poured at dinner. He might take a sip. Some might think he was just being social. I think he didn’t want people to speculate that he had perhaps fallen back into his Church of Christ upbringing, or, even worse, converted to become a tee-totaling Baptist. As much as he loved Baylor, Jack didn’t really appreciate some of the Baptist beliefs, especially those of the fundamentalists. And if I may digress just a bit further, the other major change in Jack’s life about that time was to marry Beverly Blake. I was with Jack just about every day for 30 years, and hardly a day would go by that he wouldn’t mention Beverly. Beverly, he loved you dearly, and to you and the family I offer my deepest and most heartfelt sympathies.

But let me conclude by returning to the toast. I say skip the Champagne or fancy Scotch or anything else that might be a bit pretentious. Here’s what I’m going to do. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I’ll get takeout pizza. Pepperoni, of course. I’ll save a piece and put it in the fridge, without wrapping. The next morning, I’ll take the cold and crusted piece of pizza out of the fridge, and I won’t dare put it in the microwave. And I’ll have Diet Dr Pepper on hand. It was one of Jack’s favorite breakfasts. I’ll eat the cold pizza and drink the Diet Dr Pepper and remember that the man who was editor of a powerful newspaper was really a pretty simple man from Central Texas, and he enjoyed the simple things in life. And today, for all the great things Jack did, more than anything he would want us to remember that he was just one of the guys from Hillsboro.

I’ve got my dark blue suit on today, Jack. And I had it pressed, just for you my dear friend.

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