Jack Kramer, my college roommate and co-editor of the University of Bridgeport student newspaper way back when, has died at the age of 65, and I didn’t get to say goodbye, and that’s what you get for not staying in better touch. Except . . . I had been in touch as recently as April.
In a pandemic panic, while texting a bunch of friends and relatives, I sent one his way: “Hey Jack, you doing OK?”
“Working at it – thanks”
“Just checking in on old friends.”
He said nothing about cancer. I knew nothing of his illness. I gather that neither did other old friends from college. So the news just fell from the sky: Jack Kramer, former executive editor of The New Haven Register, died on May 5 after a battle with cancer.
On reflection, I am not surprised that Jack refrained from burdening old friends with his health problem. He wasn’t much for self-pity parties.
I always thought I would see him again. I always thought there would be more time.
He and his wife, Audrey, came to Baltimore for an Orioles-Yankees game some years ago, and I stopped to see Jack at his home in Connecticut while passing through on the way to visit family. I saw him at a couple of reunions, too. He would drop me a line a few times a year, and we’d catch up quickly and briefly. On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I was traveling through Connecticut. I wrote my Sun column in the Register’s newsroom, on a desk that Jack furnished. I got to see him in action as an editor. I was so proud of him.
I always thought I’d see him again.
You get news like that — the death of your old college buddy, the guy who used to loan you his purple Gremlin, the hardcore Yankee fan who delighted in rivalry with his Red Sox roommate — and you feel the Big Chill again. You feel a shocking loss. But you also feel a little lost, and guilty. Where did the time go? How did this happen? Why didn’t you keep in better touch? Where is everybody?
Jack and I had a similar start in journalism: Once we worked for a daily newspaper — either with internships while in college or in full-time jobs after graduation — we got the bug for the work. The more reporting and writing we did, the more we liked it, and it became the only work we wanted to do.
Both of us got really busy. I became a columnist in Baltimore. Jack became an editor in New Haven. He was well-liked by the people who worked for him at the Register, and he was a real newshound.
The downsizing of our respective newspapers hit him harder than it hit me. He got bumped out of his job in 2011; the company that owned the Register eliminated a position he had held for nearly two decades. He had worked for the Register, over all, for about 30 years.
After that setback, Jack found work again as an editor and as reporter for intensely local news organizations in Connecticut. At the end he was freelancing for CTNewsJunkie and Connecticut Patch.
And that gets me to what I consider Jack Kramer’s gift.
It’s a gift to all of us who are employed to report and comment on the news of our communities. In my time in Baltimore, the Sun went from bragging on billboards that it was “One of the World’s Great Newspapers” (and the self-effacing Evening Sun bragged about being “One of the World’s Newspapers”) to being a stripped-down, locally-focused news operation. This was forced on us by corporate downsizing.
Our foreign bureaus closed, and we pared down our Washington staff to one reporter. Most of our work — the work just recognized this month with a Pulitzer Prize — is local. We cover Baltimore and central Maryland, and generate most of the top stories from the city and surrounding counties.
Last year, Jack wrote a farewell letter that was not published, but it appears with his obituary on a funeral home website. In it, he champions local news and emphasizes its importance. He was a passionate journalist who understood that. Reflecting on his life and mourning his death, nothing could have pleased me more than to read this as Jack’s parting shot. It’s a big part of the message we in the Baltimore Sun News Guild are trying to convey to readers as we seek to make the Sun a non-profit.
Jack headlined this piece, “Goodbye, Keep Up the Good Fight.”
I’ll try and keep it short and on point. Due to a difficult cancer battle, I am putting on hold, for now, a 43-year journalism career. While I have held much higher positions during that career, I want to reflect on the work I’ve done for two publications the last four years.
The missions of CTNewsJunkie and Connecticut Patch on the surface could not be more different: One a staunch watchdog of state government; another digs into the “chicken dinner” and much, much more of the police, school, municipal news of Connecticut towns — often before anyone else.
But the more work I did for both I realized at the core they were really filling voids, huge vacuums that legacy news organizations had left behind in towns and the state of Connecticut.
For NewsJunkie, I have written hundreds of stories. Two issues stick out for me where I think our coverage has made a difference. I’ll never forget that moment when I walked into the Guilford Community Center a few years ago and expected a few people, a few reporters, the usual crew to be there. I was blown away as I was hit full frontal with a crowd of hundreds as a Guilford parent talked about the “opioid crisis” that had claimed the life of her son, Nick, in 2013. I’ve gone on to write dozens of stories about that crisis that takes three lives in the state of Connecticut every single day. Thank you, Sue Kruczek, for being the person who brought the issue to my and the state of Connecticut’s attention.
A few short years later I was back in Guilford, telling the sad story of the Song family. Ethan Song was 15 years old when he fatally shot himself in January 2018 in Guilford while playing with guns with a friend. Now, due to the advocacy of the Song family (and I’d like to think in part because of the scores of stories about “Ethan’s Law”), we have the safest gun storage laws in the country in Connecticut. That law may soon become the model for similar federal legislation. I should note that “Ethan’s Law” passed with strong, bipartisan support in both chambers and was quickly signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont.
The good news is I see a return — the past few years — to good old-fashioned town news reporting and the reporting staff at the state Capitol is second to none. I should have paid more attention to that coverage when I spent more than a decade-and-half as editor in New Haven, but I’m glad Christine Stuart, who is as good as there is in this field, helped me join the cause four years ago. To Christine, her husband Doug Hardy, what can I say — thanks for pulling an old reporter off the scrap heap.
I also believe the core, basic values of town journalism have made Patch a player in Connecticut — and has forced legacy organizations to do a somewhat better job at returning to their core mission of reporting local news. To Brian McCready, my ex-colleague in New Haven, we had some fun the past few years. I’m particularly proud of the accountability that Patch has re-established in many town boards. Wouldn’t have happened without solid reporting, combing through town websites for minutes of meetings — oftentimes meetings where reporters no longer routinely attended.
A bit about my family: My beautiful daughter Tammy who is helping to lead the good fight at Planned Parenthood. Do what’s right, Tam. Don’t look back. My son, Kyle, is a market research analyst who lives in Brooklyn. He’s got a hard exterior but beneath it would do anything for anybody.
Most importantly my wife, Audrey, a more than decade breast cancer survivor herself. Her message to me: be positive, you’ll beat this. Ok, dear.
To the thousands of those who I have interviewed for NewsJunkie and Patch, thanks for helping me do the only job I ever wanted — except centerfielder or shortstop for the New York Yankees.
I won’t be writing, at least for awhile, but I’ll be reading. It’s been my pleasure. Jack