The best editor a writer could ever have

AL.com asked me to write this column after the death of my former editor and great friend Joe Distelheim. This, from December 30, 2020.

For whatever outrageous reason, Joe Distelheim agreed it was a good idea to send me and a laptop to the Dominican Republic. I would write a series about baseball and how young professional players, including many Huntsville Stars, were developed.

We published a photo by Eric Schultz of several Dominican kids on a dirt road, improvising with sticks for bats and rolled-up tape for a ball. When Joe’s wife Dottie saw the photo, she said, “We need to do something for them.”

The Huntsville Times asked readers to donate equipment, and we shipped some 350 pounds of gloves, bats, balls, etc. to the Dominican. I went back that December to report on how Huntsville’s generosity affected so many kids.

There are hundreds of memories that collide in my head now in an emotional kaleidoscope, but that symbolizes so much. It shows Dottie’s great heart. It shows Joe’s eagerness to bring an interesting story to readers, to bring the world closer to home.

Distelheim, a former editor at The Times who died this past Wednesday at age 78, exhibited and demanded high standards and ethics. His newspapers were going to be fair, accurate and compelling. He disliked misplaced apostrophes, lazy writing, excuses and cliches. He cherished good writing. He offered freedom to his writers, and encouraged them to have fun, to take an uncharted path, to think for themselves, to be bold, to tell a good story.

But it wasn’t what Joe brought to journalism nearly as much as who he brought to journalism. He was most proud of people he hired, the people he cultivated, the lives that were changed.

Like the best-selling author Mitch Albom. Like the immensely talented Mike Downey, now retired from the L.A. Times. Like Geoff Calkins, who writes so masterfully in Memphis. Like Phillip Tutor, a great voice of reason in Anniston. Like so many people who made The Huntsville Times the best newspaper in this state when print was king.

My wife Patricia and I fall onto that list of careers cultivated. He hired Patricia for The Times in 2000. Me, well, I inherited Joe in 1991 when I was sports editor at The Anniston Star and he moved south. Later, he opened the door for me to join The Times as sports columnist in 1998.

Joe was the best boss I ever had. He was also one of the best friends I ever had. He was a mentor and advisor. We shared a love of baseball, of good stories, old friends, cold beer and warm weather.

When I grew restless or discouraged, he had the right words. When things clicked, he was the first to celebrate and appreciate. He and Dottie were there for me when one marriage fell apart and when another marriage blossomed. They were at my daughter’s wedding and my father’s funeral.

As I traveled for the paper, Joe gave a simple piece of advice: “Put me there.” Hemingway said it another way, that “every good story should have a weather report.” The writer has access. Paint the picture. Take the reader with you.

I’ll put you here. When the inevitable news came Wednesday, I was on a beach. A breeze was blowing off the Atlantic. The sun was dueling partly cloudy skies. Waves were kissing the shore just 15 feet away. An adult beverage was chilling at my side.

It seemed somehow appropriate.

Joe used to say he and Dottie spent years chasing a beach before settling in Hilton Head. Patricia and I were often beneficiaries of that chase. First, to Sarasota, where they spent a couple of winters. Then several trips to Hilton Head. A stay in Key West, which included the unforgettable, uncomfortable flirtation Joe received from a dancer of indeterminate gender in some Duvall Street club Patricia led us into.

There was a lovely yin and yang to Joe and Dottie. By nature and by duty, he was a bastion of diplomacy, though he had a quick, wicked wit. Dottie’s filter was frequently on the fritz. It was a perfect match. It was an enviable 40 years of love, laughter, devotion, respect, friendship, support and adventure. To hang out with Joe and Dottie was to spend time with a couple of kids on a perpetual prom date.

Patricia reminded me of Joe’s last column at The Times, how he said that Dottie would teasingly fuss at him for never mentioning her.

“This one’s for you, babe,” he wrote.

This one’s for Dottie, too.

And for the best boss and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

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