Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Chef, 1971-2008

In the middle of my second year at college (we weren't "sophomores" because we were at UVa), I met this skinny russet-haired translucently pale beanpole first-year who wanted to write for the sports section at The Cavalier Daily. Other than his weight, he was a typical sports reporter -- quick wits, sharp tongue, acerbic, sardonic, skeptical (sceptical in the UK), loved free food, and lived and died with his sports teams (the thrice-da*ned Redskins, droopy Caps, pathetic Phillies and laughingstock Bullets/Wizards; not the happiest fan's life for our boy). Naturally, he'd debate any and all sports topics. You can see some of his commentary on this site. We ended up mangling his first name and calling him Chef.

I was the first real editor in his newspaper career. He was one of my associate editors at The Cavalier Daily when I was the sports editor. I worked him hard, then worked him harder, then really cracked the whip, and he took it. The bad habits he retained are his own -- the good ones he developed are ones I beat into him . . . or that's what I like to tell myself. Ultimately, if he'd dedicated himself to his studies to the degree he dedicated himself to sportswriting, he would have been a Rhodes Scholar . . . well, with his intellect, he'd have cracked a 3.3 GPA.

If Chef hadn't caught the sportswriter bug by the time he accepted the CD's associate editor offer, he contracted it soon thereafter. Placed on the women's hoops beat, he covered the team like a pro and had a great ride with the team through the NCAAs as Virginia went to its first Final Four, only to be ousted by one of Jeff's first athlete crushes -- Jennifer Azzi and Stanford. Coming back from his trip to Knoxville for the Women's Final Four with his colleague and future co-editor, he proclaimed the experience one of his best trips ever. From that point on, he was the newsroom equivalent of a gym rat -- perpetually hanging around and writing stories, columns and calling around to help investigations.

He pitched in everywhere (the news department constantly begged me to use him for their emergencies even though I usually told them to f**k off -- we were the SPORTS department and we were superior). He was our designated traveler to far off or out-of-the-way places because his mom's status as a pilot gave him price breaks on flights that a perennially cash-strapped paper loved to utilize. That's how he found himself in Alaska with the Virginia men's hoops team in November and December 1990 freezing his toes off and traveling 24 hours for a 48-hour assignment that net one story, maybe two, in our last pre-exam issue (Virginia reached the title game and got whupped by UCLA 89-74).

Simply said, Jeff embodied the culture of the CD sports department that made our section the envy of every other section at the paper: dedication, commitment, loyalty, dependability, and solid writing talent. My guys (the associate editors who worked under me) were all close friends. Three became reporters, one became an assistant city attorney, and another became a high-powered DC lawyer, another married a high-powered attorney (he was the group's gigolo). When I ran for advertising manager in our newspaper elections (that's how editorships and managing board staffing was decided), my guys paraded to the podium one by one to speak for my election. Chef did it with no expectation of repayment, but they all knew I'd take care of them -- that's why I did wheeling and dealing to ensure each of my associates had an editorship if he so chose the next year. And Chef certainly earned his position as one of my successors. Those aspects of him I noted above, professionally and personally, were among the reasons we remained friends long after I moved all around the country before settling halfway across the nation.

Ultimately, I admired in Chef the determination that led him to follow his dream of sports reporting. He had the wherewithal to live for years in a basement hovel in a cubist nightmare apartment building in Danville, Va. that should have been condemned in the mid-70s, where he survived on take-out and ramen because his kitchen sink was anywhere from non-functional to filled with alligators climbing out of the sewers, and his radiator spat and puffed like a fat man with a three-pack-per-day cigarette habit, all while making $18K to cover high school sports in the hopes of moving to a better venue to cover better stories. He eventually did so, becoming part of the North Carolina sports scene despite a personal disdain for Dean Smith (I'm sure he said something about antichrist in the same sentence as Deano's name) and contracting something akin to stomach ulcers with every UNC NCAA Tournament win.

A relatively young man never expects that, in his early thirties, he'll get blinding headaches that cause blackouts . . . ultimately caused by a tumor growing somewhere in the brain above his left ear. That happened to Chef about 5-6 years ago. The doctors removed the tumor but extensive testing (even after shipping the dang thing to Johns Hopkins) never revealed whether it was benign or malignant. In early 2007, we got the answer . . . Chef had another tumor. More surgery, then chemo, combined with anti-seizure meds and much monitoring -- I thought he was doing ok. I could barely get a straight answer out of him when I asked for updates. I wanted to visit last autumn . . . but his schedule had him working weekends and I lacked follow-through after a ridiculous workload in October and November. Evidently, the chemo didn't work out as well as we'd hoped: our friend Luskerdu said he thought Chef was setting his affairs in order in January.

On Monday, Chef went to the ER, then to ICU. The next day, he was nearly healthy enough mid-day to get discharged . . . and then collapsed into a coma. Overnight, he became brain dead. His family took him off the respirator this morning.

Tonight I'll hoist one to Chef, who followed his dream and lived a full life, regardless of its brevity.

Jeffrey Charles Carlton, RIP.

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