It was Louisa May Alcott who once wrote, Love is the only thing that we can carry with us when we go, and it makes the end so easy. It was a wise thing to say, and I've thought about this quote often. It encapsulates life's complexities so as to make our daily pursuits of all sorts of material dreams seem trifling. It's all about love, isn't it? That's the meaning. The quest of everything. Giving and receiving love in return. It's an understanding that's as simple as it is profound.
It is with a heavy heart that I write this blog post, as I've been thinking about this quote a lot upon the passing of a good friend and colleague named Jack Challem. And in order to convey the full depth of my gratitude for this special soul, I think I have to take a little time in setting up the back story of our relationship.
In my former career as a magazine editor, Jack was one of my mentors. He was a well-respected medical journalist, certainly of the alternative persuasion, who had a genius for interpreting nutrition research, a passion for health and an innate talent for lending credibility—through his astute conveyances of information—to the nutritional supplement industry, which, at the time, was under fire by the mainstream media and its prime benefactors, pharmaceutical drug companies.
When I was promoted to editor in chief of this alternative medicine magazine called Let's Live, I was only 25, and had been an assistant editor for barely two years. In other words, I had little experience to take on a position that most editors work years to eventually attain. Truth be told, I was given the position when the current editor quit (another invaluable mentor of mine) and it was highly unexpected. To make matters even more interesting, Let's Live was going through a major evolution, a partnership with a large retail giant had just been forged, which had both good and bad aspects, the most lucrative of which was a herculean jump in circulation. In one month, the readership skyrocketed from 120,000 to more than 1 million, and it would eventually surpass 3 million during my tenure, which, in the magazine world, is an extremely rare expansion. Very few magazines, let alone a health magazine, reach this circulation, and at the time, only Prevention magazine could boast a health readership that was higher.
There is one more piece of this back story worth noting. Six months after I took the helm as editor in chief, the publishing company that owned Let's Live was sold. While the existing owners meant to keep the announcement of the sale private until the end of the year, one of our editors found the purchase agreement on the fax machine. In less than three months, there would be a brand new management team taking over, and not only was the office abuzz with the news, but I was wondering if I would be holding my post as editor in chief for much longer.
And this is where Jack Challem enters the story. He made no bones of seeing a spark of a great editor in me, even when I was only an intern, and he became not only my friend, but one of my biggest fans. Having years of experience on me, Jack was generous with his knowledge and connections. I knew who to call when I didn't have a clue as to the right answer, and I can't even count how many times Jack's astute counsel made me look far smarter than I was. He referred me to top writers, respected doctors, expert sources and a few advertisers. I borrowed his genius, which often looked to others as if it was my own, and yet Jack was only more than happy to lend it!
While we're only talking health magazines here, there was a real feeling of being on a mission in those days, and I often had the feeling that an entire soul group of people had chosen to come together with their various gifts to be on the side of natural health and alternative medicine. It sounds grandiose as I play it back now, but I felt as if we were warriors, and to be clear, our crusade was ideologic. Our mission: Wake people up to their own healing ability, and out of the confines of limited thinking so heavily propagated by the pharmaceutical industry. While drug companies wanted to get more people on drugs, we wanted to show them another way. Clearly, Jack and I had drank the same Cool-Aid! And established ourselves early on as part of a growing underground resistance. Our weapons were words. And with Jack's help, they could be seriously augmented by science.
At the age of 66, Jack Challem passed away a week ago, Thursday. It was April 13, 2017. I learned about his death from a mutual friend, another former editor in chief named James Gormley, who shared his own shock at the news. As it turned out, Jack was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January of this same year, and I had no idea. As I reflect back, though, there was a clue, and I am angry at myself for missing it.
Jack had referred me for a job with one of his favorite clients. It was a great freelance writing gig, he wrote to me, asking if I would be interested. At the time, I didn't question why he was recommending me. I somehow imagined he was going off on a trip to Japan, which is where he often traveled to visit his son Evan, and therefore, he needed only a temporary replacement. Reflecting now, Jack was looking for someone who could take over his duties because he perhaps knew that he was no longer able. And, in his professional way, he wanted to make sure that his client was taken care of. Jack texted to me the recommendation that he he sent to her on my behalf. It was lovely as I read it back now. And I texted back to him that his kind words gave me a spring in my step, which lasted for weeks!
Sorry, Jack, for missing this. We texted that we should get together for a much-needed phone call to catch up on our lives. He and I could talk on the phone for easily two hours! He lived in Tuscon, and I in Los Angeles. We had talked about getting together at the LA airport when he anticipated a four-hour layover on this way next to Tokyo, but sadly that never happened.
I am heartsick that I didn't call him when I had the chance. I'm sorry that I never took the time to crystallize in any elegant way, my deepest gratitude. If you are over my shoulder now, looking down as I type this, I hope you know how much I appreciate knowing you, Jack, such an invaluable mentor, astute medical journalist, artist and a wonderful friend all these years. You will be sorely missed. What an amazing, top-notch talent, "Nutrition Reporter," a beautiful photographer and lovely, lovely soul. When you crossed over and reviewed your life, I hope you felt the love from me because it is vast, my friend. Even recommending that freelance writing job to me last month, wow, you were still looking out for me, even after all these years!
I count my blessings today, and all of the love I've been shown in its myriad ways, even from good friends from a former workplace. It's endlessly interesting to see how people cross our path and assist us on our journey, and reminds me to return the favor in the ways that I am able. As my mom would often tell me when I was younger, "you were born under a bright star, Beth," and this star must be love. I feel it shining more than ever today, Jack. And I'm reflecting all of its light, which has been made even brighter by your special place in my life's story, right back your way. RIP.
Jack's beautiful obituary, written by James Gormley, for Whole Foods magazine, can be found here: http://www.wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/breaking-news/jack-challem-nutrition-reporter-dies-66/
Note: The furled lily flower image pictured above was created by Jack Challem.