Friday, April 24, 2009

Remembering my friend and colleague Jerry Gillam

SACRAMENTO -- Today is Jerry Gillam's day. Jerry is an old, dear friend who died on Holy Saturday. Today we remembered his life.

My day began at an early morning breakfast gathering of old reporters from the state Capitol, most of them now retired. Someone brought a newspaper clipping with a photo of Jerry interviewing Jess Unruh in 1962. I would have been nine-years old at the time.

At 11 am we celebrated Jerry's life at a memorial Eucharist at Trinity Cathedral. The church was packed with reporters, columnists, legislative staffers, and politicians: Willie Brown and Bill Campbell, Bill Baker and Bev Hansen. Veteran gubernatorial press secretaries were there: Larry Thomas, Donna Lucas, Kevin Brett, Sean Walsh. And Jerry's colleagues were there from the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, San Diego Union-Tribune, Oakland Tribune, Riverside Press-Enterprise, USA Today and on and on. His family was there, and his buddies from his Alcoholics Anonymous group were there.

We remembered Jerry the way he wanted to be remembered. Here is what I preached today.
For most of my adult life, I was a newspaper reporter, and for most of that time I was a reporter in the Capitol – The Building – first with The Riverside Press-Enterprise and then with The Sacramento Bee.

Twenty-four years ago, I walked onto the floor of the state Assembly for the first time, and I was greeted by a very large man wearing a long black leather jacket, and his hair was slicked back. I figured he was probably not a security agent because he was carrying one of these, a big pencil, and besides, he was too nice of a guy.

He introduced himself as Jerry Gillam, and he showed me where I was supposed to sit, and he called me “Jimmy” right from the start. Now, mind you, only three people have ever gotten away with calling me “Jimmy”: my mother, Bill Endicott, and Jerry Gillam.

I knew of Jerry Gillam before I met him. In the early ’70s, as a UCLA student and a student of bylines, I was very aware of the Jerry Gillam, Los Angeles Times, byline long before I ever set foot in Sacramento.

So to be greeted on my first day in the Capitol by a legend was terrific. That he was a nice guy was even more amazing.

And he gave me good advice that first day, like telling me to take a wide-berth around Lou Papan, who was in one of his volcanic moods. Jerry was the Dean of the Press Corps, and he took care of us, all of us.

Jerry represented an era when journalists were dedicated to their craft, not merely a career, and were dedicated to each other, not out of collusion but out of a sense that the public would be best served if we could help each other get the story and get it right.

Jerry really was the Dean. He started in The Building when Pat Brown was governor and Jess Unruh was Speaker. To give you some perspective, Jerry arrived here before Willie Brown. Jerry was here for seven governors, nine Senate president pro tems, and 14 Assembly Speakers.

The politicians came and went but always there was Jerry Gillam.

Yet the Building never co-opted him. Jerry was a reporter’s reporter: he had a gravely voice, he asked pointed questions, usually with a smile. He’d start many questions with “Do you mean to tell me…”

Jerry took the time to learn the beat. He knew how the Building worked, who to talk to, who to avoid, who might be telling the truth, and who wouldn’t. Jerry believed in the public’s right to know, so he shared his knowledge of how things worked with the rest of us.

He had a great memory for details, but he checked the clips. The story is told by Bob Schmidt of the Long Beach Press-Telegram about how Willie Brown once flip-flopped on some issue-or-other, as politicians are wont to do. Jerry looked up the clip, and read back to Willie his earlier contradictory quote.

Willie replied: “It’s what I said last that counts.”

I hope you will share more of these stories a little later on in the hall across the way at the reception. [You can also share stories by clicking HERE.]

There is another side to the story, there always is. Great reporters are not always the easiest people to be around for those who love them because much of the time, they aren’t around. The greats are chasing the story, and there is always another story to chase. His family paid the price for that, and he’d be the first to tell you that.

Jerry was a man of large appetites: As you have heard from my friend, Rusty, he was a drinker, and he went through a time of great personal upheaval because of his drinking. He wanted you to know that fact, and he wanted you to know it because he got into AA and stayed with it. It is never too late to get your life together.

Jerry was deeply religious, and in the world of journalism, I can tell you that is not considered a virtue. He hid it well from most of you, but not from me. He had been a Roman Catholic most of his life –he was, after all, a major Notre Dame fan. But his Catholicism was more than about being Irish. He came to this Episcopal church about 7-8 years ago because his reporter’s indignation could no longer stomach the excuses for the pedophile scandal made by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. That really got him in the gut, right here.

He and I had many great conversations about God, about churches, about organized and disorganized religion, and about the mysteries of life and death.

Many of our conversations were at Zelda’s, over a pizza. The pizza was probably not a good thing but Jerry loved that, too.

Jerry suffered from diabetes, and he suffered a great deal. He had an operation to repair the circulation system in his right leg a few years ago, and the operation did not go well. He was in and out of the hospital for weeks, he lost the leg, and many of us thought we would lose him.

Jerry was not afraid of death, not at all. But he loved life, he loved June beyond imagining, and he loved all of you. He wanted every minute God would give to him. Jerry was a soldier in more ways than one, and he fought back against long odds. He left this earth a couple of weeks ago.

I have been around death many times, but I will never get used to it. Death remains a mystery to me, a mirror into which we “see dimly,” as the apostle Paul puts it. Yet I also know this to the depths of my soul: Death is not the end of the story. Death does not get the last word. Not today and not tomorrow.

Life and love gets the last word.

The biblical passages we hear today were chosen by Jerry’s family, and tell us a huge amount about Jerry’s faith in a God brimming with love and generosity. The reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is about how love is greater than faith itself. What you believe, or don’t believe, does not amount to a hill of beans compared to how you live your life in love. Doctrines and beliefs are trivial compared to living a life based on love.

Paul describes love as “patient and kind” and how “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

In the end, when our outter self finally fades away, what abides is faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.

In the passage we hear from the Gospel of John we hear more about this: Jesus tells us about a God brimming with generosity who has many dwelling places – dwelling places for everyone – for Jerry, for me, for you – for all of us.

We are surrounded today by the symbols of Easter. Jerry left us on the Eve of Easter, Holy Saturday. The large candle in front of me is called the “Paschal Candle” and was lit for the first time on Easter Eve, the night Jerry died. We are wearing the white vestments of Easter, and we are saying Easter prayers. Jerry was baptized and confirmed into the faith of Easter.

The Risen Christ of Easter opens the door – and brings Jerry out of his pain, and binds his wounds and heals him and brings him to his dwelling place. Life and love get the last word.

Still, we don’t know – we cannot yet know – what this heavenly dwelling place is like. I imagine it to be like a big dinner party, served by the best chefs in the world, and Jerry is at the banquet joined by everyone he loves. The dinner is free, tips are not accepted.

Our God, the God Jerry knows, is a loving God who breathes into us new life even when our bodies finally fail. The worst thing in life really is not death. Yes, it is OK to cry today because Jerry is gone from us and because we are the ones left in pain. But it is also right to laugh because the hurts and wounds of Jerry’s life are no more, and Jerry is healed.

Our God, the God Jerry knows, is a Creator of unlimited love, a creator who has made many dwelling places for all manner of people, no matter who they are or what they may have done.

It doesn’t matter what mistakes you have made in your life, or what you believe or don’t believe. The awesome power of God’s grace and love knows no limits, no boundaries. Not even the grave can limit the power of God’s love for each of us.

That is the deepest meaning of the Easter faith Jerry knew in this world.
Death is only a horizon. We cannot quite see over the horizon now, but those we love are really very, very near to us.

In a few moments we will celebrate Holy Communion, our great Easter meal, and those we love who are gone from us will be surrounding this table with us and with their love.

We will remember again the Last Supper of Jesus on the night before he died. Even though Jesus faced certain death – as we all do – Jesus broke bread with his disciples and shared his cup, telling them – urging them – to be thankful for the blessing of the new life that is to come for each of us.

Jerry loved this church, and he loved to come to this table, where he shared in our Communion. Today, I am convinced, he is here with us sharing at this table, and he is healed, and whole, and everything that wounded him, or brought pain and hurt, is wiped away.

It is in this sharing of our Communion, that all of us, together, can show our thanksgiving for the blessings God has given us, the blessings of those who have touched us, the blessing of the life of Jerry Gillam.

So please, let me encourage you, no matter you background, to join in making this Communion into a Great Thanksgiving for the life of Jerry Gillam. Please join us at the Table.

And then when you leave here today, know this: Jerry’s gift of life is a reminder to all of us to be the best you can be, to live every day knowing life is an awesome gift. Love your friends and love your family, don’t let a single day go by without saying so – and show it. Be slow to anger and quick to forgive. Let the little stuff go.

Life can be a wonderful adventure, and life extends beyond the horizon where we cannot yet see.

There are many roads and infinite horizons ahead for all of us, more stories to tell and more stories to write, and all of us get to do both. So have strength and courage, patience and wisdom – and may the love of God be your ever-present guide.


Vickie said...

What a privilege to be able to preach at Jerry's funeral. Thank you for posting your sermon. We did miss you at the Earth Day Dinner. Maybe next year....


Susan Van Dyke said...


Thank you for posting this homily. You did a lovely job of bridging the gap between those who love the church and those who may have been uncomfortable there, and, of course, of eulogizing Jerry.

And congratulations to you and Lori on your new home. It looks inviting and peaceful - you have great days there.

Take care, you two, Susan