One year ago today, Rex Babin died. He was 49, far too young.
365 days is an eye blink in geological time, but for people, it’s a long period and their lives can be profoundly altered; they can be made indescribably wonderful or irretrievably shattered.
For the people around Rex, his passing was a moment of not only great loss, but proof that life is demonstrably unfair. John F. Kennedy once made that offhand observation at a news conference not long before he died at 46; one minute, a man with the world on his fingertips, the next minute gone. When he died, the columnist Mary McGrory told Daniel Patrick Moynihan bitterly that she would never laugh again.
Moynihan replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. But we will never be young again.”
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In my case, I felt that was very apt, for along with his family and friends, my life too was permanently altered by his death. Not only was he perhaps my best friend, I succeeded him in his position at The Bee.
I had first met Rex in 1987 at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention in Washington, D.C.. He was 25 or so, and I was almost 27. Over the course of the next 25 years, we became regular pals at the conventions, and spoke on the phone constantly, usually on Friday afternoon around three. He’d call and say, “Scratchin’?” Yeah, and then we would say all sorts of kind of brotherly, unprintable things. When he told me he was sick, very sick, it seemed so otherworldly. He was the model human specimen: a rower, a multi-talented athlete, and no obvious bad habits that would lead you to think he was vulnerable.
Coming into the job was something that I could not have imagined. I was happily drawing away at The Oregonian in Portland, and I assumed that I would play out the balance of my career there. In my own life, Rex was a third death in rapid succession: my father in June, 2011, my Oregonian editorial page editor Bob Caldwell (two weeks before Rex), and then Rex himself. I said I lost the three most important men in my life in nine months. I know all of you have suffered loss, and I am not pointing out my loss as unique. I am pointing it out as a fact in common with most others.
When I was hired to fill Rex’s position ( I will always think of it as Rex’s position), I had a gamut of emotions. One was relief that I was welcomed here warmly. Another was the notion of following Rex would prove haunting and emotionally draining. Even as Rex and I talked on the phone multiple times per week and had spent many, many hours together in various places, including Sacramento, I had never been in his office before.
I didn’t want his office, and said so.
I got it, anyway, and now I am glad that I do.
I don’t know what I believe in, honestly, in terms of heaven, or hell, or afterlife, or anything. I describe myself as a faith seeker. But I can tell you that every single day I think about Rex. I am sitting in his chair. It is worn from his use. I sit at his drawing table. I turn on the same lamp. I look at his books. I have his phone number. I use his paper. I see his pens. I have a drawing from him, inscribed to me, hanging over my desk so that I can read it: “For Jack Ohman, who accepts only the finest craftsmanship.” When I read that, every day, I take it as a challenge from him to me: do your best, do what we talked about all the time ( craftsmanship, and more), and enjoy your life.
I cried a few times when I started here, privately. Not loud. Not long. But I felt him around. Sometimes, I can hear his voice telling me something or using a nickname that I can't share. I dine with his wife. I play with his son. I am friends with his friends. I talk with his colleagues. I live blocks from his house. I live my own life not as his, but certainly in rough conjunction with it.
He even showed me around the Capitol —twice — right before he died. I thought that unusual.
There are many, many times, every day, when I want to ask him something. Frankly, I feel the same way about my father. I want to ask him what he thinks about this state senator or that reporter or that restaurant. I now have to guess.
People ask me what he was like all the time. I say he was like the cool jock in high school who talked to the dorks. I think it was because he grew up poor and without his father, who also died in his forties. He was more comfortable around athletes, I suspect, but he had an intellectually curious mind and was forever asking questions about how something worked, or how you did that, or have you ever tried this? And so on. And watch out if he knew something better than you did, because he would give you the Bible on it, chapter and verse, in a California surfer drawl. He had a ridiculously crooked smile, particularly when he would look at you after you had said something funny.
He was influential in the profession that he loved, and, frankly, a bit under-recognized with awards. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 (that means there were three people selected by the jury to go to the board for consideration. He wasn’t selected; I was more surprised than he was.) He was a real artist in a field of people who mostly probably couldn’t cut it doing advertising illustration. I have often felt that his work was perhaps a bit too smart or not as joke-oriented, which limited his appearance in some venues. His peers all respected him and that’s saying a lot: you never heard anyone saying anything other than, “Why the hell doesn’t he have a Pulitzer?”
He was recognized and revered here. The outpouring of grief over his death was truly stunning in Sacramento, and not a day goes by where I introduce myself where the other person says, “Did you know Rex? He was great. Did you ever meet him?” Yes.
He could be terse sometimes. Not very often, but if he didn’t like the way the conversation was going, you were off the phone. He had a big heart and was always helping people with little things. I never thought him cruel, ever. Not once. He liked being around all types of people, and was socially adept but not slick. He probably would have made a damned good political candidate.
He was incapable of falsity. He was almost comically candid. One time, right before he died, he said, “You’re really weird, you know that?”
Yeah. I know.
I can hear you saying that now.