One of the enduring perks of newspaper journalism is that, when you die, you tend to get an obituary better than your pay grade and social station would normally command. (Such is newspaper life that some of the best benefits arrive posthumously.) This month in northwest Arkansas a reporter by the name of Mike Rodman died, unexpectedly, at the age of 55. Stepping up to pen his obituary, which ran the local paper minus a byline, was author and New York Post sports columnist Mike Vaccaro, who worked with Rodman at a small daily in Fayetteville, Ark., 20 years ago.
“Obits are tough, especially after you’ ve moved a little past the obit phase of your career, because the first thing you want to do is a eulogy, something personal, and that’s probably not entirely appropriate for a straight obit,” Vaccaro wrote to me. “That’s why, knowing my byline wouldn’t appear on this, I inserted a quote from myself in the obit. It’s tough: You want to make sure you cover as much of a guy’s life as you can, and Rodman was especially colorful. But he was definitely a sports fan, a big one, which is why we became friends in the first place, and the funny thing is I could always count on him to be objective about sports, almost overly so, even with his own teams. I appreciated that a great deal.”
Though I’d met Rodman only once, last summer, he was a close enough friend of the family that I’d hear about him pretty much any time I was home. Still, it was fascinating to read Vaccaro’s obituary. When you follow a writer (as I followed Vaccaro when he was in Arkansas, reading him over cereal each morning before school) you also follow, in trace amounts, every writer he (or she) ever admired, and every editor she (or he) ever learned from. I know, for instance, that Vaccaro is a Jimmy Breslin fan (I have a hand-me-down copy of The World of Jimmy Breslin that Vaccaro once bought used in Fayetteville) and so I see Breslin’s imprint in Vaccaro’s words, and through that echo the whole Clay Felker, New York Herald Tribune gang of the ’50s and ’60s. Trace it back far enough, I’m sure you’d connect the lot of us back to Homer’s coverage of funeral games in The Iliad.
But to read a reporter write about a fellow reporter is to see a little further into that bottomless cave where words and sentences are born. Another perk of working at newspapers is that it crams you in a foxhole with a bunch of writers and editors as stories are crafted. You get to watch others report, and you get called over to untangle their sentences before even the editors touch them. You don’t just read your influences; you influence your influences. It’s hard to watch a colleague like that go. Here’s what Vaccaro had to say about his friend’s passing:
There was a moment, early in his second stab at making a go of life as a working journalist, where Mike Rodman had what some might call an epiphany and he would bluntly call an “about-bloody-time moment.”
“Finally,” he said, “I’m doing what I should be doing. And I’m doing it where I should be doing it. Sure took long enough.”
Rodman, 55, died Sunday at his home in Fayetteville, and for his wife, Nancy, and his friends, that number may seem obscenely modest, and it surely is by any measure. But Rodman himself always marveled at how much living he’d been able to cram into his life, an observation he first made at age 19 when he was earning his first paychecks as a newspaper sportswriter in Rockland County, N.Y.
And one he made in passing to a friend less than two months before his death.
“You know how they say dogs live seven lives for every one that human beings count?” he asked that day. “I’m not sure how they’d calculate mine. Ten? Fifteen? I may have not led the most famous life anyone’s ever had. But I’ve sure as heck had an interesting one.”
Rodman’s interesting journey began on May 17, 1956, in Maplewood, N.J., a suburb of Newark. In a sign of the contrarian’s code that would shape and define much of his days, Rodman made what he believed was one of the most important choices of his life early in childhood: weary of his friends’ obsessions with local teams, he traded in the football Giants, baseball Yankees and basketball Knicks for lifelong rooting interests in the Green Bay Packers, baseball San Francisco Giants and Boston Celtics.
In that final conversation with his friend, Rodman quipped, “I did get one thing right. As we sit right now, the Giants and the Packers are champions of their sport. And the Celtics would’ve been if they hadn’t choked away the fourth quarter against the Lakers last June. I did get sports right.”
Rodman played football at Columbia High School in Maplewood, from which he graduated in 1974, and developed a lifelong affinity for journalism thanks to the newspaper habit of his father, a paint-store owner. Enrolling at Penn State that autumn, he wanted to major in journalism but discovered he would have to wait until his junior year to take actual journalism classes, and he grew restless.
“Sensing Penn State was not going to allow me to continue as a student when I wasn’t going to class (who made up that rule?) I tried to fit four years worth of college living into one,” Rodman wrote in his 2005 self-published memoir “Beyond the Sea.”
He also began a dizzying path that would lead him to quit school, spend a year working for a chain of weeklies in North Jersey and another at the Journal-News in Nyack, N.Y., before embarking on a 15-year career as a salesman, notably in the burgeoning hi-fidelity stereo business, a path that took him to San Francisco and back to New Jersey, and led him to, in his own words, “taste everything there was to taste in the ’70s and ’80s. Good and bad both.”
By 1991, Rodman was looking for a change and he decided to return to his first love. Paging through an Atlas, he saw a map for Arkansas and decided to get in his car, drive there, and stop in every newspaper office along the way starting in West Memphis, and use his sales techniques to sell himself for a career he’d left long behind.
In Fayetteville, he discovered the Northwest Arkansas Times and an editor named David Zodrow. Rodman’s most recent clips were yellow and crinkled, but Zodrow was unfazed by that. He gave Rodman a job at a salary “that would’ve served as lunch tip money for me when I was in sales,” Rodman joked. But he didn’t care. He was finally living his dream.
“This was exactly the kind of guy I wanted to meet when I got into newspapers,” said Mike Vaccaro, now a sports columnist for the New York Post but who, in 1991, was sports editor of the NWA Times and became fast friends with Rodman. “He was colorful, he was funny, he smoked a pipe and chewed tobacco and was a fantastic cook and he was one hell of a good reporter. And he loved the business. Loved it. To his core.”
He also grew to love Northwest Arkansas, called it home, over time developed an odd accent that was half-Jersey, half-Ozarks. He married Nancy in 2003, and together they planted roots in the community, and Rodman himself continued to write and report, spending time at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, some time as a freelancer, some time composing his memoirs.
“Mike was a guy who was serious about his work,” said his close friend, Steve Wright, also a former writer for both the Times and the Democrat-Gazette, “but who would give you the shirt off his back, even if he didn’t really have it to give. That’s who he was. Never met anyone like him.”
“I’m a loveable ne’er-do-well,” is how Rodman described himself in “Beyond the Sea.” His friends would disagree; they’d tell him he was half-right.