I received an e-mail this afternoon, one that made my heart stop for just a second as I read the subject line and first few words.
The e-mail was sent to inform me that Herman Leonard died yesterday.
Herman Leonard was 87, a famous photographer known worldwide for his black-and-white photos of jazz legends taken during the mid-20th century.
He lived a full life, a long one, and according to the e-mail, he died swiftly and with his family nearby. I’m sure I would have experienced sadness if I had just heard about his death in the news, another in the tragic lineup of deaths reported every day. I’m sure I would have felt for his family no matter who he was.
However, the death of this man meant more to me than that. See, I knew Herman Leonard.
Oh, we weren’t friends, or even acquaintances, really. But I got to know him in one of the most intimate ways possible for a journalist — I wrote about him.
After reading about Herman and learning he had graduated from Ohio University, I set out to write about him for The Post, Athens’ independent student-run newspaper. In a very short amount of time, I was permitted to set up a phone interview with him, and for almost an hour, this man favored me with stories about his life, witty anecdotes, fond memories and advice. He was a man who loved music and loved art and wanted to make a difference. He described photography as “magic.” He laughed and joked with me and turned my questions back on me. He was generous with his time and his words, and I ended up with an article I enjoyed writing more than almost any other.
I have one regret.
Herman asked for a copy of the newspaper once the story about him ran, and I became so caught up in my everyday life that I set the issues aside and didn’t take the time to mail them to him.
Oh, I sent him a thank-you e-mail through his secretary and included a link to the online article. But still, he’d asked to see the paper, and I didn’t follow through.
After writing that article, I went through the days without finding much time to sleep or eat, much less sit down, stick a thank-you card and some newspapers in an envelope and mail them. Telling myself I was dealing with a schedule that added up to the equivalent of two-and-a-half work weeks didn’t make me feel much better, though.
I’m sure Herman saw dozens of articles about himself throughout his lifetime. I doubt seeing mine would have affected him all that much. But, still, he never got to see that he made the front page of The Post, along with three huge photos he had taken. He never got to read the story telling about his life after OU in the paper distributed at his alma mater — because I was just too busy.
What’s ironic, really, is that I went through my newspapers just days ago and set aside those that needed to be mailed. Within the few weeks left of my summer, that story would have been in his hands.
I was thinking just this morning, following an unrelated event, how much I hate platitudes. However, as trite as they can be, sometimes they do hold a spark of truth. And the age-old saying that you never know how much time you have is all too true.
I experienced something similar in March of this year, when my grandmother died somewhat unexpectedly. Her death occurred just days before my family was scheduled to visit her, and I deeply regretted not having the chance to say good-bye or attend her funeral, but in the odd way of life, one of my biggest regrets was a rather trivial one.
I had put together some photos several months earlier, a combination of senior photos and prom pictures — things that are vitally important to a high school girl and, thus, also important to grandparents.
However, as in the case with Herman, I never took the few minutes it would have taken to sit down, address the envelope and send it on its way. Maybe I wanted to give it to her in person, but I think the main reason was that I thought I had plenty of time left to finish the deed, and I didn’t want to cut into my schedule.
I’m so glad I had the chance to speak with Herman and write about him. But I wish I’d followed through with our meeting by allowing him to see its result. And although I spent almost 20 wonderful years getting to know my grandmother, time during which she saw hundreds of pictures of me, I still wish I’d sent her those last photos she’d been asking about.
It took two incidents for it to really sink in for me, but I hope that when I’m faced again with the opportunity to set aside whatever all-too-important task has me immersed and stop for just a few minutes to take care of something more important, I’ll do so.
Because as much as I feel the need to fill my schedule as much as possible, thanking someone for his time, sharing a piece of my life with a beloved relative and keeping a promise are infinitely more valuable — and those things won’t wait.