Sean Holton, who inspired a large following with his two-year struggle with brain cancer, died this morning at his home in Orlando. He turned 52 on Oct. 29.
Holton, who worked as a reporter and editor at the Orlando Sentinel from 1987 to 2007, wrote a blog about his disease, its treatment and his life that spoke eloquently to those who also suffered from the disease. Oncologists at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Orlando, where Holton went for treatment and surgeries, referred other patients to his blog called same time tomorrow.
With his characteristic humor, Holton subtitled his blog: "How Sean Holton Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Have Brain Cancer Instead."
"Thousands of people were following him," said Ann Hellmuth, a Sentinel colleague who first met Holton when they both worked for the Kansas City Star in the mid-1980s. "He was always such an original thinker, even as a young reporter."
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Holton graduated with a bachelor's degree in English and political science from Rockhurst University. After receiving a master's in journalism from Northwestern University, he started his career in newspapers at the Kansas City Star in 1983. At the Sentinel, Holton was a city desk reporter; investigative reporter; national correspondent; Washington, D.C., bureau chief; associate managing editor for investigations and special projects, and AME for local news.
He conceived and edited a nationally recognized, year-long series on Florida's water crisis. He oversaw the team of reporters who worked on the Sentinel's prize-winning series on the ballot recount following the disputed 2000 presidential election. He coordinated the paper's coverage of the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003 and the four devastating hurricanes in 2004.
Holton approached his death much as he lived his life — with intelligence, curiosity, a writer's eye for detail, and humor.
"He really did live life to the fullest," said his brother Brian Holton, 53, of Philadelphia. "I think he went out without any regrets."
Another Sentinel colleague Alex Beasley said Holton approached his disease with the same persistence and determination with which he reported a story: "He never quit, he never gave up. He never would get discouraged. It was the same thing that made him such a fabulous journalist."
Beasley remembers the day Holton showed up at his house for a bike ride with the seat of his bicycle missing.
"I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'My seat broke.' I said, 'Well, you can't ride a bike without a seat.' He said, 'The hell I can't.' He rode standing up the whole time."
Hellmuth said Holton brought to journalism an insight and intellect that ignored the obvious and found the most revealing detail, the most interesting angle. Assigned to follow the Pope during a visit to Florida, Holton — a Catholic — wrote a story about how far does a Pope's blessing travel: the first row, to the back of the arena, outside the arena?
"He had that incredible eye for detail and a wonderful approach to a story," Hellmuth said.
Another former Sentinel co-worker Mike Griffin described Holton's unique ability to see a story from all angles and perspectives.
"Some people can see the big picture. Sean could see the forest, the trees, the leaves, the squirrels and make sense of it all. That was his gift," Griffin said.
In his time as the Sentinel's Washington correspondent, Holton wrote the stories everybody else ignored. On the day President George H.W. Bush was to give a State of the Union speech, Holton wrote about D.C.'s two 1600 Pennsylvania Avenues: one the White House, the other a neighborhood of crack houses and poverty.
"His skill set was incredible research with poetic writing," said Craig Crawford, who worked with Holton in the paper's Washington bureau. "He could take a cute idea and turn it into a social essay on the times."
Sean Holton died wearing a Kansas City Royals T-shirt from his hometown. He was a long-suffering fan of the Royals and Kansas City Chiefs. He left Missouri, but never gave up his love for a big slab of beef.
Holton was a large guy with a big head, which earned him the nickname Bucket Head. He considered it a term of endearment and sometimes referred to himself as simply "Bucket."
Of all his achievements as a newspaperman, Holton's proudest moment might have been the book he created from letters he found in an attic suitcase after his parents' deaths. The letters chronicled their love affair while they were separated by World War II. Holton compiled the letters, adding historical perspective with the events that took place at the time of each letter.
He made enough copies to share with his brothers and sisters — and resisted all urgings that he find a publisher for his book so that it could reach a wider audience.
"It was such a labor of love from start to finish. It was very personal and he felt very proprietary about it," said Brian Holton.
Holton celebrated his last birthday with his family and a few friends, Brian said. It was a special day, but every day was a special day since he was first diagnosed with the brain cancer in July 2009. Every day was a gift and he wanted to share that gift with those he loved.
"He knew that things were drawing to a close at that point," Brian said. "There was no sadness on his part, no self-pity. He was definitely a role model for all of us."
In one of the last entries on his Same Time Tomorrow blog Holton wrote about being able to foresee his own death.
"I am not afraid. I still refuse to be afraid. That would be a fate much worse than just curling up to die. If there is any single thing anyone has learned from following my journey on this blog for these past two years, it is that. Do not be afraid. Fear is a waste of time, and a waste of life."
In addition to Brian, Holton is survived by his brother Timothy Holton, of St. Louis; sisters, Kathleen Kaplan, of Las Vegas, and Ellen Holton, of Los Angeles; one nephew and two nieces.
A memorial tribute will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Baldwin-Fairchild Funeral Home, Ivanhoe Chapel, at 301 N. E. Ivanhoe Blvd., Orlando.
In lieu of flowers, his family suggests donations be made to M.D. Anderson Cancer Support Community Initiative.
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