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An Elegy for a Friendship Harsh reality: A call in the night tells a reporter that two close friends and one of their children have died in a highway accident, and he must struggle to come to terms with death when it's more than a word in a news item.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The bad news came, as it always seems to, in the middle of the night.

My wife answered the phone. Shadows cast by the headlights of a passing car rippled through the blinds. "Oh, no," she muttered, still groggy. "Oh, my God. No."

She hung up. "Jeff and Ann are dead," she said. She made it sound as though dead were the most improbable thing anyone could ever be.

"What?"

"And Siena. There was a car accident."

I got up and wandered downstairs. Memories of the Fairbanks family darted through the dark rooms. Everything felt numb, muffled, as if the world had been shot full of novocaine. I sat down on the couch.

That's terrible, I thought. Now go back to sleep!

But I couldn't.

Death is something newspaper reporters deal with routinely. We're like funeral directors. People succumb to cancer. They commit suicide. They're stabbed or shot. They fall in the bathtub.

Lives are obliterated. But they're other people's lives. To a reporter, it's a couple of phone interviews. A few hours' worth of work. A moment's reflection on what fragile, precious objects people really are. A pang of sympathy for their family, for their friends.

Maybe you get inoculated against death, I sometimes thought. Immune to grief.

Except that Jeff, the managing editor of the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, was a dedicated friend: kind, generous with praise, supportive when you were struggling, never jealous of your success.

Except that Ann, the Telegram-Tribune's senior reporter, was brilliant and compassionate: someone who never held it against you that you weren't nearly as smart as she was.

Except that Siena, just 12 years old, was a quiet, determined child, who held her own in a family full of strong women.

Except that this time, I knew these people. This time, it was my friends whose lives were being distilled into a few pithy paragraphs on the obituary pages. This time, I loved those people disappearing down that dark and bottomless whirlpool.

I lay there all night. Dry-eyed.

*

The accident happened on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I heard about it at 2 a.m. Monday from a friend, Tim Ryan, entertainment writer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

On Wednesday afternoon, I flew to San Luis Obispo. It was very late. The tiny rural airport was deserted. A van from my motel picked me up; the driver, it turned out, was a neighbor of the Fairbanks family.

I flopped onto the motel bed. Even after the eight-hour trip, I was restless. I kept remembering the connections that had bound us. Grabbing for them. Finding all of them snapped.

My wife, Jane, and I first moved to California from New Jersey in July of 1980. The Telegram-Tribune offered me a job covering a string of communities along San Luis Obispo County's north coast, from the tiny village of San Simeon near Hearst's Castle to the picture-perfect tourist town of Morro Bay. It is gorgeous country.

The city of San Luis Obispo, where we lived, looked as if had been placed in suspended animation back in 1945. It had escaped the explosive growth of the rest of the state. There was no mall, and downtown thrived. Stucco bungalows and spindly Victorian homes sat amid oaks and pepper trees. Cattle ranches and mountain slopes lay just beyond the city limits.

All this was dull stuff for a young reporter. I was near the beginning of my career and burned to be elsewhere: someplace big, bad and urban. Someplace, I told myself, where I could make a difference.

Back in 1980, Jeff was news editor at the Telegram-Tribune, then an evening paper. Ann covered county government. Her desk was just in front of mine. She filled me in on the county gossip and office politics.

We wrote on manual typewriters, then cut and pasted our copy together with big scissors and glue pots. Jeff would come in to work early. He'd stick a pencil behind his ear, pick up a long metal ruler and proceed to read and rip the stuff chattering over the old-fashioned wire machine. As deadlines for local stories approached late in the morning, he'd look up and inquire, leisurely: "How's it coming?"

At first, I shook my head. In my experience, editors cursed or growled or sweated.

Much in common

Gradually, though, I got used to this mild-mannered editor. As it turned out, we had a lot in common. Both of us were California natives from blue-collar families. Both of us were a little shy and awkward. Both of us loved newspapers, and the eccentric people who worked for them.

And both of us had wives who were seven months pregnant. My daughter, Alison, and his first daughter, Courtney, were both born that September, within a week of each other, at San Luis Obispo General Hospital.

Before she could crawl, we'd take Alison over to the Fairbankses' small redwood bungalow near the ocean and let her hang out with Courtney on their shag rug. Meanwhile, we would talk about our years in New York, or Ann would tell us about growing up in Mexico City, where her father's job had taken her family. Or the Fairbankses would recall their brief stint as managers of a motel in the outback of Utah. Ann would sometimes make her wicked margaritas, or fiery taco sauce.

She was a petite blonde with a wry smile, a dry-throated laugh and a no-nonsense manner. She was one of five headstrong and competitive children, cared for by a succession of bizarre nannies.

She graduated from Mexico City's American High School in 1968, and from Stanford in 1972. She met Jeff when both of them were working as reporters at a small newspaper in Ventura, Calif. After just a year, she moved to New York to get her master's degree in journalism from Columbia. When she graduated in 1974, she turned down a job I would have jumped at: a chance to cover cops for the New York Daily News. She returned to Ventura to marry Jeff.

We talked about her decision. She'd shrug, saying that being a reporter in San Luis Obispo was probably not all that different from working in Manhattan. Except the beaches were better in San Luis. I suspect she feared that Jeff would have had a hard time finding work. It must have been a hard choice.

She was, in the words of a friend, "one tough cookie," and delighted in making friends and colleagues squirm. I once heard her ask a bachelor about his girlfriend: "Are you sleeping with her?" When he looked shocked, she shrugged: "Well, isn't that the point?"

Her favorite Christmas memories? When she was 3, one of her brothers threw all the children's Christmas presents in the fire. When she was 6, she once wrote, her older sister explained that there was no Santa Claus and described "simply and graphically" how babies are made. "I couldn't believe it," she wrote.

But the tough cookie wasn't always so tough. She made birthday cakes for the staff. She helped another reporter, Carol Roberts, cope while Carol's husband died of cancer. She told students in the journalism classes she taught at California Polytechnic State University -- Cal Poly -- that every time she wrote about a family tragedy, she left a little bit of her heart with the story.

A mild-mannered boss

Jeff had a deadpan sense of humor. At San Jose State University, he once went around snapping the shutter of his camera at his pot-smoking friends. Only when he was confronted, he said, did he confess that there was no film in the thing.

One thing he took seriously was American history. When he was still in elementary school, his mother said, he began reading everything he could get his hands on about the Civil War.

He was quiet, generally. Shy, even. No one ever saw him get angry. "Miffed would accurately describe his foulest mood," one colleague said. He had a wit as dry as California's stubbled brown hills. When he was nervous, he would stammer slightly before starting to speak. But then he would make his point, and stick by it.

In 1991, the Telegram-Tribune needed a managing editor. Jeff didn't think he had much of a shot at it. He had a beard! He wore these hideous, clip-on ties!

Even corporations sometimes make the right decisions. He got the job.

Jeff became something he probably never sought or expected: a civic leader. He spoke at civic functions. He helped set editorial policy. Jeff had once tried to organize a union at the paper; now he was the boss. He had to hire and fire. He didn't always feel comfortable in the role, but that's because he took it seriously.

During my year in San Luis Obispo, I was restless. To stay, I figured, would doom me to working for small newspapers for the rest of my life. So the next summer Jane, Ali and I packed up and headed East: I'd been admitted to Columbia's journalism school.

Ann considered the move "a dumb idea." I knew she wanted us to stay.

We missed the Fairbanks family, of course. So we returned for visits. First, in their small house with skylights and the loft. Then in a big house, with a picture window looking out over sand dunes and a tidal estuary fringed with eucalyptus and torrey pine.

After graduating from Columbia, I was hired by the Evening Sun -- exactly the kind of big- city paper I'd hoped for. I moved from covering a Baltimore suburb, to City Hall downtown, to a job in Washington, to a job in Annapolis. Then I shifted gears, becoming a science reporter.

When he came East on business, Jeff would stop in Baltimore to visit. Each time he dragged me out to Civil War battlefields. This was before Ken Burns and his "Civil War" documentary. I was a confirmed nonbuff. But Jeff's interest was infectious.

On the first day of his first visit, we drove to Gettysburg and re-enacted Pickett's Charge -- without uniforms, weapons or extras. Then, because of our shared Yankee heritage, we turned around and re-enacted the defense against Pickett's Charge.

I lay in my motel room in San Luis thinking about huffing and puffing across the field with Jeff that damp autumn afternoon. Like some middle-aged actor in a movie version of "A Catcher in the Rye." But I couldn't catch Jeff, who ran cross-country in high school. He slipped right past me.

OK, they're dead, I told myself, lying on the bed in my motel room. It's terrible. Now get some sleep!

A scorched tangle of metal

The accident occurred Nov. 25, around 5 p.m., along a four-lane highway outside the dusty town of Shandon.

Ann was driving the family's blue Volvo. They were heading home from a high-school track meet in Fresno, in California's central valley. Siena, 12, sat in the front passenger seat. Jeff was in the back with Galen, 8. Their oldest, Courtney, 15, was riding home on the team bus.

A 30-foot motor home drifted into oncoming traffic. The huge vehicle rammed the Volvo, which flipped and caught fire. A Toyota pickup just behind the Fairbankses, in another lane, slammed into the motor home.

Cars stopped along the shoulder. Daniel Lopez, an 18-year-old college student, ran up and found the youngest of the Fairbankses' three daughters, Galen, blinking, hanging upside down in her seat belt. None of the other figures in the crushed vehicle stirred.

The burning car's roof sat in spreading a pool of gasoline. Mr. Lopez told Galen to unbuckle herself. She did, and he snatched her out the window.

A few seconds later, the Volvo exploded.

Courtney's bus passed the scene of the wreck. She didn't recognize the family car amid the tangle of scorched metal.

Jeff, Ann and Siena were killed instantly in the collision, police said later. Investigators decided that the driver of the motor home, a retired airline pilot, probably fell asleep. He died, too. So did the driver of the pickup, a 29-year-old student at California Polytechnic State University.

It was the kind of story that Ann routinely handled with skill and compassion. She wrote so often, and so movingly, about grieving families that someone jokingly suggested she was the Telegram-Tribune's "diva of bereavement."

Jeff might have used his Monday column to call, in his common-sense way, for improvements to the treacherous stretch of Highway 46 where the accident occurred. Fourteen people had been killed along the same stretch of road earlier in the year.

But, of course, they couldn't cover this story.

Mourning together

Five days after the accident, I walked down Higuera Street to the newspaper's new offices. Warren Groshong, the editorial-page editor, brought me over to his desk. I stood there, in the middle of the newsroom, and started to cry. Warren gave me a hug, patted me on the back. While I choked out the words, I realized for the first time how devastated I felt.

I certainly wasn't alone.

Friends, acquaintances and strangers called radio talk shows. Competing weekly newspapers carried the story on the front page. For a week, the Telegram-Tribune printed stories, columns and letters about the crash. There was an editorial cartoon depicting a copy of the paper with a heart cut out of it.

Later that day, I drove out to the family's home.

Jeff and Ann's relatives were there, people I had heard about but never met. They urged me to eat: There is something about death that gives us the urge to feed others.

Jeff and I used to exchange corny T-shirts. I had bought one for him several weeks earlier, a shirt with a photograph of the last edition of the now-defunct Evening Sun. The headline read: "Good Night, Hon."

I gave it to Courtney. "Someday you can open a T-shirt museum," I said, trying to crack a joke.

She smiled, thank God. She was amazingly composed. She and her youngest sister had lost everything, in an instant. A few weeks later, they would move to Oregon to live with Ann's older sister.

But Courtney remembered where the key to the family safe-deposit box was. She recalled that a mortgage payment was due. She collected stacks of every newspaper that carried an article on the crash. She even ran in a track meet the day after the memorial service. It was the last thing she planned to do with her father.

The night before the memorial service I returned to the Fairbankses' home with Tim Ryan, a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and another alumnus of the Telegram-Tribune. He was probably Jeff's closest friend. We crawled around Jeff and Ann's bedroom on our hands and knees, sifting through a dozen or so of maybe 200 boxes of slides that Jeff had taken over the years.

We picked out a few slides for one of the memorial services planned for the next day.

Courtney came in to show us the dress she had picked out for the services, saying she wanted to look pretty.

She asked Tim to take her parents' ashes back to his hotel room, and bring them to the church the next day. Make sure they weren't stolen, she said. And don't put them too close to candles. She didn't want them to get burned.

We drove home that night through the fog along California's Route 1, with Jeff and Ann's ashes on the floor in the back. For the first time in several days I felt happy. It was as though we were taking care of them.

That night, I slept.

Saying goodbye

On Friday, Dec. 1, about 200 people showed up for a memorial luncheon in the paper's parking lot. There were speeches and music and tears. Perhaps 700 attended a later, public memorial service, packing San Luis Obispo's Spanish mission. There were friends and relatives, politicians and policemen, ministers and school children. Some of Ann's former students came. Flags in the mission plaza flew at half-staff.

A local bank started a Fairbanks Scholarship Fund. There was talk of naming things after the family: a meeting room at the newspaper, a park bench at the plaza and a county-owned forest near their home.

As I sat toward the back of the Spanish mission, I was amazed by the size of the crowd. I knew why I was there, but how and why did their deaths touch so many people?

The police chief said it was because San Luis Obispo is such a cohesive community. A friend said it was because they were still a relatively young family that other young families could identify with.

Maybe, as a Los Angeles Times columnist wrote, they were -- with their home, their Volvos, their three blond children -- the "living definition" of the California dream.

Maybe. I thought about it for a long time.

Fifteen years ago, I made a choice. To quit my job. To move 3,000 miles. To trade close friends and a small-town life for a career. To make something of myself.

Jeff and Ann made their choice. They stuck it out. They were fanatically devoted to their children. They cherished their friends. They worked hard.

For 17 years, they wove themselves into the fabric of other people's lives.

We both made our choices. But it wasn't until after they were gone that I truly began to understand theirs.

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