Rashod Ollison, an award-winning feature writer and music critic for The Virginian-Pilot and formerly of The Baltimore Sun, died Wednesday at age 41 of complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma . He had been diagnosed with the illness in 2015.
Colleagues said Mr. Ollison was known for giving readers insight to newsmakers, and himself. He could peel back the layers of Kanye West and R. Kelly, and also wrote about his own life — growing up poor, gay and black in a broken home in Arkansas.
He wrote about how he escaped into his father's R&B records after his parents divorced as a way to connect with him, and how he found himself in that music.
"He connected music to feeling, to relationships, to society, to life," said Tanika Davis, a longtime friend, writer and former colleague at The Sun. "It was an amazing and incredible talent he had to do that."
Mr. Ollison's mother, Dianne, said her son — whom family members called "Dusty" — showed a passion for writing from a young age. In church, she'd spot him writing on the bulletins, jotting down observations of the people around him, she said.
He worked as a feature writer and music critic at several publications including The Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Journal News and The Sun before joining The Pilot in 2010.
He developed a following while at The Sun from 2003 until 2009.
"Rashod was a smart, funny, charming guy," said his former editor, Steven St. Angelo of Baltimore.
"He was still growing as a writer when he came to The Sun. He didn't yet know his own strength," recalled Mr. St. Angelo. "You couldn't tell him that, of course. But even his stubbornness was kind of endearing. And of course he found his groove — on his own terms — and never looked back."
His memoir, "Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl," was published in 2016. In it, he wrote about growing up in Arkansas and the role music has played in his life.
Mr. Ollison had a loud, booming voice, but was also very private. Colleagues described his writing as lyrical, fluid and poetic. He wrote with nuance and detail, his pieces deeply researched and often conversational.
"He's the most beautiful writer I've ever worked with," said Robert Morast, a friend and former editor at The Pilot. "He showed the humanity that surges through all of us."
"He was not afraid to say what needed to be said, but he said it with finesse," said Jamesetta Walker, Mr. Ollison's editor.
He and Ms. Davis met while working in the features department at The Sun. They also lived in the same apartment complex. When Ms. Davis met the man who would eventually become her husband, Mr. Ollison was skeptical of their nine-year age difference.
She recalled him joking that while her love interest was in the springtime of his life, "you're in the winter of yours."
"It was so funny the way he said it," Ms. Davis said. Her husband won him over, and Mr. Ollison was the first to admit he'd been wrong.
Mr. Ollison also loved to cook: chicken wings, collard greens, lasagna, honey sauce, Dorito casserole, orange fluff, corn bread. Once, while interviewing Aretha Franklin , he got her peach cobbler recipe, said Denise Watson, a friend and Virginian-Pilot colleague. He'd bake the dessert for friends, rolling pie crust in the shape of his initials — R.O. — to decorate the top.
Music was the constant in his life. He referred to song titles and lyrics to make sense of things, Ms. Davis said. He had hundreds of albums at his home and seemingly hundreds of CDs in his car.
"He needed music the way some of us need air," Ms. Davis said.
Mr. Ollison continued to file stories even when his illness made it difficult. When Mr. Morast visited with him in the hospital in August, Mr. Ollison talked about the future and about doing what he loved, telling stories.
"He had such an honest joy about being in this world," Mr. Morast said. "He loved living."
That month, Mr. Ollison published what would be one of his last stories: a memorial of Ms. Franklin, perhaps his favorite subject.
"At its best, Franklin's music was as redemptive as a baptism. It saved lives, mine included, many times," Mr. Ollison wrote. "I don't remember my life without the sound of Aretha Franklin's voice. It was a constant in my home. Her music was something of an altar for my mother, as she returned to Franklin through good and bad times. This became true for me as well."
In addition to his mother, Mr. Ollison is survived by two sisters and numerous nieces, aunts and relatives. The family is planning a service for Oct. 27 in Little Rock, Ark.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.