My last encounter with Charles Gusewelle was early in 2015. He was trying to reach me by phone and I was on a weekend getaway to Key West. But I found his mysterious message — we weren’t fast friends, and I had no idea why he was calling — and returned the call. Of course, he was on deadline — this was a Saturday afternoon when I reached him. And the Sunday column he’d drafted was about me. Really?
I found that column this morning after learning that Gus had died, at 83, early Tuesday.
He had worked for The Kansas City Star since 1955 — more than 60 years. He built a career of reporting, commentary and global witness that should be the envy of any aspiring journalist. For the last 35 years or so he spoke directly and personally to readers as a columnist. His voice was gentle, soothing, compassionate. Many readers adored him for his love of animals and the outdoor life. Others were rewarded by his astute and timely reporting on his travels to Paris, Senegal and the vast territory of the Lena River in Siberia.
In the years that I knew him, he wasn’t so much a newsroom presence — he officed behind high walls or more often at home -- as he was a prolific and elegant writer who set a certain standard. His work defined the atmosphere of The Star. He was exacting in his prose, and woe to the copy editor who thought he or she might know more than he did about the aim of his words or the effect of his punctuation.
Gus had something of Hemingway in him — the travels to Paris and beyond, the hunting and fishing life, the deep concern for global injustice. It is my great regret that I did not have a chance to share with him the Hemingway biography that I’ve had in the works.
We all knew he’d been ailing for quite a while. He stopped writing his regularly weekly column last June. In a farewell column, he reflected the uncommon bond such a writer develops with those on the other end of his words: “This friendship with you, my readers — born out of decades of sharing my loves, losses and adventures — has been an immeasurable gift. This type of friendship is rare.”
Gus developed that column involving me in response to the horrendous massacre of the Charlie Hebdo satirists in his beloved Paris. He was moved to recall more civil encounters in his newsroom career, but then there was this:
“It was midafternoon in the newsroom of The Star. An editor had just returned from the coffee bar with a steaming mug of fresh java and sat to resume working at his desk when from the elevator and through the newsroom door came two men, their boots thumping on the uncarpeted floor.
“The larger of the two wore a brown shirt and an armband that flaunted the emblem of Hitler’s legions — a swastika in scarlet, black and white.”
Gusewelle did not use my name, but he described some of what followed on that summer day in 1978. It “was not a considered act,” he wrote. “It was simply an immediate reaction to those men and that hateful insignia.”
Yes, I doused that damned Nazi with a cup of hot coffee.
“Nazis do not take affronts lightly,” Gusewelle wrote. “Herr What’s-his-name got interviewed after all. He also called the police, and the editor — cited for disturbing the peace — paid a $25 fine.
“Rather preposterous, I’d say, considering the amount of peace disturbance done by Nazis in their time.”
Gusewelle was not immune to hyperbole, given his conclusion: “I recall the event as one of the fine moments in American journalism.” He tempered that, however, with another lament for what we have lost over the years: “But this is a different day, and today our entryways are guarded and secured.”
I remain grateful for Gusewelle’s words, and for what he gave all of us. He saw stories all around him and he knew how to tell them.
Steve Paul retired from The Kansas City Star in early 2016 after more than 40 years as a writer and editor. He is on the community advisory board of KCUR. His book, “Hemingway at Eighteen,” is to be published in October 2017 by Chicago Review Press.