"...write up an anecdote – some story where they watched Wilke build up into righteous anger when reporting a story... or ironing out a crease in the fabric of the Journal bureau... And someone should talk about him tearing up when he described taking his kid to college…..Or when he became nearly inconsolable when the anthrax story came back and cost him two fantastic seats at the Nats-Mets game. Describe a time he filled in for people, picked up their loads for them, counseled them, slipped them incredible sources, shared bylines... that will keep him alive and you (and the rest of us) afloat."
Post comments or photos here.
Here’s what’s crystalline in my mind about John – a big heart, always open to inviting one more person along, one more thought in; biting truth, not uttered to be mean, but because it was the truth and had to be said; boundless sly humor, and that wonderful little grin that meant he was really hatching a good idea now; a love of friends who were all truly the “different ones” in high school; a great pen, ready to write insightful criticism even in a 10th grade Honors English class; admiration for Mark and his Woodstockian, highschool-ish adventures; long blond hair and those wire rim glasses. John loved to eat, drink and laugh. John did not suffer fools, cheats, or assholes gladly. John wasn’t afraid of taking people on. John was a gentle soul. John loved his brothers. John loved a good game.
I was raised Jewish, and John’s family Christmas tree was the first one I was ever invited to help decorate. His rambling family house on Walworth X was a great place to visit and even now, when I pass the street, a feeling of warmth comes over me.
Here are some times with John that rise to the surface for me: Wandering at the Kensico Dam. Introducing other friends and me to the Rolling Stones Let It Bleed album. Going with Ana and me to see the movie Oliver (yes, we saw Oliver, I know it’s hard to believe….). Hanging out and playing music. Reading poetry. Visiting the Bahai House. Talking at the anti-war demonstrations in school. Walking downtown together. Saying, “Yeh, come on over!” Replying with a big smile to a particularly nasty substitute homeroom teacher, “Yes, as a matter of fact, my dad DID write that excuse note with his feet!”
John was a mensch, a fully dimensioned, complex, great human being. I will miss him. May his memory be a blessing to all who loved him.
My condolences to all in the Wilke family - John will be missed.
One of the people who made the bureau a special place was Wilke. He was like a great thoroughbred who could win at any distance, who entered our profession and succeeded in it for all the right reasons. His social gifts were similarly vast. He was warm and generous and open to new people, and he hated to miss gatherings of any kind. But he also was a champion gossip who knew how to collect and distribute information to maximum effect.
I always felt a special connection with Wilke because we were both raised in progressive religious households. It's the sort of upbringing that is hard to explain to the uninitiated, and neither of us talked much about it. But I could see its footprints all over my friend.
Which brings me to my favorite Wilke story. Earlier this year, I was contemplating an opportunity -- a pretty cool opportunity -- to leave journalism for the "private sector." Hardly anyone knew about this -- or so I thought. One day, as I mulled my fate, Wilke emailed. At this point his situation was pretty bleak. But he was still working it, and somehow he had learned my secret. Stay put, ride out the storm, stay true to this calling of ours, he urged me. But as hard as I tried, I could not get him to reveal his source.
- Shailagh Murray
The place in our heart where John resides has a lot more company now with all of you there around him...
- Mark Wilke
Ian wrote this about the poem: "That wasn't actually about John... He read it online after he was diagnosed at the New Haven Review website (where it was published) and it meant something to him which is why I sent it to Kit."
CENTRAL SAVINGS TIME
A pack of feral cats with bloody mouths.
The terrifying ferocity of life
Beneath its thin veneer of beauty.
But no one really gets away with anything.
The markers bleeding through the page gave no instructions.
We cannot conceive a window without wanting to look out.
As long as we hear words we’re sure there’s a meaning.
Belief in an afterlife assumes one has lived,
Which is not always the case.
The branches of the cypress were swarming with daws.
The jaws of death yawned with boredom.
At the center of the pineapple there’s a spiral staircase.
At the center of the pomegranate is a revolving door.
I mean in the sense of there being no better way to go.
Time goes in one direction while we try to go in the other.
In the fall we gained an hour, but it was the wrong hour.
No one’s life is complete
When death presents his dance card.
Take it or leave it, break it or grieve it, it’s yours.
Some years later, I was at the San Francisco Chronicle writing about Silicon Valley. On the wire services one day I saw John's byline from the Boston Globe, covering essentially the same beat I was. I found that pretty amusing. Eventually he went to the Wall Street Journal, which I thought was very cool and I used to read his stuff. He was an outstanding reporter. I always thought it was very cool that we were on sorta parallel paths. I got tired of the newspaper thing and got out. John went on to basically own it.
During my reporting days, now and then I would have contact with some technology type person from Boston or Washington and would ask about Wilke. Everyone knew John and I would always tell them some John story from the high school days and send warm regards.
My partner in tech coverage at the Chron - Don Clark - went to the WSJ several years ago, and I told him to pass my regards to John. I don't remember how I heard that John had cancer. I had a chance to talk with Don last month and asked about John. He told me the bad news that John was near death. Two days later, he posted a message that John had died.
Although I haven't spoken with John since that day in front of my mother's house in White Plains, I was deeply saddened by this. Still am. It's been interesting reading all the tributes and accolades to John in the WSJ and NY Times. I was never in that part of his life. But I'm grateful that I got to know John in my high school days, as a kind and gentle soul who always made me smile, as that geeky hippie who would complain that the greasers beat him up "after I threw rocks at them," as just a good guy I was lucky enough to know.
Shortly after John's death I asked Jane for David's email address and sent my condolences and wishes for his and Bailey's well being. It bounced back - wrong address. Nonetheless, David, I'm thinking of you and wishing you well and wishing you peace.
Wordsworth wrote: "Trailing wings of glory we come from God who is our home."
Wings of glory, John, wings of glory.
For several of us, there was one Wilke story that didn't get told and must be recorded: John was working on a story that, as usual, he was reluctant to share with his editor, the mild-mannered Bob Keatley. Promises of delivery were made and broken. Keatley, who never raised his voice or showed any sign of exasperation or anger, walked to John 's desk holding a pair of scissors. John was on the phone. Keatley cut the phone cord and said, "Finish the story."
Please join us that evening for a music-filled fundraiser in honor of Wilke at the American Legion Hall Post #8, 224 D Street S.E., in Washington, D.C. Three bands will perform, and friends of Wilke will tell tales of his wit, sagacity, passion, and inability--correction, unwillingness--to deliver a story on anybody's schedule but his own.
Doors will open at 7. Music will begin at 8. Cash bar. Minimum contribution: $50 per person.
All proceeds will be contributed to the education of John and Nancy's two children, Robin and Jackson.
Neil King, Helene Cooper, Eric London, Bryan Gruley
Several years later, I went to DC on a reporting trip, but didn’t stop by the bureau. I later received the following email from John:
“Hey dude. Did I just see you coming out of a massage parlor at 13th and M?”
Equally typical Wilke: whenever I had a front page leder, an early morning congratulatory email from John would generally be one of the first in my inbox.
A few years back I wrote him to offer congratulations on the indictment of a member of Congress he had exposed in a front page story a year earlier.
John wrote back:
“Thanks brother. I can't believe we get paid to have this much fun.”
He was a true champion. We will all miss him
It was a privilege to know him.
Here's one of his classic ledes from the period:
"In Silicon Valley, big deals often get done over the cinnamon-blueberry coffee cake at Hobee's, near Apple Computer Inc.'s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. But the cafe may also be remembered for a deal that didn't get done: what antitrust investigators allege was an illegal attempt by Microsoft Corp. to kill competition in an emerging technology."
This was about a technology called QuickTime that most of us regard as a rather boring piece of plumbing, and certainly not something that would make or break Apple. Yet in the hands of Wilke, that episode and a separate "divide-the market" meeting with Netscape became what he wrote were likely to be "the most dramatic and hard-fought charges at the historic trial scheduled to begin next week. "
We in the San Francisco bureau who were Wilke's collaborators on many of the stories were always very glad he was on our side. On the other hand, if Wilke had a tendency to hide the ball from editors, it must be noted that he often applied that technique just as skillfully from folks like us that might have a tendency to grab a byline--or, at a minimum, feel some responsibility to provide more information about our story plans to companies we had to talk to every day about other matters. There were many times when, with a half hour or so to go before deadline, we would have to quickly ask Microsoft for their explanation about some very inflammatory accusations. Considerable hard feelings would ensue, some of which were directed as much at us as at Wilke.
But as the months wore on, I believe even the Microsoft lawyers and flack-catchers came to revere Wilke's skill, doggedness, and eagerness to have a convivial drink with the same people he would be slamming in the next day's paper.
For me personally, still regularly pulled into antitrust stories, Wilke's generosity, knowledge of the law, and his great eye for a sexy story and how to tell it will always be remembered with enormous gratitude.
It has taken awhile for me to get it together to write to you. I am so sad over John's passing away, so sad. What a loss to this world.
I'm so sorry for Nancy. They were such a together duo, so very cool....
Evan, I know I'll be blue for sometime reading about John like this....please put my thoughts there for me? He was such a gifted and special person. Thanks for letting me know, and how I wish he could have visited me....sharon
via Evan Perez
I knew John socially through dear friends and not as a WSJ or any other kind of reporter. In the 12 years or so I've known John and Nancy, we might have discussed his work (or mine) once or twice. We talked about life, liberty, baseball, the plight of the Redskins, the merits of Harpur College 5/2/70 vs. Fillmore East 2/13/70, that sort of thing. John was what we refer to as a metaphysical heavyweight, as gracious and steadfast as anyone I have met.
Missing you very much right now mate.
Past the point of no return, there was a fable to be had
And immediately forgotten. To be a fable. The fable we had
Became something similar to our lives, or vice versa.
On the other hand, something opposite to our lives, putting down
Our toys and becoming men, quote unquote. "I come not
To bring peace but a sword." Any number of people say that
Every day, barbers and reporters and poets. But the dutiful
Remain essentially dutiful, or as near as they can come.
Once in a while something aberrant happens; there are always
Regrets, and we know because we have them. Forty years later
I discovered why our black powder never burned properly—
We missed the important step of granulation. How could two
Eleven-year-olds as smart as us, with all those manuals
From comic books, miss that? I imagine we missed it on purpose,
To avoid blowing things up, even though that was our stated
Mission. Then we picked up our swords and went running after
The bad guys, whomever we imagined them to be, regular guys
Like ourselves. And in the cafeteria life eats time and time
Eats life, and a few other pornographic magazines that remained
In circulation until they fell apart. Seeing which bulbs
Light up the scrim, the houses decked out in their Christmas
Colors, mangling the words to the carols, a fake Jew proving
Myself a fake WASP, but holding desperately to the candle
Nonetheless. But I did get part of the poisoned side
Of the apple, the one that held us together like a bonding
Agent—007. And I got all the breaks, or so you reported,
But the breaks were a break, never to be seen again.
I got stuck, like a couple of neighborhood dogs. Now I can’t
Catch one in a gill net, though I confess I’m not trying
Very hard. But this poem is too pretty, it won’t fly, as though
It had a split personality, spitting in your face one minute
And kissing you the next. The large washes of rosy color where
Real memory fails, which by definition it does. We make up the
Past as we get along out of it, little dogies, leaving behind
A faint imprint, like the half-life of a uranium bottle rocket.
And after beating everyone in the field, he had the outrageous decency, good humor and generosity to be great company at the end of the day. In fact, he was great company at the start of the day, and during Judge Jackson's many coffee breaks, and at lunchtime too. He didn't engage in the normal journalistic showmanship that plagues Washington; he didn't need to. He was the best and we all knew it.
I can remember two or three occasions over the years when he took me aside and solicited my thoughts on something he was working on. I was actually honored that he trusted me enough to do that, knowing that there was no way in hell I would ever burn him. But what really struck me was how he was wrestling with the amazing stuff he was uncovering. Did I think he had enough? Were there angles he was missing? Was he being fair? Those aren't questions that get asked enough in this business. But John asked them all the time. Then he would produce. And sure enough, he had the goods, totally and completely. Every angle was covered. His targets could howl all they wanted, but there was no way that anybody could read a Wilke story and conclude that he had cut any corners or wasn't being fair.
And yet – and this hardly needs saying to anybody who reads this site – John Wilke was a whole lot more than one of Washington's great journalists. I'm not sure the obits fully captured this. John loved life in ways that were infectious—the small things: a good beer, a good laugh, a good game (especially if the Red Sox won), the camaraderie of his comrades. A few days before he died, I stopped by the bar at Buck's to join Eric, Mary and Nick for a drink and to talk about John. At one point, he called Eric who immediately handed me the phone and told me to step outside. John had heard the news about Mary Ann (she had emailed Nancy the day before) and he wanted to congratulate us. He was wheezing, short of breath and could barely talk. But he also couldn't stop telling me how excited and thrilled and happy he was for both of us—throwing in for good measure a few words of fatherly advice. He couldn't wait to see us, as soon as he got better, he said. I knew that probably wasn't going to happen—and I'm sure he did too. I choked up; I was the one who had to cut the conversation short.
There's probably lots of words to describe our friend. But there is one that keeps coming to mind and it's the Yiddish one: mensch. You can look it up here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mensch OR here http://www.answers.com/topic/mensch
Or you can think and remember John Wilke, as we all will, and you'll know exactly what it means.
I wasn't expecting him. I didn't even know he was in town and I have a lot of work to do, but ten minutes later we're at Daisy May's barbecue joint on 11th Ave., ostensibly to share one pulled-pork sandwich. After a probing discussion with the woman behind the counter, with her both laughing at his jokes and giving serious answers to his very serious food-related questions, Wilke has ordered more or less a sampling of the entire menu. Spread out on the table before us are Memphis dry-rub ribs, Kansas City sticky ribs, brisket, chicken and, of course, a pulled-pork sandwich. Perhaps it goes without saying, but we have all the sides too.
This afternoon is like a flashback, and a very welcome one, to late-night descents into gluttony at Ben's Chili Bowl, back in the days when I was the new cub reporter who followed him everywhere. For years I had the privilege of seeing Wilke every morning for work and, more often than not, saying goodbye deep into the night. Much of what I know about reporting I learned – without realizing it – sitting next to him at the bar, listening to him grill lawyers on his cell phone.
Those times blur together as a happy series of office one-liners while munching animal crackers over Gruley's desk, of gatherings at long tables full of his friends, admirers, sources and newfound acquaintances at the Fourth Estate. They blur together because there were so blessedly many of those moments, but also because there is a sense of permanence to Wilke, our rock, He's always there holding down the fort, and when he isn't, a phone call describing his latest reporting coups in strange corners of Arizona or oenological discoveries with Nancy will bridge the gap.
We walk along the Hudson River and talk seriously about the past and about the future, about our relationships and about Jackson and Robin. Sometime around sunset, somewhere before we turn off on 34th St. so that I can drop him at Penn Station, I realize that I'm no longer the kid who tags along after him. I'm still 21 years his junior, but a grown man and he's treating me as an equal. And I'm sad to see him go, but I'm also happy, because I know how lucky I am to get to call him my friend.
If Shakespeare’s right about the seven stages of man, John and I passed three of them together, from the first time we met in 1982, as eager know-nothings at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. John was a blonde gangly character from New College in Florida, up against a good dollop of Ivy leaguers and some folks with actual journalistic experience. But, soon enough, Wilke broke from the pack, showing, swiftly, the same qualities that make him a famously indefatigable reporter. Back then, sans credential, he was just a hustler -- hustling everywhere, first to spot trends and contradictions, deadly serious with that quick laugh, and then the leader of all night party brigades where the real exploration occurred.
When Wilke arrived at the Wall Street Journal’s Boston Bureau in 1989 – we sat a few feet apart – he’d already cut his teeth for five years at the Boston Globe and knew the town, every breakfast dive to watering hole. I covered banking and John was always ready to lend a hand. He actually had sources, people he knew who knew things. Time and again: “Hey, Sus, call this guy -- he knows tons.”
The Wilke model was already perfected. Total commitment to the reporting trade, fierce, funny, all pinched energy, whispering intently into the receiver, barely breathing, until he got some morsel of news, and then murmuring his signature, pre-hang up reassurance to the nervous source: “Don’t worry, man. We’re cool.”
I went to Journal’s Washington bureau in 1993 and John followed two years later. Big bureau, bigger show, often higher stakes – same Wilke. Talking about Nancy and the kids, about some camping trip ahead; loving life’s chase, deadly serious and still laughing like hell, hot on the trail of someone who was a “complete scumbag.”
I left the bureau in 2000. John kept on, chasing disclosures, brimming with intrigue, a happy warrior, finally getting some long overdue acclaim. We saw each other only infrequently, but there were emails, checking in and checking up. I remember one in spring, 2008 – “urgent, call immediately.” He’d come across the odd tip that a source from one of my books was under federal probe. He told me what he knew and that he’d try to find out more. I was grateful. I said, don’t cross any lines, get yourself into trouble. He paused. I could hear his smiling through the phone. “Don’t worry, man. We’re cool.”
A few months later, our J-school classmate and former Journalite Tony Horwitz was doing a reading at Politics and Prose, the DC book store. John, of course, organized a pre-performance get-together, to loosen Horwitz up. Then, come dinnertime, a classic Wilke missive arrived:
Damn. Stuck in the newsroom, baby-sitting a breaking story for tomorrow’s paper. Still hoping to get up there tonight, but it is looking grim at the moment. I would much prefer to be having a frosty pint of ale with you guys right about now. Had to do this story, though, just for fun: Feds today raided the office of an administration official I wrote about last year after he used “Geeks on Call” to erase his laptop files…
In late February of this year when I first heard he was sick, we exchanged notes, each word carefully chosen. He wrote that the days were difficult, but he was hopeful about his treatments and he didn’t want people to treat him in any differently than they ever had. And finally, this: “If I have the stamina, I am headed later today to Florida to try to convince a congressman's former accountant to spill the beans on a big case I'm following. That should be good therapy.”
It was, as good as any. What a guy. His dream was to be a reporter for a great newspaper. And, good God, he lived it, to the very finish, with every ounce of strength. An inspiration.
Farewell, old friend.
I parted ways with Wilke when I moved to Alaska and he went on to became, well, Wilke. I lost track of him and then one day his byline popped up in a Google News alert for a story he wrote for the Wall Street Journal on Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. He broke a story on Young that no one in the Alaska press had caught. I e-mailed him and we reconnected. We shared gossip about Young, Sen. Ted Stevens, Sarah Palin and other Alaska political figures. In a New College alum newsletter about Wilke, he called Young and Stevens "utterly shameless."
The last e-mail I wrote him was after Alaskans voted Stevens out of office -- it was close -- and I told him Alaska hadn't re-elected a convicted felon after all. "At least we still have Young," Wilke wrote back.
That Wilke built a solid marriage with Nancy is a testament to his character. Not a lot of New College romances survived graduation, and of those that did and became marriages, hardly any have lasted as long as Nancy and John's. New College teaches you a lot about about love and not much about commitment. They obviously learned something.
It is one of the great joys of college to see your friends grow old, do wonderful things, and bring beautiful children into the world. Another joy is to reconnect with people you have known. I'm glad I got to know Wilke again, and I regret I didn't do that sooner. To Nancy and his children, my heart goes out to you, and may the love of friends, family, and colleagues ease your grief, and may their memories keep Wilke alive in your soul.
New College 1974-77
wordfolk at xyz.net
John used to talk about his father, who was a very successful man despite being physically handicapped. I have a feeling that John's righteous sense of wanting to do good came from him. Certainly John's great political and social motivation was already all the way there by the time he got to college. John also used to mention his brother who was a physicist: a "nuclear swizzlestick," John would jokingly call him, but I could see how proud he was of him. He mentioned them both a lot back in those days.
Of course John loved to party (that was the other big part of the friendship!). Once at a big party there was a tub of "jungle juice," liquored-up fruit punch, and someone threw a fire cracker or somethinjg into it. Nothing happened and John bent over the tub to look just as it exploded, singing off most of his eyebrows. We gave him a pretty hard time about that one, getting blown up at the party! John had a lot of external reserve and a lot of inner passion, and I think his love of politics and his love of a good party were both reflections of that. He was a people person, all the way.
In recent years John was one of my "samizdat" e-mail friends, we'd forward all kinds of stuff to each other. I'd get an e-mail that just said "Spam me!" I'd always be surprised to realize how active he was, for example during that whole Nevada politics story - it seemed like he'd been paying so much attention to our correspondence, you would have thought he was bored. Speaking of that, he loved it when someone would denounce him personally - that was a big trophy, as far as he was concerned. I've been trying to confirm that he was mentioned by Gates during congressional testimony, somewhere I got the idea that he was.
Well, Nancy, I haven't seen you in a long, long time, but you're certainly in my thoughts today. This news is out on facebook and I can tell you that a lot of people are thinking of you and the your kids and holding you all in the light. I'd love to hear from you, agrbrown at gmail.com
God bless you always, Anderson Brown
I had the privilege of knowing John Wilke for more than 26 years, working with him both at Business Week and the Wall Street Journal and maintaining a friendship despite often being separated by long distances.
We first met as fellow students at the
That was vintage Wilke – ahead of the curve on everything. I was green around the gills; Wilke already had a sheaf of solid clips, from the NY Times and elsewhere.
I've never met anybody as relentlessly curious about everything. He was the consummate news hound. He carried around a sheaf of newspapers, and was always pulling out stories he really admired. He lived for the story, whether it was government secrets, Congressional wrongdoing, or the latest office gossip.
At one late-night sushi dinner in
"Going out, or out out" ever after became an inside joke about our evening plans, whenever we managed to find time together.
A bit of a perfectionist, John had certain pet bugaboos – people misusing the term "champing at the bit" was one. I remember him once reflexively correcting a top official for saying "chomping at the bit" during a post-press conference scrum, then berating himself for hours afterward. "I didn't really correct him, did I?" he'd say in a half whisper.
When I moved to
Then, and on many evenings since, the evening often came to a screeching halt when John, half apologetic, finally made his third call of the night to Nancy, assuring her that this time he really was on his way home. "I have to ensure domestic tranquility," he'd announce, donning his brown leather bomber jacket before heading off into the night.
I will miss him every day.
The Goldberg Family (Eric, Betsy, and Juliet)
Wilke was the antitrust reporter for the Wall Street Journal during the heyday of merger arbitrage deals. In the investment world, Wilke’s work was absorbed by a reverential following. Investors knew that John’s work had integrity. He was extremely thorough, had great sources, and was prescient in his analysis.
Wilke’s beat at the Journal evolved beyond antitrust. However, at my firm, no reporter since then has received the deferential attention that John did during the high-water days of merger arbitrage.
John loved good story telling. Some of my best memories of him are sitting at a bar after work with friends recounting the colorful characters he encountered in pursuit of a story. His eyes would light up as lowered his voice and honed in on the details. And when it came to listening, he’d lean in and focus with intensity.
John could be a worrier. I remember having dinner at Glenn Simpson’s house one night when the power went out and the place went completely dark. Glenn’s young sons managed to get their hands on lit candles and dance around the living room. Wilke was convinced the house was going to burn down and all of us with it. But fretting was just part of the charm. All you had to do is watch a Red Sox game with him to know that fretting was second nature to him.
As hard as John worked and as much as he loved going out with his friends, his anchor in the world was his family. I still remember the look on his face when he told me that he had surprised Nancy by buying her a piano. He was just delighted at the thought of the joy it had brought her. He’d relished going to Fenway Park – especially with Jackson and exuded so much pride in describing Robin’s college journey.
John Wilke indelibly touched so many lives … I feel deeply fortunate to have been one of them.
Soon enough, Wilke tired of me hanging around his desk. So he took me under his big arm and let me watch up close.
There were periods in the late 90s that I spent more time with Wilke than with just about anyone else - both school hours and after school. He taught me how to work a tentative source, fix a fumbling lead, reel in a scoop, set up a kicker, and circle the wagons on a clear win.
He was direct: tough when he needed to knock me for slacking or sharp when he cut through my sloppy copy. Above all, he was kind when he slapped down a compliment: "Now you've nailed it, Guidera."
That Wilke would do that for a 25-year-old wire hack, speaks volumes for his heart. Over time I realized, his warmth was genuine.
The newsroom is no place to find friends. Want friends? Get a sandbox. The best reporters are always tight lipped. But there was one secret Wilke was always willing to share if you stuck around long enough into the night: life's really just one big sandbox, grab a shovel and jump
To Nancy, Robin & Jackson: thanks for sharing. It was always hard giving him back after our play dates... Man, do I miss Wilke's sandbox.
There’s nothing more I can add to what’s already been said about what a truly wonderful man Wilke was. But I will make several solemn vows in his honor:
1. I will deface Yankee Stadium for him when I go tomorrow night.
2. I will drink more beer.
3. I will continue to leak like a sieve.
-- Victoria Bassetti
Joe Nocera on his Executive Suite blog at nytimes.com
Allan Lengel at Tickle The Wire
Keith Schneider at Modeshift
He had a dazzling fastball – on display on the many occasions when he’d call with a great story in the bag and graciously offer us the opportunity to comment. Often, though, Wilke would fall back on an amazing repertoire of off-speed stuff. He had a great change-up – he would puzzle out loud like Colombo, and invite one to “explain” how things were (I might have fallen for that one more than once). He also had a brutal knuckleball – he’d call with a completely outrageous, wacky question, hoping his prey would pop his cork and give up some tidbit that he could knit into a story. (I might have bit on that one too.) And, there was an occasional high inside pitch – I can remember one that resulted in a bench-clearing brawl involving players from both teams. Wilke was always fair, but he was a fierce competitor.
He was formidable on the field. But when the day was over, Wilke was a grand, gracious, decent and compassionate guy to share a drink or three with – to share stories about “the game,” and about politics, life, sports and the family he so loved. He was a first-rate human being and friend, and I will miss him a great deal.
I am too stunned to find the right words. Wilke was a life force, a true professional, a friend, a joyful presence. I was honored to be part of the Jake Wirth’s beer group, the Boston business journalists whom Wilke recruited and welcomed. We competed covering the tech scene around here for several years—Digital in particular-- but my memories are of sharing a beer, laughing, telling stories, finding common ground. I was distraught when he up and left Boston and now I am deeply saddened by his loss. He was one of the really good people and he will be missed by those lucky enough to have entered into his orbit.
Though I hadn't met him in person, he started sending emails immediately, commenting on a post or tipping me off to an interesting legal development. The blog was also the beneficiary of Wilke's massive antitrust scoops and those crazy whistleblower lawsuit stories he broke. Though his articles dealt with deadly serious topics he laced them with hilarious details, making them eminently bloggable.
After a few months in the new gig, I visited the D.C. bureau. Wilke reminded me several times throughout the day that a group was getting together for beers after work. At the bar, he made a point of not only introducing me to Journal reporters, but also peers from the Post and the Times. They all loved Wilke. My fiancee met us out, and he took the time to chat her up. She left the bar loving him too.
The most popular guy in the class made the new kid feel welcome. It doesn't get more kind and generous than that. I'll never forget him.
My Big Papi
I met Wilke for the first time in early April, 2006. It was a sunny day. We met at the Big Hunt.
I spent the next four hours going into excruciating detail everything I knew about land holdings, lawmakers and earmarks. That October, the story ran about Charlie Taylor and other lawmakers using earmarks to boost the value of their landholdings. In November, Charlie Taylor loses his bid for reelection.
In a short time, John became Wilke and I was known as Kash.
I, like the rest of you, have dozens of stories like this. The bigger question is who is going to fill this massive loss to the public interest and the fight to keep the bastards honest. Who will fill that void?
The image that I keep remembering that makes me laugh out loud is John in his Big Papi shirt. It was the ugliest red shirt I had ever seen, but he was so damn proud of it. Anytime I was down in the dumps he seemed to be wearing that shirt. It always made me chuckle.
Many of you had known him for decades. I only knew him for three short years. In that time he became my big brother, my friend, and mutual muckracker.
He will always be my Big Papi.
His friends referred to Wilke time [as in: “I’m heading to the elevator, be there in 10 mins,” which meant 30 to 45 minutes].
At the Big Hunt, or Mackey’s, or Fourth Estate, or Morton’s [or any number of places] he wasn’t likely to be the first to leave, even if he was on his cell phone talking with sources.
When he was delving into a big story, no amount of haranguing from an editor would force Wilke to give up his copy until he knew it was ready.
About the only time he would decline a beer was when he made plans to watch a big Sox game at home with Nancy.
Yet here we are talking about him and all that he did as a friend and colleague.
Clearly, his work here wasn’t complete.
Last fall, he picked up a copy of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, by Bruce Barcott, which centers around the fight to save the habitat of the Scarlet Macaw in Belize.
Wilke had a keen interest because a college friend, Sharon Matola, was involved on the conservation side of the fight. I grew up in Belize and Wilke talked incessantly about taking a trip to see where I came from. He was fascinated by the history, and kept peppering me with questions in the way Wilke always did as he gathered information for his many scoops.
We were making plans, hoping that his fight against cancer would stabilize enough to allow him and Nancy and other friends to take the trip with us in May or June.
Unfortunately, he left us before he could fly down to see the macaws.
To Wilke I feel I owe one of the best experiences of my life, and that was being exposed to Washington journalism performed at absolutely the highest level. Though I didn't realize it at the time, he also taught me the value of having balance in your career. I remember him talking lovingly about his children — remarking once about how great it was to have kids of a certain age, when they thought you were still cool. I've since left Washington, but I intend to go out with some of my journalist colleagues this week and have a couple beers. For them, I hope it will be a rare chance for us to talk about what makes this job so great without all the scary overtones about the state of the industry. For me, it will be a chance to remember a truly great person.
In 1997, I called Wilke – whom I did not know -- to suggest he write a story about an old man named Zebulon Lee who owned a community-oriented radio station in Asheville that was being rolled in a media consolidation war. I had written something about it in a trade mag where I worked, but I thought Zeb Lee’s life deserved bigger play and a reporter at a bigger paper
I saw Wilke’s byline on a technology story, and phoned him.
He listened, and as I was explaining that the convoluted story also involved a politician and millions of dollars, Wilke interrupted me: “You mean it’s all about injustice and money. Why didn’t you just say so? I LOVE those things.”
A month later, Wilke produced a front page story on Zeb Lee, beloved of Asheville, and the final, sad hours of WZLS’s last broadcast. “Mixed Signals: A Rock `n' Roll Station Is Pushed Off the Air In Bureaucratic Morass --- North Carolina's WZLS-FM Loses an FCC Battle It Thought It Had Won --- No More Lost-Pig Reports”
The Zeb Lee story didn’t put anyone in jail or lead to new laws, and, to Wilke’s never-ending annoyance, it didn’t save the station. But after Lee died, one of his sons told me that because of the national attention to Wilke’s story, his dad “died in dignity.” Wilke didn’t change the world, just little parts of it.
1. Two people can eat more than $100 of sushi at one sitting.
2. A leather jacket is appropriate reporter attire.
3. You can write about the phone company and hookers in the same story.
I met John when he became interested in a case that I had involving the Red Cross, and the manner in which it handled it blood supply. I was a little skeptical about talking to the Wall Street Journal. But, John told me that he would be fair. We started meeting and talking about it. After awhile, it was more fun than work. We told each other stories about our kids, the whole nine yards. I thoroughly enjoyed him. When the story came out, it was just as he said - fair and balanced. I spoke to him once in the last year or so. I didn't know he was sick. I will miss him. He loved his family and he loved being a journalist.
My condolences to the family.
John Wilke was a lucky guy. He was passionate about his work, he had loyal friends, and he deeply loved his family. He was magnetic and gracious and a role model for untold numbers of younger reporters, including me.
He was forever reminding us that we had the best damn job in the world, and the Journal was the best damn paper to work for, and the cure for the ails of the industry was simple: write damn great stories.
On the day Wilke died, there were jokes that for an honest guy he had told more lies in the past six months than he did in his entire life: He would beat it, he’ll see you in the office (maybe even this afternoon!), he was feeling great, nothing to worry about.
Towards the end, there was a scramble of friends and colleagues and admirers angling to get in to see Wilke for one more visit, one more laugh, one more pint. Again, he was lucky: he was with the people that mattered to him most.
Wilke and I used to split cabs home after drinks on any number of work nights. He liked to talk about his family, how he and Nancy were “madly in love” after all these years, how he’d refer to Jackson affectionately as “the long-hair who lives with me,” and how he was awed by Robin’s bright mind and all the possibilities that lie ahead for his kids.
He was a force in the newsroom. If papers rely on esprit de corps, Wilke was Team Captain. He was generous with praise and tips and ideas. (“------ was looking for you—has a hot tip about an endorsement for Obama. Call asap,” he wrote in one Feb. 2008 e-mail.)
He wanted to know what you were working on (though he rarely tipped his own hand.) He was a brute force of optimism. “In difficult times, the best thing to do is focus on your work and have fun with it. For what it’s worth, I am glad you are here,” he wrote in a 2007 e-mail. Wilke always made me glad to be here.
All were welcome at his table, and everyone was a friend, or a friend in the making. As so many of his sources would learn, there was no saying “no” to Wilke, not on a story, and certainly not on a quick pint. “You buying me a beer tonight?” I e-mailed him on Dec. 4, 2007. “The answer to that question will always be ‘Yes,’” He replied.
Wilke's death is a profound loss for the Journal, and for journalism, and for his family, who he loved so much. I hope there is comfort in knowing that he meant so much, to so many.
His time with us was too brief, but his days were fully lived. Yes, Wilke was a lucky guy. And I was lucky to know him.
Wilke, what a loss of a fine man, talented reporter and friend. He was a such a damn good writer and tenacious researcher. I always planned out when and how I'd pitch him on a story. Late in the day was the best time for me to actually find Wilke at his desk. As a publicist for law firms, getting him interested was like getting an A. "What have you got for me" was music to my ears, especially when he'd say, "Can I have an exclusive on that?" And he surely took time to get his stories right. He'd follow the lead and dig deep. He was so fair, tough and loyal to his sources. And when one of his stories came out in the Journal, he'd always appreciate the feedback call. "Did you see I quoted your guy, what did you think of the story?" You will certainly be missed Wilke, you were one very unique reporter.
On our chance weekday Metro encounters to or from Bethesda and on weekends in the Y parking lot, John was constantly probing.
He was always trying to figure what I knew or didn't know (probably, mostly, the latter) about a particular antitrust story we were both pursuing.
Generous with friendship, gossip and praise for other people's work. Wilke was interested in all kinds of subjects and people that he would probably never write about. It was part of his MO to keep his fingers constantly on the pulse of the news, listening for that tremor of an undisclosed event or outrage that he could turn into another great scoop.
A minister's son, Wilke had the classic irreverent manner of a preacher's kid, having honed his rakish, smart-assed wit from childhood to avoid any label of saintliness.
He could never quite pull it off. Because if saintliness is a measure of how much someone gives of themselves in kindness, love, camaraderie and sheer decency then Wilke couldn't elude the tag.
I didn’t know John professionally. I met him through my husband and was surprised to learn that he was a hard charging reporter for the WSJ--he seemed too nice, too sweet, too silly and friendly. Over the years I got to know him as a friend who was in a perpetually good mood and always up for fun. To me, he wasn’t the rock-star reporter many knew him as, he was half of “John and Nancy”, friends you can count on to make Father’s Day, New Year’s Eve any many other occasions more enjoyable. And, of course, there were the baseball games to be watched and I was lucky enough to be with John when the Red Sox won both their recent World Series victories.
In a town like DC, so many people are power hungry or looking for the big scoop. When I met John, I was a new, stay-at-home mother, about as far from powerful and newsworthy as one could be. Yet he was interested in what I had to say and made you feel special. For someone who could talk with authority on seemingly endless subjects, he was an amazing listener. Kids, the Red Sox, dark chocolate and beer, John taught me much about each of these subjects.
I suppose his being a good listener was, at least in part, what made him such a good reporter but it was also one of the many things that made him such a dear friend. He will be greatly missed.
Hali Browne London
Wilke was, of course, a great journalist. And he was a kind of glue that held the bureau together. Smiling, thoughtful, welcoming of newcomers, happy to have a bunch of beers in a bureau that can be very serious.
But I was struck recently by how he handled his disease. He came to work when he could, fat file folders under his arms. He worked the phones, barricaded by stacks of paper that surrounded him like mountains. He was ready to talk about a story, but he had practiced responses to questions about his disease. Polite, but no real info. He was alive and working, which I think were synonymous to him.
I admired that, though I tried to wheedle information out of him, of course. Reporter to reporter. Friend to friend.
What I mostly admired – was floored by, really – was when he turned out to celebrate at his pal Gruley’s book party. It was obviously tough for him to make it. He tired. He sat more than he stood. He didn’t – couldn’t I’m sure – have a beer. But he was there for a friend he loved, whatever the personal cost. He was alive, and everyone there was made more alive by his presence.
As next-door neighbors beginning in 1995, John and Nancy had our key, but they’d knock anyway. I always teased him that a slow, aging print guy couldn’t possibly hang with us fast-throughput television and Internet types—especially as we subscribed to the NY Times and Wash Post and avoided the WSJ. And we actually called him John; he called me “Dawg” or “Dude” and Jessica “Girl.” Instead of borrowing a cup or two of cooking materials, he was invariably in search of the powerful tonic of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, usually from the early Seventies, from my downstairs vault (or our DirecTV feed of a Red Sox game).
We’d repair to the grilling area, with Generous John frequently foisting a prime piece of meat upon us and assuming the grill control position, pick out an appropriate high-hopped ale, accompanying music, and converse. The ongoing poolside discourse that has occurred since we moved three miles from the Wilkes back in 2000 will continue but it will lack the sublime yet forceful guidance of John’s insights. He demurred to those with more strident opinions yet betrayed more wisdom behind his words for those with perceptive intellects, from fellow travelers to the occasional nattering nabob of negativism.
Saturday night the Dead played their final concert at the Philadelphia Spectrum, including the elegiac “He’s Gone,” originally penned in 1972. John Wilke was hot as a pistol but cool inside. We miss him dearly.
Tim and Jessica and Jordan Rockwood
Thank you all for your kind comments. I'm sure John is smiling reading them! (What, you don't think John would have logged on Heaven's terminals and checked? Come on!)
The Wilke brothers team once five strong will have to play short with John gone, but we'll just have to play better. 'Playing better' was the guiding aspect of John's life. Among family he was always the peacemaker. Among his colleagues he seemed well respected and among the corrupt he was cursed and feared. We could all strive to be a little like him, my younger brother John.
We'll miss you bro, but we must play on. You and Harold shout from the stands! Save us a seat, okay? Cheers!
He will be missed. I know he inspired me and I’m sure countless others. My condolences go to his family, his colleagues, and his many fans among the public.
I recall something I called the "Wilke special" that would begin with a phone call to Mark Murray or I on a Friday. Brother Wilke's story was largely written by that time and we would commence to try and unwind his thesis fighting for precious real estate on the story that would land Sunday night to set the agenda for the week. To be honest it wasn't really much of a fight. He had the cards and all too often we were short a few. But he was always a gentleman.... Pleased to hear our pov and eager to share a beverage soon thereafter to discuss the next act in that awful theater. I will miss him. Take care all of you. Best. V
When Wilke and I first spoke, I'd been prepared to flash my sharp Boston bureau elbows, but Wilke's aw-shucks charm disarmed me. We made a pact: I was going away on a long-planned vacation, and upon my return, we agreed, we'd both travel to Rochester together to interview the Kodak folks. I was more than a little star-struck about the prospect of learning the craft from the great John Wilke.
But the trip never happened. I returned from vacation to learn that Wilke had trekked to Rochester alone. There was competitive pressure, Wilke said vaguely, and reluctantly, he'd been forced to press on in my absence. Well, was there anything left for me to do? Not really. The final story was 99.9 percent Wilke, and utterly brilliant. Though my role in the project was laughably negligible, Wilke -- generous man that he was -- agreed to share a byline.
He'd had taken out all of my front teeth. And I was utterly smitten.
Over the next years we would speak probably once a week. Usually when I was in DC, I'd meet for dinner and drinks with his band of reporters, sources and assorted groupies. I will never forget those nights.
Wilke personified the kind of reporter I wanted to be: fearless, passionate, relentless, always giving chase. He was so pure. He took me and many other rookies under his wing, and reveled in our triumphs. His own victories filled us with pride. I can't count the number of times I heard colleagues say: "Did you see that great Wilke story?"
Wilke took his work seriously, but he never took himself seriously. He was a rare optimist in a profession of gloomy Puddleglums. When the new owner took over at the Wall Street Journal, Wilke didn't turn catastrophist as many of us did. He just kept doing great work.
The fact that I will never sit down to quaff a beer or four with Wilke again makes me immeasurably sad.
We love you brother Wilke.
My favorite John Wilke emails always went something like this:
“There’s a movement afoot to get a posse together to establish a beachhead at Mackie’s this evening. It would be really great if you could go there now and start holding down the fort.”
I will miss you Wilke. Always Wilke, never John.
I never worked with John- I mean Wilke (no one, except maybe his wife Nancy, called him John.) But I'm proud to say I was his friend for almost 15 years.
Wilke was the nicest man I have ever met. Usually, when you hear something like that at a funeral or memorial, you think to yourself, yeah right! But, in his case, it is absolutely true. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone-anyone we knew anyway. He did sometimes have some choice words for genuinely corrupt politicians, or others he may have written, or talked about. But he never badmouthed anyone in our large circle of friends, even when some of us deserved to be badmouthed.
That's just who he was. He was the kind of friend you always looked forward to seeing, and whose word you could always trust. Always cheerful, and incredibly optimistic, cynicism seemed something he was incapable of. We could all stand to be a little like John Wilke. I curse the world that took him away from us so prematurely, and my heart is filled with sadness for Nancy, the kids, and all of us who will never see him, or his like, again.
It was fun to watch him work. Heck, it was fun just watching him. He lumbered into the office so many mornings the same way: a leather jacket over his shoulders. A cup of coffee in one hand, a satchel in the other containing some documents for the next big story. Look out, Page One gods: another Wilke special is on its way.
Even his wardrobe stayed the same. There was the "all- bluejean" outfit - a blue jean shirt, blue jean dungarees, and a red tie. A grey suit for formal occasions. And the blue parka vest. If anyone hasn't claimed it, I'm offering to frame it and donate it to the Newseum. Or Mackey's.
The Journal is full of good reporters, but few were as exciting - and old school - as John. He stayed up late. He came in early. He took colleagues and sources out for drinks at all hours. He spoke the lingo of a true newsman. "Can you lock it down?" he'd ask when one of his colleagues came to him with a tip.
He loved what he did, and that passion inspired his coworkers. You knew you couldn't equal him, but his example made you want to try. And he always made time to help his colleagues out when they needed his advice.
John exuded skepticism toward the powerful. But to his colleagues, he was a tender-hearted bear. When I stopped to say goodbye to him on my last day before leaving the bureau to start a new job overseas, he threw his arms around me, drew me in, and gave me a big hug. It threw me off guard, and made me feel so special. What I'd give to have that moment back.
i'll never forget that moment. he was one of the best and it went beyond his skills as a journalist.
We worked together on a few media stories, but mostly like everyone else, I admired him from afar. At a paper full of big egos that needed constant massaging and praising, he was a workhorse.
Those types are becoming fewer and fewer as our industry dries up and every reporter is more concerned about their brand rather than their beat.
He will be missed.
I only met him a handful of times. I knew him best by his reporting, which focused in recent years on political scandals. Indeed, Wilke’s clips read like a Baskin Robbins of scandal, scoop after scoop in a dazzling array of minor flaps and major fiascos.
Wilke broke news on investigations into former Reps. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) and Jim Gibbons (R-NV); former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK). He raked muck on Reps. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), John Murtha (D-PA) and others.
Over the past few years, “No one’s broken more scandals involving members of Congress than Wilke,” one longtime corruption investigator said to me Saturday, as we discussed Wilke’s passing. “This is a loss for the country.”
He didn’t just dig up dirt on lawmakers. Wilke busted former Bush appointee Scott Bloch for apparently attempting to obstruct justice: Bloch, reported Wilke, called a private tech service – Geeks on Call – to wipe his government computer when the official was facing an FBI investigation. (The details Wilke sprinkled in his pieces were as good as the scoops he got. For instance: After Bloch called the firm, Wilke wrote, it “dispatched a technician in one of its signature PT Cruiser wagons.” Later in the story, Wilke noted the bill for the deletions came to $1,149 – “paid with an agency credit card.”)
Despite the story, Bloch’s press aide remained friendly with Wilke. On his Facebook page Saturday, the aide – James Mitchell – posted an affectionate remembrance. “John was uncompromising and kept on the trail until he had it right,” Mitchell wrote me later. “We also shared a fondness of fine wines, and did some wine shopping together.”
Wilke also nabbed an obscure treasure whose value, at least in bragging rights, has only increased over time: what I believe is the only on-the-record quote from Paul Magliocchetti, an infamously enigmatic Democratic lobbyist and ex-House aide who’s now at the center of a federal criminal investigation that threatens multiple lawmakers. (The quote? "No comment," Magliocchetti told Wilke. "I'm just a former staffer.")
Wilke seemed simply to love his calling. As much as his work showed a clear sense of right and wrong, it also showed an appreciation for his subjects’ quirks and creative malfeasance -- a quiet awareness that humanity, in moments of weakness and strength alike, is a rich and nuanced and historied thing.
Wilke was 54 when he died. I miss him and I will miss his work. He had plenty more good stories left to break. I would like to think that someone else will break them. That I can’t persuade myself that’s true makes me miss Wilke all the more.
On the Hill, an adversarial relationship between flack and writer was generally the rule. Wilke challenged my preconception of that, showing me how to arm wrestle over a story without being disagreeable. He was completely decent and honest in pursuing his work, and no one who knew him ever doubted his intelligence or integrity.
Later on, after leaving the government, when our relationship became more personal than professional, I learned quite a bit from him about more important subjects, like navigating family life and its challenges and how to be a better friend.
Optimism is "an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome." The dictionary should put Wilke's WSJ hedcut next to that definition. No doubt, sometimes that optimism was unmitigated bullshit in the face of imminent disaster, particularly during the last seven months.
But John fundamentally believed in the essential goodness and resilience not only of his business, but of an open society where no one should have a monopoly on trade, power, or the truth.
Apart from his family and his work, that optimism was his true legacy. He got many of us to drink from that cup. It wasn't kool-aid, I'm fairly sure. I hope he was right.
Anne Marie Squeo