Friends,

Let's capture some of why we loved Wilke so much. As one friend of his put it:

"...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."

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20090503

Like a brother

His wife Nancy was the only person I know who called him John. To the rest of us, he was just Wilke.

For seven years I sat close enough to eavesdrop on his phone interviews and watch him assemble his stories. He sat with his back to me, facing the L Street windows, surrounded by stacks of documents, his cell phone waiting next to his keyboard, his landline phone at the ready.

If he owned a cool tie, he never wore it.

Listening to Wilke work his sources, I came to think of him as a pickpocket, which I mean in the most complimentary way. He’d juggle two calls at once, sometimes three, get a little piece of a story from one guy, then trade a little of that for another sliver of something from another guy, then leverage that with another guy, picking up 2% here and 5% there, until he finally had the story. I suspect that if you then put all the sources in one room and they compared notes, they would not be able to figure out who actually gave up the goods. But there they were, on Page One.

Wilke could not write a story without writing the first paragraph first. This is true of other reporters, of course, but with Wilke it was, as he might hyperbolize, a chronic and toxic affliction. I remember watching him write his lede, then delete it, and rewrite it, then delete it again, and rewrite it, over and over and over again, literally for hours. Then I would ask how he was doing with the story, and he would say, "Excellent."

For a guy whose life was sincerely and genuinely devoted to telling the truth, Wilke could obfuscate with the best of the flacks whose lives he routinely made miserable.

But he always did it with a smile.

Wilke had a tell, though. You knew he was pulling a fast one whenever he resorted to one of his two-dollar words. If he said he was "expeditiously attending to the matter you referenced," you knew he wasn't going to be turning that story in today, or tomorrow, or maybe not even this month. Probably not this month. On one such occasion, he wound up in a shouting match with then-bureau chief Alan Murray. Uncharacteristically red-faced, Wilke pointed and yelled, "You're offline, Alan!"

I think he meant “out of line,” but then he was covering the Microsoft case.

Some of the three or four thousand reporters who covered that case wondered how Wilke got his scoops, why the government or Microsoft favored him with leaks. Here’s a little secret: He worked his ass off. An example: John would find out where one of the government’s lead lawyers was traveling, get himself a plane ticket, and then “bump into” the lawyer at some distant airport (easier to do pre-9/11). He’d grab a cab or limo with the lawyer and pretty soon, he had yet another exclusive.

He also was an ardent believer in keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. I frequently overheard him lathering up one of his competitors with praise for a story he “worshipped” (one of his favorite words).

John loved sushi, Pynchon, hoppy beers, George Clinton, fine wines, long walks with Nancy, cookouts, Ben’s Chili Bowl, and his children, Robin and Jackson. And he loved having a beer or four with his colleagues after work. Late in the afternoon, Simpson and I would get an email from Wilke: “Shall we gather a posse?” Or, “Suggest establishing a beachhead.” We argued now and then about where we’d go, because Beer Snob Wilke couldn’t bear spending less than $6 on a pint.

As often as not, the posse would have established the beachhead long before Wilke dragged himself away from his desk. Upon arriving at the pub, he would order two--not one, but two--Sierra Nevada pints, drain one, and then head outside with his cell phone on his ear. He might disappear for an hour or more, and then express great shock and frustration when he returned to find that the posse was now dispersing. You had to admire Wilke’s ability to suspend his own disbelief.

He embraced it to the end, insisting it was merely a matter of time before he’d rid his body of the poisons, resume the necessary treatments, and shrink that tumor enough that it could be cut out, as if it had never been there.

In these days of dwindling dailies, it’s quaint, even clich├ęd, to recall that the best journalists seek to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. But this was John Wilke’s organizing principle, driving all of his reporting, writing, curiosity, intellect. He believed deeply and fiercely in the power of facts rendered clearly to change the world for the better.

And yet, for all that passion and fire, the word that first comes to my mind when I think of John Wilke is this: gentle. He was gentle with his colleagues, especially the younger ones; gentle with his superiors; gentle even with his sources; certainly gentle with the people he loved.

Maybe I think that because of my first and lasting memory of Wilke. When I came to the DC bureau for the first time in September 1995, I was approached by a bear of a man with neatly combed hair in a blue denim shirt. He reached for my hand and took it, characteristically, I would learn, in a two-handed shake. “Welcome,” he said.

I loved him like a brother.

Bryan Gruley

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for that eloquent testimony. Actually, thank all of you. It seems that when a jounalist like John dies, many eloquent people write to express their love and admiration for him. Thanks for that, it helps me recall concrete memories of what a wonderful human he was.
    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 love, life, baseball, the plight of the Redskins, the merits of Harpur College 5/2/70 vs. Fillmore East 2/13/70, that sort of thing.
    Missing you today mate.

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