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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Smiling tornado

It has been heartening to read all the reminiscences about the big guy in the past few days. Wilke moved through life like a smiling tornado, flinging a few parked cars, especially of the smug and powerful. Mostly, though, it was the warm breeze of a gentle guy, who touched so many people and loved what he did with unflinching passion.

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.

Ron Suskind

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