An obituary is about the person who died and not about the feelings of those left behind. That's why when a few of us recently and quietly started drafting the obit for our dying colleague and friend Tim Cuprisin, who passed away this morning, we left out most of the personal stuff. That's what blogs are for.
I'm not usually short on words, but it's hard to write succinctly what I want to express about Tim in a way that honors his memory. In fact, with his health taking a turn for the worse, he and I had planned to talk today. I wanted to delicately offer him the chance to contribute to his own farewell piece since we both knew it was coming. Unfortunately, that meeting never happened, and now we must hope that our tributes to him are what he would've wanted.
I'll do my best.
Tim wasn't exactly a shy guy, but he didn't especially want to talk about himself, either. He was never interested in making himself the story. After his cancer diagnosis, he was forced to talk about himself more, both with concerned friends and family and also with his coworkers. We're a small team; we had concerns about his health and well-being, and he didn't want to leave us high and dry. I told him that from the day he found out he had terminal cancer, he should never worry about work or deadlines again. Write if he felt like it, don't write if he didn't. The rest of us would pick up his slack and never say another word. He would have a job at OnMilwaukee.com for the rest of his life, even if he never wrote another column.
But Tim said that the routine of writing his column, like he did for so many years, helped keep him going. He wrote most days and merely hinted to his readers about his condition, only because the column's occasional absence was getting hard to hide.
Tim didn't give up, either, on beating melanoma. He took trips to the Mayo Clinic and University of Chicago and was undergoing a brand-new cancer treatment until last week. But he was also getting weaker and had two blood transfusions (that we knew of). We tried not to ask too many questions, but we all cared deeply. I found myself pushing more than I meant to, but it was only because I was trying to do something, anything, to help.
In the last several months, Tim and I had a lot of closed door conversations. We talked about treatment, the novel he was working on, the state of media in Milwaukee and even about our evolving views on religion. Sometimes I would accidentally find myself complaining about my sore back, before and after my recent surgery. I'd catch myself and apologize for whining about something so trivial, compared to Tim's rounds of chemotherapy that ultimately were ineffective. But Tim would tell me that my health mattered, too, and that his cancer had nothing to do with what I was going through. That's the kind of guy Tim was.
About a month ago, I held a bit of a "fire and brimstone" editorial meeting, which isn't something I do too often and am not especially proud of. I called each of us out on some recent mistakes that were gnawing at me. Tim sat there quietly, and at the end, he spoke up and said, "You realize that everything you're upset about happens in every newsroom and at every company. Stop being so hard on these guys. Everyone's doing a great job and working as hard as they can." That pretty effectively shut me up.
After, he came into my office and shut the door. "Thanks for taking the wind out of my sails," I joked, but we both knew he was right. What some readers don't understand is that Tim didn't give a hoot about "American Idol," but his speciality was writing about media and commenting on its nuances and peculiarities. He did that better than anyone I'd ever read.
In fact, I was a fan of his work long before he joined OnMilwaukee.com. His column in the Journal Sentinel was one of the must-reads in the paper for a long time. What became very obvious to me after hiring him in 2009 was that Tim was that rare professional journalist who knew print but understood and embraced online. He helped legitimize our product to a different demographic, yes, but he also served as a seasoned sounding board. Whenever I had a question about what call to make on a story, I asked Tim. I can't think of a time when I disagreed with his answer.
And still, while we all knew this day was coming, we didn't think it would come so soon. Because he remained so positive, we all had hope. I was working on my annual "year-end picks" story today. I was literally writing the section about how Tim is my Milwaukeean of the year for his courage in his fight when the phone rang. I saw that it was his wonderful, long-time girlfriend, Sharon. I knew what she was going to say, but when she said it, it was no less shocking.
Molly and I broke down, and had Bobby been in the office, he would've, too. Everyone else, even the people who didn't work with him every day, found themselves equally stunned. We hugged. And then I jumped into Photoshop to create the graphic that will be on our homepage for a few days. I dusted off the unfinished obituary and posted it without letting myself think about it.
At first, the title read "Tim Cuprisin: 1958-2058." That was the draft headline we wrote because we still held out hope that he would beat this thing and live for decades. In the heat of the moment, which is why we prewrote the obit in the first place -- so we could make it good and without the sloppiness of emotions -- it went live that way for a few minutes. If you saw it that way, my apologies.
For the photo, I selected a picture from when I first met Tim and interviewed him for a Milwaukee Talks, when he still worked at the Journal Sentinel. I liked that photo because he looked downright jolly. He didn't look like that the last time I saw him in-person a few weeks ago. He was thin and gaunt but still smiling and joking.
I won't exaggerate and say that Tim was my closest friend, or that we hung out often outside of work. In the office, he might have been closer to Bobby and Molly. Still, I always felt smarter after talking to Tim. He left us much too soon, and he cannot be replaced. He was a fair, funny, sarcastic teddy bear who knew our business better than we did. It was an honor and a privilege to know and to learn from him. I only wish he could've held on a little longer, because he was such a great mentor.
I'm searching for some silver lining here, and I suppose it's that he's no longer in discomfort. But also, his passing the day before Thanksgiving reminds to be thankful for the friends and families we have, and to do our best not to squander our short time on Earth.
Until the end, Tim lived life on his own terms, and had a good time living it. We can all take a page from that column. Goodbye, Tim. We miss you already.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.