Eulogy for a friend: Did Mike Wilder really say that out loud?

Mike snip 5

People develop interesting bonds in compact work spaces where creative minds are churning in a highly combustible atmosphere. Co-workers alternately love, loathe and tolerate each other — the occasional shouting aside. They laugh easily, sometimes with gallows humor while minor jealousies simmer within a cauldron of bad or slightly nervous annoying habits. When things go right, the room is full of bad jokes, profanity and cheers. When things go wrong, the room is full of jokes that are even worse, stream of conscious obscenities and a spirit of “hell yes, let’s get this done.” When one is criticized by someone outside the group, all are.

So yeah, it’s like one semi-functional family. This defines the newsrooms I worked in for more than 30 years of my time in the newspaper business.

On two occasions, once at the Jacksonville Daily News and again at the Burlington Times-News, fate claimed the life of a colleague much too early. In Jacksonville it was David “Big Dave” Howell, whose heart gave out during a bout with the flu at around Thanksgiving in 2005. In Burlington it was Mike Wilder, taken by cancer on April 14, 2013. Both events shook those newsrooms to the core. But the passing of Wilder, a singular figure and well-liked reporter in the Alamance County community, was different for a lot of reasons. I’ve written multiple times about Wilder over the years.The most recent posts can be found collected here.

Mike’s death after a period of rapid decline following his diagnosis, cast a pall over the entire Times-News operation for a long period. Today I can count on one hand the number of people now in the Times-News newsroom who were there when Mike died. Only a handful more are still there whoworked in other departments. All loved Mike for his laugh, his nervous mannerisms, his random utterances / noises, his penchant for snacking, his love of music, his shockingly quick anger tempered by hilarious rants and most importantly, his heart and honesty. I think most would agree that they never met anyone like Mike before and likely never will.

For the sixth anniversary of his death I share the eulogy for Mike I gave at his memorial service at Elon Community Church in 2014 as well as a photo gallery of images collected from friends over the years (at the bottom of this post). I am also including the occasional social media posts left on Mike’s Facebook page on the anniversaries of his birth and his death. He is obviously well remembered by those who knew him and there is a fund-raiser sparked by his passing that aids cancer patients treated at Alamance Regional Medical center. There are dozens of remembrances that can be found at a variety of sites. The photo below is of the staff in 2008 at a going away lunch for reporter Micah Flores. Most of this group makes up the notorious quotebook referenced in the eulogy. And obviously we still miss you Mike. Rest peacefully, big guy.

Mike staff in 2008

Good to see you all – so many familiar faces, faces I love. I wish we were all together under happier circumstances. That goes without saying.

But in a way, this time is very special. We’re here to remember Mike Wilder, someone who made all of our lives a little more … interesting, entertaining, sometimes maddening and always enlightening.

When I think of Mike – and a lot of my Times-News friends would probably agree – it’s impossible not to remember the thing in our newsroom we call “the quotebook.” It contains memorable, weird, oddball, witty or otherwise outrageous things people in our office say on a given day.

Mike Wilder is the quotebook’s biggest star. And it’s not even close.

But of all the things he said in the nearly six years I knew him, the quote that keeps playing in my head is something that never made any of our quotebooks. Oddly enough, it often followed the most outrageous things that might come out of Mike’s mouth. It’s this: “Ooops, did I say that out loud? Sorry.”

Yes, Mike might offer that as some form of damage control. He probably felt it was necessary after stating something like: “In the fantasy world I live in, the reporters meeting has been cancelled.”

“Ooops, did I say that out loud? Sorry.”

Or when someone in the newsroom asked why he muttered to himself, he once responded: “I’m talking to me. That way I know I’m talking to someone who’s worth talking to.”

“Ooops, did I say that out loud? Sorry.”

Or when at the height of some newsroom banter, usually instigated by Mike himself, he might say “The me I want to be lives in Nevada on a ranch, away from you people.” With an emphasis on the You.

“Ooops, did I say that out loud? Sorry.”

What I eventually learned, though, is that he wasn’t a bit sorry, not really. But he was enjoying himself immensely, and so were we.

I figured all this out shortly after I met Mike for the first time nearly six years ago. I was hired to replace Lee Barnes as Times-News editor so I was the new guy coming in. Everybody was a little nervous. Mike was too. He was cautious around me, kept very quiet, was always unfailingly polite, extremely so almost.

Then I began to notice things. It seemed like he was never at his desk, for example. He made odd and random noises involuntarily — or at least it appeared involuntary. He detested talking on the telephone and could be pretty vocal about his agitation when it rang. But then he could abruptly shift gears and answer the call with a pleasant, “Hello, this is nobody but Mike Wilder.”

Humble, too, I noted.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of him. He was a giant puzzle, a crossword without clues, a Rubik’s cube with no solution.

“That’s just Wilder,” Brent Lancaster, his city editor and close friend told me.

Ah, that explained it.

I ultimately discovered Brent was correct. And that there was a method to it all. Mike was never at his desk, because he took time to wander around the Times-News and visit people in every department. He talked to nearly everyone in our building. He knew the names of their spouses, kids and grandkids. He knew their favorite sports teams, what church they attended and what TV shows they liked to watch.

He also knew every desk with a candy dish on it or who brought homemade goodies to work that day. Mike would graze, visit and leave each and every one with a smile.

What made Mike such a presence to people in our office was also his greatest asset as a reporter. In truth, Mike Wilder could’ve been almost anything he wanted to be. He was exceptionally intelligent guy with a talent for music, art and letters. He could’ve been a musician or an author. A teacher, pastor or political strategist. His mother told me that at one time she thought he might become a fashion designer.

Yes, the secret is out, Mike Wilder liked to draw women’s clothes – ball gowns, his mom told me.

He could’ve been a lot of things, but he chose to be a newspaper reporter. And despite anything else that might come along, or the occasional notion that he might take on a different career, he continued to choose to be a newspaper reporter.

The biggest reason he was drawn to reporting? He was doggone nosy.

Mike liked to be in on things, know the latest news, the freshest stories. Then he liked to spread those stories. It came naturally for him. He was great at interacting with people and had a talent for asking questions without causing rancor or fear. In fact, nearly all found him endearing. He then presented the stories in a straight-forward way. No one could tell where Mike Wilder stood just from reading one of his stories.

Those are all rare gifts, believe it or not.

While people he wrote about seldom knew where Mike stood on things, his friends in the newsroom were keenly aware of Mike’s strong opinions about any number of subjects. It was like a force of nature he contained and only unleashed inside the newsroom.
Newsrooms are traditionally filled with opinionated people. And even by newsroom standards, Mike was perhaps the most opinionated of all.

Sometimes, of course, he would end a rant with the typical: “Ooops, did I say that out loud? Sorry.”

And we all laughed.

Mike snip 6

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