A Heartfelt Life

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Family and friends mourn the lost of an inspiring writer and a true mentsh.
Jeff Zaslow

A gifted writer and family man noted for his compassion, insight and humor, Jeffrey Zaslow always lived the way he advised in a television interview earlier this year: “You have to make the most of each moment, because … you never know.”

His outstanding personal qualities and body of work are what family, friends and fans everywhere will remember following his shocking death on Feb. 10, 2012. Mr. Zaslow, 53, of West Bloomfield, the husband of Fox 2 News Detroit anchor Sherry Margolis, perished in an automobile accident in northern Michigan.

Mr. Zaslow was driving home from an overnight in Petoskey to promote his latest book The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters when he lost control of his car and skidded into the path of a tractor-trailor. The accident happened around 9 a.m. near Elmira, on snow-covered M-32, about a half mile from US-131.

Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff and Cantor Meir Finkelstein officiated at his funeral held Feb. 13 at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, where the Zaslow family belonged. The overflowing sanctuary — with upwards of 1,500 people — included many colleagues from the media as well as people of all walks of life whose lives he had touched.

In his eulogy, Rabbi Krakoff compared composer Franz Schubert’s acclaimed “Unfinished Symphony” to Mr. Zaslow’s “unfinished life.” Several family members and friends also spoke, among them, the three Zaslow daughters: Jordan, 22; Alexandra, 20, and Eden, 16; his mother, Naomi Zaslow; and Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the hero airline pilot who was the subject of one of Mr. Zaslow’s best-selling books.

A native of the Philadelphia suburb of Broomall, born in 1958, Mr. Zaslow and his family belonged to Beth El Suburban Synagogue. Lisa Zaslow Segelman said at the service that she always idolized her older brother who would come home and “tell me everything he learned about kindergarten that day.”

Mr. Zaslow was a writer from the start. He dictated his first story at age 6, had his first poem published at 9 and won $500 in a poetry contest when he was 12. After high school, he majored in creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Following his 1980 graduation, Mr. Zaslow’s first professional job was at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida. A colleague there introduced him to a friend, Sherry Margolis, a Buffalo native. No sparks happened, she said, until they met three years later at the same friend’s wedding. Mr. Zaslow was by then a Chicago-based columnist for The Wall Street Journal; she was working as a broadcaster in Detroit.

“As soon as we saw each other the night before the wedding, it was like the universe had shifted,” Margolis said. “We danced and were together at the wedding, and then had a commuter relationship for two years until we got married in my hometown of Buffalo 24 years ago on the Fourth of July.”

Margolis said the couple’s song was the romantic “Drive All Night” by Bruce Springsteen, Mr. Zaslow’s favorite performing artist, and that inscription is on her wedding band.

The whole family became fans because Springsteen is “a fine, fine person with a lot of integrity — as was Jeff,” Margolis said. Springsteen’s books, albums and memorabilia are all around their house. Jordan Zaslow said her father started a Saturday morning conga line with “the five of us bopping around the room to Springsteen tunes.” If her husband had lived, Margolis said they hoped to visit Paris for their 25th wedding anniversary — and take in their first overseas Springsteen concert.

He probably would have wanted to bring their daughters, too, she said, because they were close and Dad was their hero. The girls and Margolis knew they were always in his thoughts, even when far apart.

Jordan lives in Los Angeles and Alexandra came in for the funeral from Amsterdam during her second term abroad from Indiana University. Eden is a junior at West Bloomfield High. In their eulogies, the girls said they take comfort remembering that “I love you” concluded every conversation and email between them.

“Go home and hug your children and your spouse,” Zaslow advised everyone.

Eden, Alexandra, Jeff, Sherry and Jordan Zaslow on vacation in Costa Rica

Alexandra Zaslow recalled good times with her dad on vacations to see family members in Florida and at the New Jersey shore. She and her dad would ride their bikes on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.  “We could sit and talk for hours, and he cared about whatever I had to say,” Alex said.

Aiding Jewish Causes
“Jeff was such a mentsh and just loved people,” said Margolis, who didn’t mind sharing him with the world. “He had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known.” She said she couldn’t keep track of all the appearances her husband made in Metro Detroit and elsewhere on behalf of Jewish and other organizations, and to promote his books.

“He never knew the word ‘no,’” agreed Peter Perlman, a former Great Lakes Region of B’nai B’rith president. At Perlman’s invitation, Mr. Zaslow served several times as master of ceremonies for the organization’s Great American Traditions Award dinner, and was to have hosted again in March.

Last Nov. 6, Mr. Zaslow volunteered to be emcee at the annual fundraising brunch of the Sky Foundation Inc., a charity to raise awareness and develop an early diagnosis for pancreatic cancer founded by Sheila Sky Kasselman of West Bloomfield. To aid the cause, he auctioned off a rare copy of The Last Lecture, the inspiring story of Professor Randy Pausch, who stayed positive while facing terminal pancreatic cancer — signed by the late professor.

Perlman recalled Mr. Zaslow’s sensitivity at the book signing line that followed one of his talks at the JCC Jewish Book Fair. He wouldn’t just sign his name. Instead, “Jeff extended his hand to everyone and would say, ‘Tell me something about you’ and then he’d write something personal about the person in the inscription.”

That was typical Jeff Zaslow. “He was always trying to find out how people tick,” said Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin, another Zaslow friend.

A story that Jewish News Contributing Editor Robert Sklar recalled about Mr. Zaslow’s kindness had to do with young Andy Berman of Farmington Hills. Andy, now 14, was 12 when he met Mr. Zaslow at the birthday party of a family friend.

Andy recalled, “Jeff was really funny and nice and said I was the youngest person who had ever told him they had read his book The Last Lecture.”

At the time, Andy was preparing for his 2010 bar mitzvah at the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills and needed to give a talk about a hero. Inspired by Mr. Zaslow, he decided to share the story of Randy Pausch and The Last Lecture.

“Mr. Zaslow shared hours of his time answering my questions and gave me the inside scoop by showing me a scrapbook he made about the writing of The Last Lecture,” Andy said. Mr. Zaslow had an out-of-town commitment and couldn’t attend his new friend’s big day, but instead, the author gave a talk at the Birmingham Temple in Andy’s honor soon after the bar mitzvah.

Noted Sklar, “Jeff achieved world fame but never forgot that what truly matters in life can sometimes be nothing more than taking a curious, active interest in an engaging boy with a mission of his own.”

 A Unique Storyteller
Creative writing, but not especially fiction, is what Mr. Zaslow always loved. “He didn’t follow the money — only the story,” said his mother, Naomi Zaslow of New Jersey. She called Jeff “the child of my soul, because of his compassion for others.” He showed this through his actions as well as his writing.

As Margolis’ colleague, news anchor Huel Perkins, noted Friday in his teary on-air announcement of Mr. Zaslow’s death: “The words you would write would touch our hearts.”

Margolis said her husband “told his stories as though he was sharing them with you in your living room.” And sometimes homes were where he got ideas for stories.

After his selection to succeed Ann Landers at the Chicago Sun-Times, Mr. Zaslow provided sensitive advice for the “All That Zazz” column for 14 years. He then returned to The Wall Street Journal as a Detroit-based columnist. Then came his amazing output of five best-selling books in four years. After The Last Lecture, now available in 50 languages, he was the author or co-author of: Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters with Capt. Sullenberger (2009), The Girls From Ames (2009), Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Capt. Mark Kelly (2011) and The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters (2012).

“Jeff was a devoted father and his last book was another way of telling his daughters, ‘I love you,’“ said Fox 2’s Murray Feldman, who met his future co-anchor, Margolis, after she came to the station in 1984. Feldman and his wife, Marla, would invite Margolis, then single, to their home for holiday dinners. “We embraced Jeff once they started going out,” he said.

Putting aside Zaslow’s reputation as a great, inspirational writer, to his legion of friends, “Jeff was simply the funniest guy in the room,” said JN columnist Al Muskovitz — himself no slouch as “Big Al Muscavito,” one of the “Purtan’s People” on Dick Purtan’s former WOMC-FM radio show.

Alex Zaslow said she felt proud that her dad’s entertaining talks at events she attended sometimes brought standing ovations. Carolyn Krieger-Cohen, another close family friend, said the humorous and touching speeches he gave at the Zaslow girls’ bat mitzvahs are legendary.

Family And Friends
The Saturday night before Mr. Zaslow died, Krieger-Cohen decided she and her husband, Jason Cohen, should act upon a new year’s resolution and arrange a dinner party. They invited the Zaslows, Al and Debbie Muskovitz and two other couples. The guests didn’t all know each other. On the day of the party, Krieger-Cohen wasn’t feeling well, but persevered with her plans.

“No words can express how grateful I am that we did not cancel,” Krieger-Cohen said. “It was one of those nights — from the minute everyone walked in, we all became fast friends. So much laughing and talking about everything under the sun.”

As the table talk turned to marriage. Sherry Margolis shared her thoughts about Jeff with the guests, saying, “I’m more crazy about him now than when I married him.”

On that last special evening with friends, Krieger-Cohen observed that “Jeff had such a blast — he’d been working so hard.

“Now, no one can wrap their arms around the fact that he’s gone, less than a week later,” Krieger-Cohen added.

“Jeff left such a legacy within the pages of his books,” Margolis said. “For those of us fortunate to have him in our lives, the legacy goes beyond the printed word. We know how special he was as a man, as a person, as a husband and as a father.

“We were so blessed.”

Jeffrey Zaslow was the beloved husband of Sherry Margolis-Zaslow and the cherished father of Jordan Zaslow, Alexandra Zaslow and Eden Zaslow. He was a devoted son of Harry and Naomi Zaslow; dear son-in-law of George and Marilyn Margulis; loving brother of Darrell (Sherri) Zaslow, Lisa (David Segelman) Zaslow Segelman and Dr. Michael (Amy) Zaslow; and brother-in-law of Randy (Debby) Margulis and the late Dale Margulis. He also is survived by many loving nieces, nephews, cousins and a world of friends.

Interment was at Clover Hill Park Cemetery. Contributions may be made to a charity of one’s choice.  Arrangements by Ira Kaufman Chapel.

By Esther Allweiss Ingber, Contributing Writer

 

Barbara Chase
Barbara Chase 02.16.2012

I was saddened when I read the news of Jeff's death. He was one writer whose works I would always read in the WSJ. I never regretted reading anything he wrote. My sympathy to his wife and daughters.