The Mast-Head

October 19, 2006

Robert Long's chair sits empty this week and probably will remain that way for a while.

Robert, an associate editor and art critic for The Star, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only this summer, and now he is gone.

As I sit in my office and think about him, the recurring memory is of his baritone laughter coming from the other room. Robert was a man who savored the absurd; something there's plenty of around a newspaper office. Three yellow, marshmallow Peeps sit on his computer monitor, a gift. They are sentries making sure things never got too heavy. Robert was like that.

I remember in particular from his time as editor of our letters pages how he would save some of the more far-out missives to be read again. These were like little treasures for him. But this was without judgment or malice. Everyone got a fair shake.

As an editor, his ability with language and gentle way of working with reporters' raw and sometimes rough copy on a deadline - mine included - was exemplary. If something did not make sense, he was not going to make you feel bad correcting it. He was always someone whom we could go to with an obscure question.

In the last few years Robert made my transition to editor easier than it might have been otherwise. But I really only realized this when he first told me about the cancer, in a note left on the steering column of my pickup truck. He was reluctant to discuss his illness, as he was about other aspects of his life and work outside our walls.

But the trajectory of his illness was so steep as to seem almost violent. Not so short as to be sudden, yet not slow enough to allow any of us to come to terms with it.

Yes, Robert's chair sits empty. Sometime in the next week or two, I guess it will be my responsibility as his former boss to go through the desk. It will be difficult. I'll probably do it after hours when nobody else is around. It's not something I want to do, but at the same time in a small way I am looking forward to discovering what other treasures he may have left behind.