Jeff Washburn's friendly and disarming personality came through in our many phone conversations about assignments for The Journal Gazette. And I came to feel a kinship with him, coupled with the instant respect and admiration all the state's sports journalists felt for him.
I'll miss that. Jeff, a Hall of Fame sportswriter and Indiana legend, died at his home Wednesday of cancer. He was 63.
He passed away after a full weekend of doing what he loved, covering sports: The Purdue-Indiana Old Oaken Bucket Game on Saturday, the Colts on Sunday and Purdue men's basketball on Tuesday – a game he previewed on our sports pages that morning.
Jeff never let on how his condition was affecting him. His said his work was what was keeping him going, what gave him purpose. His only concern, he would tell me, was getting The Journal Gazette the stories about Purdue that I wanted and that our readers expected. Our last communication was about preview stories for Purdue's next two games.
As a Lafayette native and Purdue graduate, Jeff covered the Boilermakers for some 40-plus years for the Courier and Journal, the Associated Press, the Sports XChange and The Journal Gazette. His reputation as a Purdue savant preceded him when we connected in 2014. I knew he would bring a high level of Purdue coverage to The Journal Gazette, as former staffers Kyle Rowland and Stacy Clardie had done.
Jeff's dedication to his profession came through in the way he communicated, delivered what he promised and in how he would set me up with other freelance writers to give The Journal Gazette the kind of Purdue coverage he and I knew was important to our readers.
A consummate pro, he approached his job as though he were a rookie fresh out of college. No airs for “Wash,” as he was known. He would always, and easily, make deadline and apologize if he was running late in filing an advance story.
Over the past year, after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he enlisted his budding sportswriter son, Jade, to help us with Purdue and other college coverage. He dubbed it The Journal Gazette's “Washburn Bureau,” based in West Lafayette. Boy, did they ever deliver.
Features, game advances, season preview stories for our college special sections: Jeff, and later Jade, filled our pages with quality journalism. Jeff gave our readers an insight into Purdue sports that few had the institutional knowledge to provide.
One of Jeff's best and most memorable moments for us was in November when he wrote a storycommemorating the 50th anniversary of Mackey Arena. He accompanied that with a first-person account of his experience at the first game in the arena as a 13-year-old.
Nobody else could give us that type of insight and emotion.
I'm filled with deep sadness at Jeff's passing and offer condolences to his wife, Cheryl, and Jade. I know I, The Journal Gazette and our readers are far better for his work and friendship and dedication to his profession.
Mark Jaworski is sports editor at The Journal Gazette.