Brian Caldwell was my friend and colleague for nearly 20 years. We were a couple of sports fans who probably spent too many years covering high school teams for a group of Connecticut weeklies, long before either one of us had even heard of Woodshop News.
I escaped first, joining Woodshop News in 1997 as a staff writer. When a similar position opened at the magazine in 2000, I recommended Brian. It turned out to be a tougher sell with Brian than with those directly involved in the hiring process.
He wasn't writing about sports anymore, having earned a promotion to editor of the Regional Standard in Colchester, Conn. But the idea of writing about woodworking was a big unknown.
"What will I be writing about?" he asked. "Well, to be completely honest, most days you'll be writing about wood," I replied. That somehow won him over.
I pushed for Brian's hire because he had a passion for good journalism, a strong work ethic and was a good guy to be around. When I eventually became his boss, he gave me everything he had until the end, which unfortunately came too soon with his death on Feb. 21 from natural causes.
Brian, who also worked for ESPN, a radio and television station, managed a café and played trumpet in a mariachi band, graduated from Boston University in 1972. He was a long-suffering Red Sox fan - even after the team won two World Series - and could still get riled up about the Giants having left New York's Polo Grounds more than 50 years ago. He liked the New York football Giants, but disliked quarterback Eli Manning. It was best never to mention Manny Ramirez, Brett Favre, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa (the list could go on indefinitely) in his presence because they were no longer playing the game the right way or for the right reasons.
He liked to describe himself as an old-school journalist, which basically meant he preferred print over any of the electronic media that have emerged in recent years. He wanted nothing to do with social media, e-newsletters or blogs. I was surprised when he got a cell phone.
We shared the thrill of breaking several stories over the years, but he reminisced about the drudgery of the job just a few months before his death. We were covering the IWF in Atlanta and needed to pull an all-nighter to make deadline. We made the best of the situation, ordered room service, watched sports on TV and finished the story. He was proud of our hard work and accomplishment and thought the whole experience was pretty neat.
But Brian's greatest gift was an ability to make friends. I'd send him off on a profile trip and he'd return with two or three more.
"I first met Brian when he called me out of the blue some years ago," says Scott Ernst, principal of Scott Ernst Custom Woodworks in Glorieta, N.M. "He told me that he worked for Woodshop News and was wondering if he could talk to me about an article he was working on for the magazine. I said, 'Sure, what's the article about?' He started laughing and said that it was about me. When he came out to do the interview and see my shop, we hit it off and became good friends. Over the years Brian was always calling to check in to see how things were going. When the economy tanked a few years ago he showed genuine concern, not only for me and my business, but for all of us and all of our businesses. He really cared about the folks he had met in his years traveling around the country interviewing woodworkers.
"I knew that Brian was having some health issues recently, but when I would ask him about it he would just blow it off and ask me how I was hanging in there. Ask me about my health. Check in on my business. He was that kind of guy. If you weren't fortunate enough to have gotten a surprise call from him one day asking if he could write about you, then you really missed out on knowing a special guy. If you did get that call, then I know you have the same hole left in your heart that I have right now. I'll miss him."
Former editor A.J. Hamler, who hired Brian in 2000, says, "When I was at Woodshop News, there was no part of the job I liked better than visiting and profiling shops around the country. But where it was something I merely enjoyed, for Brian it became an absolute passion and something at which he excelled. I know I have plenty of company when I envy him not only for the time he's spent in shops in nearly every state in the country, but the way he effortlessly got to know and understand the shop owners so well they kept in touch long after the ink had faded on their articles. And the more he learned about the intricacies of the small professional shop, the stronger his articles became.
"Being able to write about anything, including the things you know nothing about, is the hallmark of a good writer. But when a writer uses that writing to learn something new and then applies that knowledge back into his writing, he becomes something more. Brian was something more."
Brian was only 56 when he passed away. He leaves a wife, brother and some huge shoes to fill at the magazine. As I write this, he should be in the next cubicle cursing at his computer and losing another battle to deadline.
Damn, I really miss him.
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.