This hasn’t been a good month for the extended Washington Post family. Last week, we lost Bill Walsh, and Wednesday inflicted the news that my onetime henchman Mike Musgrove died Monday.
Mike and I both started at the Post as copy aides, which meant we both had to ask ourselves at some point “did I spend four years at college to sort mail and answer phones?” Not long after I stumbled into my escape from mailboxes and then somehow got anointed as an editor (it remains unclear what exactly possessed management to do that), I realized I’d need an assistant.
Mike had been kicking in reviews for months, and this St. John’s College graduate wrote a marvelously un-self-conscious cover letter that name-checked C.S. Lewis and “Baywatch” and ended with “Give me the job.” His references checked out and the other applicants couldn’t string words together like him, so I gave him the job.
Mike wrote with a sly wit, an awareness of the fundamental goofiness of much of the tech industry, and an interest in life outside of gadgets. He had the idea of reviewing the tech-support soundtracks of computer vendors, he had a sideline testing recipes for the Food section, and he reviewed concerts (including Vanilla Ice) for Style.
His insight on the e-book experience, the product of reading Monica Lewinsky’s 1990s testimony on a Rocket eBook, still resonates today:
If the eBook or a product like it ever gets cheap enough, this could definitely fill a niche: beach reading, airport books—books that you only read to kill time. Books that you would only ever read once and don’t particularly want taking up space in your bookcase—books like Monica’s Story, in other words.
He introduced Post readers to the Diamond Rio, the first mass-market MP3 player, and later gave them their first look at Gmail–a piece that I was delighted to see resurfaced on the tenth anniversary of Google’s e-mail service.
Along the way, Mike graduated from moving words to moving the freight, ensuring that reviews would still run when I was out of town. That led to him playing an unwanted role on the worst day of my life.
As in, Mike learned that my dad had died before I did. In that innocent time, I had flown to the Bay Area for a friend’s wedding without a cell phone (because 1999). My mom called my desk line and then Mike, and he left an urgent voicemail to me that I happened to phone in to hear (because 1999). I called Mike, and he suggested that I not get the news of the day from him. “Call your mom,” he said.
Mike’s last role at the Post was a coal-mine canary. He hit the ejection seat a year before me, burned out by too many demands for inconsequential stories and hit with a cruel review that led him to think his odds looked better away from 15th and L.
He had enjoyed some years as a full-time dad, interspersed with writing the occasional book review for the Post. Then he took some classes in Web development (so, unlike me, he could code his way out of a wet paper bag) and picked up work that way.
I knew he had split up with his wife, and I knew he was looking for work after a contract had run out. But I had no idea that Mike saw himself in such a bleak place that he felt compelled to shoot himself. My understanding is that he didn’t leave a note, so I may never know what led my friend to ensure that he would never again hug the daughter he loved.
Not for the first time, I’m left with a Springsteen lyric: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world “
So sorry about Mike, such news is always heartbreaking. Speaking with a therapist the other day, she said some therapists are now devoting their entire practices to depressed people upset about the administration. I think if you’re already in a bad place, the current climate could push you over the edge.
Thank you for writing about him. It’s important to tell their stories.
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Mike was a great guy . As we know life does and has to go on.
Oh Rob — I am so sorry to hear from Mike! No words … but yours were beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. Warmest regards, Hope
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This is beyond tragic. I seem to recall that Mike was also at Weekend during my 9-month tour there back in 1998. I didn’t know him well at all, but reading this brought tears to my eyes.
– Gene Meyer
This is dreadful news. The cruelty that some managers inflict continues to leave me stunned.There is a humane way to handle every review and job change. Why are so many so callous?
It is so saddening to see how people can get into such places and take their lives. I remember him as the sweetest being on the planet. The world has lost a a life-sized helping of luminescence without him. So sad.
A tragic end to a great guy. Thanks so much for sharing – otherwise, we wouldn’t have known the fuller story.
Rob, thank you for writing this. Mike was kind and funny and a great person to work with. I’m so sorry to hear what happened.
Rob, thanks for sharing this. Lisa
Suzanne Tobin here. This news is particularly devastating. Thank you for posting such heartbreaking news which I’m sure was not an easy thing for you to do.
I wonder if, in tribute to Mike, it would be appropriate to gather a team, in his honor, at the Overnight Walk to Prevent Suicide in DC this summer.
As you may know from the Medical Mystery column by Sandra Boodman in The Post (April 21, 2015) about my recent adventure, the thought of suicide crossed my mind before the mystery was solved, in the nick of time, by Johns Hopkins.
Since then, I have seen two new grandwonders (as I call them) born, and continue to inch imperceptibly toward a different kind of fulfilling life, withthe help of technology.
So often, I think, it’s isolation that tips the balance, causeing wonderful people, like Mike, to go into the bad neighborhoods in their head alone, leading to these tragedies.
If anyone is interested in this idea, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can help make it happen, in absentia.
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Dear Rob, I am just now reading this for the first time and am absolutely heartbroken. When you, Mike and I worked together on Fast Forward I thought of Mike as a younger brother. He was the sweetest and most soft spoken soul, and was such a big help to me who knew nothing about technology. To know that he ended up in such a dark place, losing all hope is crushing.
I had heard the sad news about Bill’s passing last year through facebook.
I am truly at a loss for words. May they both rest in peace. I hope you are well. ❤️
With fond remembrances, Cathy Kelley
Thanks. (Everybody else: Cathy Kelley was my art director in a simpler, happier time at the Post.)
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I’m Jackson Baer, Mike’s stepson. Just wanted to say that I really do appreciate your words about Mike; I came upon this, as I’m currently just looking up articles and remnants of Mike’s career. Seriously, thank you; I hope you’re doing good.
You’re welcome! I’m glad you thought I was able to do Mike some justice with this post. You and your siblings are welcome to ask me about him anytime.
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