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 “