I didn't know Don Beckett nearly as well as most of you who are reading this. For me, that's an unfortunate fact.
Beckett, 53, lost his 11-month battle with cancer Wednesday.
I first met Don in January, just a few weeks after his diagnosis with esophageal cancer. I was interviewing Don about a trip members of the Kent fire and police departments arranged for him and his wife, Heidi. It was an all expenses paid trip to see the 2011 Sugar Bowl, which saw Beckett's favorite Ohio State University Buckeyes beat the University of Arkansas Razorbacks in dramatic fashion.
The diagnosis was somewhat bewildering to Beckett because he didn't smoke or drink and, instead, enjoyed a life filled with cycling, hiking and kayaking.
"I don’t have any of the predetermined factors for this kind of condition," he told me in January. "So we’re not really sure why I have this.”
To my surprise, Don was incredibly open about his disease. I had known him for just a few minutes, and already he was sharing the kind of details you don't normally expect to hear. They were details I would feel embarassed to share — his bouts of vomiting, nausea and incontinence caused by chemotherapy treatment.
It was an openness he continued during his brief stint as a blogger here on Kent Patch.
What, to me, seemed even more shocking was that he was still working as a firefighter-paramedic. I was interviewing him while he was on duty, slowly eating an orange in the fire station kitchen. I couldn't fathom the idea someone who was in the business of saving lives could continue that work even while he was fighting to save his own.
Sure enough, our interview was interrupted. The department's tones rang out. Someone had called 911 looking for help. And Don jumped in an ambulance and sped out of the West Side Fire Station with his fellow firefighters — leaving a half-eaten orange behind.
That was the only time I got to sit down and talk to Don at length. Still, we developed a rapport and talked periodically on the phone and stayed in email contact much of the past 10 months. I always enjoyed hearing from Don because his messages were so uplifting.
And that, I think, was the beauty of who Don Beckett was. He was a genuine, straight-forward human being who could make friends with anyone because of his honest and caring nature.
He surprised me again Wednesday night when Kent Mayor Jerry Fiala announced at Kent City Council that Beckett had died. I was surprised because I didn't realize how much of an effect our short friendship had on me until I heard the news and felt the weight of the loss.
In the news business, if someone prominent in a community is in failing health and possibly near death, their obituary is often written well in advance of their actual death. A colleague advised me months ago that I should prepare for this moment, but I couldn't.
I believed, as I think many did, that Don would overcome this and I wouldn't have to write his news obituary.
Community gives back
The community's generosity didn't end with the trip to New Orleans.
In April, Don Joseph Toyota organized a Facebook-based fundraiser that netted $5,000 for the family. The dealership pledged $1 dollar for every person who wrote "Team Beckett" on the car dealer's Facebook page, and people continued to post positive messages well after reaching a goal of 2,500. Toyota's corporate office matched the $2,500 raised locally.
Jessica Joseph, the dealer's sales manager, said they expected to have 2,500 posts within a month or so of starting the campaign. They reached it in six days.
"I wanted to give it plenty of time to succeed and get the word out," Joseph said in April. "It was jut unbelievable to me that we were able to hit it so quickly."
And In May, police and firefighters organized a reverse raffle for the Beckett family that raised $16,000.
Ever humble, in one of his earlier blogs Don wrote about how the community inspired him so much.
But I think it truly was the other way around. For months, friends and family continually posted messages on his Facebook page about how his strength, positive attitude and sheer will were enlivening.
He wrote once about how a former ambulance patient knitted him a scarf and had it delivered when she learned of his cancer diagnosis. She continued to send him cards of encouragement.
"It is nice to know that you have touched some lives in my work," he wrote in July.
A sad departure
Come August, Don was forced to retire after 23 years with the Kent Fire Department — a result of his illness. It was a move that left him feeling as if he'd lost his identity.
Until that point, Don had not let the disease bring him down.
"When you become a firefighter-paramedic, it is much more than a job that you clock into at 8 a.m. and clock out at 5 p.m. and forget about," he wrote in August on his Kent Patch blog. "Do I feel depressed now? Yes. Not because of the disease, but because of the position the disease has put me into rendering me incapable of being a firefighter."
Despite retiring, Don continued to maintain ties with the department. Late in August Don helped welcome the Ride for 9-11 firefighters as they arrived in Kent on their way from California to New York City for the Sept. 11, 2001 anniversary.
Late in September, Kent Fire Chief James Williams recognized Beckett for his 23 years of service by presenting him with his service helmet mounted on a plaque. It was a retirement party filled with friends and family and Don's last big public appearance.
The esophageal cancer made it difficult to eat and caused him to lose weight. This week he was readmitted to Robinson Memorial Hospital, where the family learned his cancer had spread.
One of Don's brothers at the fire department, Kent Fire Lt. David Moore, wrote a message of thanks on his Facebook wall late Wednesday.
"Thank you for making me a better paramedic, firefighter, father and husband," Moore wrote. "Rest in peace in knowing you did the job well and that we got it from here!"
Don is survived by his wife, Heidi, son, Ryan, daughter, Christy, mother Shirley, brother, Dave, and nephew, Benjamin. Funeral arrangements are pending and will be handled by Bissler & Sons Funeral Home of Kent.