When I was a kid, I was often mesmerized by the Reader’s Digest feature, My Most Unforgettable Character. One of mine, Jim Taszarek, died Thursday and I am going to deeply miss “Taz.”
All the clichés about “taking over a room” and “bigger than life” described Jim Taszarek. He was tall, commanding, funny, genuine and he cared about every person in every room he entered. He amassed friends like most of us pick up cheap pens. Just take a look at his Facebook page to see the amazing tributes he has received before and after his death.
I met Taz about 10 years ago when we both auditioned to be lectors at the Casa at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Paradise Valley. Lectors read parts of the Bible at mass in the Catholic Church. Taz was really good in that audition and I am pretty good myself so it was inevitable that the two big dogs would sniff around each other. We quickly determined we both had done alright in the media business. Taz had been general manager at KMOX and KTAR and I knew I was talking to a real player in the radio business. Only later did I really cotton to what a legend he was.
It also emerged that I was a professor at the Walter Cronkite School. Taz loved the school and had been active in the school’s endowment board for many years. We soon started having coffee and lunch and he introduced me to another major broadcasting figure John Dille.
We became a trio and lunched three or four times a year. Taz would invariably announce that each lunch had been “an absolute disaster” and declare we could never waste time like this again. Taz could trade barbs with the best, but the loving twinkle in his eye was ever-present. Every lunch we had was a delightful mix of insults, media gossip and sharing of important “life stuff.”
You were a fool if you let Taz’s jokes and insults define him. Taz was a man of significant substance, incredible creative talent and a deep spiritual connection. His intellectual curiosity and his drive to do things better made him a force of nature.
Four encounters reveal much of what you need to know about Taz.
One day in late May of 2014 I stopped at a store next to Chompie’s in Scottsdale. Taz and his kind, calm wife Sharon were walking into the restaurant for a late lunch. They knew my wife was very ill and they invited me to join them “just to talk.” Taz knew I was hurting and both Taz and Sharon encouraged me to spill out my heart. They counseled lightly but they also were learning about what a fatal illness does to a couple. Taz had been sick for a few years and they both knew my path could soon be their path. They listened, they comforted and I think they had a bit of a clue that they were a life preserver for my sinking boat. My wife Jean died three weeks later in Minneapolis.
After I returned to Scottsdale in August, Taz invited me out to dinner for one of the most wonderful meals of my life. We joked some, as we always did, but the conversation focused on grief and spirituality. He wanted to know everything he could find out about hospice and my grief. It was obvious he was making his own preparations and he wanted to make life as easy as possible for his beloved Sharon. We also talked about our spiritual adventures and misadventures. Taz never made a secret of his long-time Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) membership, but that night he slipped into almost a holy reverie of sorts. I distinctly remember him staring off into space and praising the deeply spiritual aspects of AA. He talked with awe of the Power that brought him back from dangerous, self-destructive behavior. He and his God were good.
About a year later I needed to connect a friend with AA. I called Taz and told him what I needed. He said “Stay by your phone. ” Within 20 minutes he called back and simply uttered a name and a number. No questions, no pushing for the friend’s name. He had a favor to do for a friend and he did it.
The final encounter was January 25 a month before he died. Taz had told John and me in December that he was now in palliative care. We laughed some more, gossiped some more but Taz was especially interested in hearing about the Cronkite School and Dean Chris Callahan. Taz wanted to write a letter to the dean applauding the tremendous strides the school has made. Taz was thinking about sending “attaboys'” when he knew the end was near.
Taz had scores of friends because he knew how to be a friend. He made you feel like a special person every time you saw him. Sure he made you laugh, but he also hugged you close with his deep sense of caring and the loving humanity he wore on his sleeve.
When Taz was leaving that day he promised us “one more of these lunches before it’s over.” I wrote him Monday to take him up on his promise, not knowing he was two days from the end.
I cried Thursday night when I heard the news of his death and I will cry for a while. Knowing there will be no more of those fantastic lunches, no more ribald insults and no more caring makes me profoundly sad. One of the greatest characters, one of the most vital and most genuine men I have ever known has passed. Rest in Peace, good friend, and know that you made thousands of lives so much better. That should be all the Big Guy upstairs needs to know.