Afterthoughts: Remembering John

Honolulu will not be the same without Heckathorn.

I joked in last month’s Afterthoughts about the end of the world. 2012 is here, better take cover! But of course most jokes are rooted in some hard truth. The four horsemen may not be literally bearing down upon us, but things really are ending around us all the time. When I wrote that piece, I was dealing with losses in my personal life. I had no idea I’d soon be facing another.

John Heckathorn, my mentor, is gone. It’s a fact that makes no sense to me. Of all the people I know, Heckathorn had the most energy, the most enthusiasm, the strongest work ethic. He was the one who vowed never to retire, to write till he dropped. He was the one who consistently managed to juggle more projects simultaneously than seemed possible, and be excellent at all of them. This was a man who could edit a magazine, write a monthly dining feature, host a weekly radio show, write a three-dot newspaper column and still find time to trade bon mots in the hallway.

photo: michael keany

This past fall, Heckathorn hung up his HONOLULU Magazine senior editor title and began to move away from the magazine world. Of course, his version of that included not only teaching journalism and new media at Hawaii Pacific University but continuing to write our dining column every month.

I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him cranking out erudite, pithy, wonderful stories 20 years from now. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he was moonlighting as Batman.

When the news of his passing broke, we heard from so many people who felt the same. Not only was he a stellar editor and journalist, he made real, personal differences in the lives of those around him. So many in Honolulu got their first writing assignment, their first photography gig, their first opportunity, from Heckathorn. He recognized potential in people, and then put his faith in them. I was one of those people.

Would I have bet on 22-year-old me if I were in his shoes? I’m not so sure. I walked into his office in 2002 as a summer intern, still a student at UH Manoa, full of an English major’s purple prose and knowing absolutely nothing about magazines. But he put me to work, and began to whip me into shape.

By the end of that summer, he liked my writing enough to keep me afloat with freelance assignments until I graduated, and then hire me. I’ll forever be grateful for his trust.

Working for Heckathorn was intimidating. I’d run all my drafts past Kam Napier, who was at that time the managing editor, before I dared bring them into Heckathorn’s office. And even then, if something wasn’t up to par, you could see the storm clouds gathering over his head as he read. He would actually growl when he encountered a weak paragraph. And then … he would make your piece better. Tear it apart, rip out the filler and hand it back to you to reassemble. Like this, he would say. Try this.

The criticism was never personal. John’s gift was in being just as generous as he was demanding. Taking me along with him on dining research missions, he would listen to my relationship woes as we ate, and then weigh in judiciously, both on the pompatus of love and the seared ahi. Upon hearing that I didn’t know much about jazz, he would burn me a CD with 100 essential cuts, sparking my love of Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker. Running into me in the elevator, a week into my first, experimental beard, he’d cock his head a bit and say only, “shave your neck.” At a time when my real dad wasn’t around, Heckathorn’s wisdom and approval meant the world to me.

I say that Heckathorn taught me, but I’d never claim to have learned his lessons perfectly. I caught as much as I could, in the too-short time that I had with him, and I’m a better man for it.

Thank you, John. I’m going to miss you.