Editor's Page: Goodbye, John

HONOLULU Magazine loses a legend.

Photo: Linny Morris

I can’t believe I have to write these words, but this issue includes John Heckathorn’s last dining column. He passed away suddenly on December 28, 2011.

The article, a profile of restaurant owner Dave Stewart, is quintessential John: a joy to read, filled with scene-setting, dialogue and exposition all effortlessly controlled by his natural, distinctive voice. Read it and you’ll feel like you, too, spent a night helping Stewart celebrate the sixth anniversary of his Bar35 in Chinatown. John was a writer first, who became a dining critic.

“Critic” really isn’t the right word either—covering dining for us since 1984, in a career that paralleled the rise of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, he was just as often the dining scene’s historian and interpreter. And he enjoyed a well-made meal like no one I’ve ever seen, so he wrote, even when critical, with admiration and enthusiasm for everything that goes into making a restaurant work.

I’ve known John for nearly 20 years. By the time we met in about 1993, I was working at Diamond Head Theatre and he had just become the magazine’s editor and was already well established as its dining writer.

This magazine’s owner at that time, David Pellegrin, remembers how it all began. “John started out as our freelance dining columnist in February 1984,” he writes. “One of our staff writers had taken an English course from him at UH, and told our then-editor, Brian Nicol, about his love of food and restaurants. We already knew John from HONOLULU Magazine’s first annual fiction contest in 1983. His entry was runner-up. John was versatile. In 1985, we hired him full-time to write for our business magazine, Hawaii Investor, as well as for HONOLULU.”

Next month, we’ll run a retrospective of John’s writing over the years, including his non-dining writing, because he wrote more of that than people realize. But John’s impact was bigger still, in ways no excerpts could show. As this magazine’s editor from 1993 to 2005, he established a tone and a point of view for HONOLULU that guides us to this day.

In part, that’s because the magazine’s current identity was something we developed together. John gave me my first major freelance assignment in 1994, a little rant we titled, “Why I Hate Baby Boomers.” (He enjoyed tweaking the readers a little with that.) I was hooked! Then he trusted me with the magazine’s September 1994 cover story. By the end of that year, he had hired me as an associate editor. I was all of 26, and my resume consisted mainly of the pieces I’d written for him and my insistence that I really, really wanted to write for the magazine. I know he took a chance, people thought he was crazy for hiring some inexperienced kid at the time.

As professional and glossy as this magazine looks, it is, and always has been, a hand-crafted labor of love, put together by a small crew. In the lean years of the 1990s recession, there was a period when this magazine’s full-time editorial staff was just John and I. I’ve never written so much in all my life, or with better guidance. Those are the days I find myself dwelling on most now that he is gone. And when I think of those days, I find, suddenly, that no words I could write here seem to suffice.

Only, thank you, John.