By WARREN WATSON
“Jerry was topical, a premier business columnist who was extremely popular in the community,” said former colleague Smith when he learned that Heaster, 74, a former president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (1981-82), had died Oct. 7 at his home near Kansas City.
Heaster suffered a long illness that included esophageal cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was a loyal SABEW supporter who won a President’s Award from the organization in 2006, the same year he retired from the Star after 27 years.
“He was an incredible human being and outstanding journalist,” said Smith, the Reynolds chair in business journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “His greatest gift was his collegiality.”
Heaster, recalled Smith, inspired business journalists old and young with a work example that prompted him to be the first to arrive on the business desk each day. He rarely missed a column. In all, he wrote 5,000 columns in his career at the Star, which also included a stint as business editor.
Smith, Heaster’s one-time boss and SABEW president in 1992, remembers the image of Jerry at his desk, his face deep into the pages of The Wall Street Journal. “He read everything,” said Smith, “back in those days” when everything was in print, days before the Internet.
Smith pointed out that the Star has produced three former SABEW presidents – he, Heaster and Ben Schifman (1966).
“Jerry led SABEW before there was a headquarters office, back when presidents simply passed a briefcase down to each other,” said Smith, who noted that SABEW turns 50 years old in 2013.
Heaster grew up in West Virginia and began his journalism career at Pacific Stars and Stripes and the Okinawa Morning Star in the 1960s. He later worked at the Journal Herald in Dayton, Ohio, before becoming business editor at the Star in 1979. He began writing a column full time in 1990.
He was tireless in chronicling business activity in his column. He had a broad following and kept all the letters he received. Once a year, at Christmas, he would thank all those letter-writers publicly in his column.
Laura Hockaday, in features, worked across the newroom from Heaster, and was one of his fans. “Jerry had a great sense of humor and everyone loved him for that,” said Laura Hockaday, formerly of the Star. “He was brave, decent and loyal. He faced his cancer bravely for so many years.”
She added, “Jerry was rather conservative in his views, as businessmen tend to be, and reporters tend to be generally liberal. But at the newspaper any of those feelings were put aside when thinking of Jerry.”
As SABEW president, Heaster managed to juggle the additional responsibilities. He hosted a national conference in his home city in 1982, and even was the lead writer on a collection of Society newsletters, now called The Business Journalist.
Bernie Kohn, a later president of SABEW (2008-09) and now at Bloomberg News in Washington, D.C., knew of that celebrated ethic and determination as he himself moved through the officer ranks at SABEW. “He was pretty well known to a lot of the older hands,” said Kohn.
That was Jerry Heaster, said Smith.
“Jerry represented an era that has since passed us by,” said Smith. “but he continues to inspire us.”
(Warren Watson is SABEW executive director. He developed business journalism programs at the American Press Institute (1998-2004) and was co-founder of the Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at API in 2003. In lieu of flowers, Heaster’s survivors, including his widow, Shizue, have suggested contributions to SABEW. Contact Watson at 1-602-496-5186 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to give in Jerry’s honor.)
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