I’ve always liked the word gentleman, a noun with an aspirational adjective embedded in it. “He was such a gentle man.” What better quality is there for us rough-edged males to aspire to: in all things, seek gentility, and if you can, make a little more gentle the life of this world.
It’s an old-fashioned word, of course, which means you just don’t see that many true gentle men any more.
John Ensslin -- who for five months covered Denver for us -- was one of the last.
In everything he did, and in all he meant to journalism, to Denver and to his friends, gentleness — and gentlemanliness — were at the fore.
“He was the consummate gentleman, someone I’m pleased to have called a friend and a one-time sweet-natured rival about whom I could never be bitter if he got something on a story that I didn’t have,” former Denver Post reporter Steve Lipsher said on Facebook after the Colorado Politics reporter died in his sleep at the age of 65.
“He was always gracious, kind, compassionate, inquisitive and engaged. Damn.”
“John was kind, sincere and gentle,” Dan Petty, president of the Denver Press Club, said in his letter informing members about John’s death.
Gazette reporter Tom Roeder talked about his colleague’s “infectious pleasantness.”
“Perhaps the nicest guy in the newsroom,” was former Rocky reporter Marlys Duran’s comment.
“It’s not every day you get to hire a legend,” my friend and colleague Mark Harden said of John at an overflowing tribute at the Denver Press Club Aug. 12.
“Sometimes they become a legend on your watch. But a full-blown legend doesn’t walk into the newsroom every day.”
John had qualities that made people want to tell him their stories. Hearing the tributes to him, I was reminded, of all things, of a scene in “Blade Runner” when a scientist is testing a “replicant” to see if he is human.
The way to tell if somebody is truly human is to test for empathy, which arguably is what makes us most human. And John had more empathy than anyone I know. He was a more human human than the rest of us, his sad eyes exuding a world-weary understanding, a seen-it-all-before-but-I-still-care-deeply-ness.
People like John are why it pains me to hear so many attacks of late on journalism and on my reporters, because really, the best of them, like John, got into this business not out of some urgent quest to force their views down people’s throats or take potshots at people for a living, or even to make money, but because they were born with an excessive amount of curiosity. They didn’t know what else to do. They had to hear your story, had to understand it, had to make sure the rest of the world understood your particular verse in the great global poem.
Former Denver Post reporter Alan Snel understood John’s awesome power, the power of determined quiet:
“The power of his soft-spoken words, his selfless approach to helping journalists of all ages and newspapers and his empathy in interviewing so many folks for tough stories to write were features of a beautiful and humble man.”
John Temple, who was Ensslin’s editor at the Rocky Mountain News, remembered John more than anything as the driver behind the Denver Press Club. Ensslin co-founded the club’s Damon Runyon Awards, which bring top national journalists to the city for an annual event and probably saved the club from closing.
John had been a member of the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame since 2007 and twice served as the club’s president, in 1995-96 and 2003-05. He also was national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2011-12.
“John wanted a journalism community, and he almost single-handedly created it,” Temple told Colorado Politics’ Joey Bunch. The press club was the physical embodiment and lifeforce of that community.
John used the press club as an office, his caricature right above him on the wall. So many crowded in for his memorial at the club they had to livestream the unending tributes from upstairs to the first floor so more people could attend.
“He was so active in creating a journalism culture here, that in many ways that might have been his greatest contribution,” Temple concluded. “He created a sense of pride around journalism, that this was something — that the people were to be appreciated and that they were special.”
Us journalists will miss John the most, but I’d argue that all of Colorado will miss the example of goodness he infused in this profession.
Somebody once said do not go gentle into that good night.
I don’t know any other way for John to have gone.
Vince Bzdek is editor at large of Colorado Politics and editor of The Gazette, CoPo's parent newspaper.