In the end, we each face one overwhelming question: Was mine a life well lived?
“He was one of the best human beings I ever worked with,” former Richmond Times-Dispatch sports editor and deputy managing editor Howard Owen said of John Packett, who went by JP in the newsroom. “JP was just a good person. He was a prince. He was a great guy.”
Packett, a Times-Dispatch sports writer from 1970-2009, died late Monday night. He was 77 and had spent almost all of those years brimming with life. And even though very little about the final 10-12 years of his life was fair, you never would have known that from talking with or having lunch with JP.
Not long after he left the workday world, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a serious blood disorder. He shrugged when he relayed that information to friends.
Not long after that, kidney issues developed as a side effect of his illness. It was necessary for him to undergo dialysis three days a week. His appointments began at 6 a.m. JP never mentioned that as an inconvenience.
Between the initial diagnosis and late Monday night, JP endured other maladies. At one point, he practically had to learn to walk again. So, he did, navigating at first in a wheelchair before learning to maneuver through life, and restaurants he so enjoyed visiting, with a cane.
Each time JP was knocked down, he fought and persevered until he found a way to stand again.
He and his wife of 45 years, Shirley, went to Europe. JP was able to check off an item on his to-do list, a cruise to Alaska, with Shirley. He went to baseball games in Washington, Baltimore and Boston and watched as his Red Sox won four World Series titles this century. He took a train from Richmond to Boston after one Series victory to be a part of the city and his team’s celebration.
Every comeback from a side effect of his illness seemed a minor miracle. That’s why so many of his friends hoped for and thought: Well, if anyone can pull off a major miracle, it’s JP. We all understood that would be needed when we learned he had contracted COVID-19.
Certainly JP’s spirit was willing. He was a devoted husband to Shirley, dedicated father to daughter Genevieve and son Domenick and father-in-law to Jeffrey Dowdy and Samantha Heintzelman. He was a proud and doting grandfather to grandson Kylan Dowdy, age 9.
But after so many battles, and with so many underlying conditions, his body could not overcome the scourge of our time.
With his passing, four comments have been almost universal among JP’s friends: He was a great guy; He was one of my favorite people; I miss him already; I don’t cry often anymore, but today I will make an exception.
“He always had a story that would make you laugh,” said Mike Harris, former sports writer and sports editor of The Times-Dispatch and now a managing editor for The Athletic. “He had a genuine joy for life, his family and his job. It was infectious.
“If you didn’t have fun covering something with JP, something was wrong with you.”
Professionally, JP knew when it was time to have fun and time to work. Editors knew his stories would include the important details and arrive in the office computer system on time.
While writing, JP was all business. There was no joking around, no small talk when a deadline loomed. And a deadline always loomed.
When he finished, he stared intently at the screen on his laptop, giving his story one final read, occasionally reaching for a press guide or box score to double check a fact before hitting the “send” button.
“But he didn’t think the job was done just because his job was done,” Harris said. “He was available to help if you needed it, whether it was writing notes or just offering to get you something to drink. He always was supportive of what you needed to do.”
As sports editor, Harris asked Packett to take on an assignment that was almost completely new to him. The Times-Dispatch needed someone to cover horse racing at Colonial Downs Racetrack in New Kent. Harris turned to Packett, who, as always, accepted the assignment without complaint.
“He was soft-spoken and gentle and just a nice person,” said Darrell Wood, public relations and marketing director at Colonial Downs who now has the same titles with the Virginia Equine Alliance. “And I found his sense of humor to be wild. He was always laughing, except when he was working.
“He was there to do a job. Horse racing was new to him, and I always told him, ‘Call as often as you want to make the story accurate.’ John was thorough, and there were a lot of phone calls back and forth.
“I never heard him complain. I think he saw it [covering horse racing] as something new, something different. I could tell when someone didn’t want to be there, and I never, ever got that impression from John.”
JP covered so many beats, games and events for the RTD that instead of listing all he did, it’s simpler to list what he didn’t do ... and nothing comes to mind.
He was equally comfortable and happy to be in the hushed atmosphere of a tennis tournament, whether it was the U.S. Open in New York, at a local country club or the public courts at Byrd Park as he was in the sometimes (often) raucous atmosphere of a minor league hockey game.
He worked desk shifts, the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work that is essential to getting a paper published every day. He edited copy and wrote headlines and cutlines (captions) when we were short-handed “inside.”
“He was good on the desk,” Owen said. “He gave it his all.
“A sports department is not unlike a lot of places. There are people who had ego issues, who wanted more than their share, let’s say, from time-to-time. JP was the opposite of that. He was a good, decent human being.”
Whether it was covering the horses, tennis, ice hockey, college football and basketball or pro football, Packett made friends. Wherever he went, JP collected friends.
“We developed a great friendship working together,” Harris said. “It deepened after we both left the paper. When he found out I was going to be a grandfather, he was one of the first to reach out. He said, ‘MJ’ — he called me by the initials of my first and middle names — ‘you’re going to love it.’
“He always cared enough to ask about my granddaughter. It was the first thing he would ask me when he’d come up here [Harris lives in Union City, N.J.] and we’d go to lunch. He was so proud of his two kids [Domenick lives about 2 miles from Harris], and he loved being a grandfather.
“I really, really cherish those conversations, and what’s troubling me right now is I’m not going to be able to have them anymore.”
None of us are. None of us are happy about that.
But there is this.
We don’t know how long we have in this life. Given his health issues, JP probably had a better idea than most. If that ever scared him, he never let on. If that ever left him angry or bitter, it never showed.
He lived his life as fully as possible. He didn’t like the situation he had been handed, but he handled it with great grace and dignity, just as he handled everything in his life.
He was a role model for us all.
“I’m proud to have known him,” Owen said.
Add all this together and the sum is that for John Packett, our man JP, a good and dear friend and colleague, his was a life well lived.