He looked like a Kansas rancher.
While most career journalists are prone to corpulence (too many donuts, too much time sitting at a keyboard), Jim was as lean as the Marlborough Man…with whom he shared a love of tobacco.
From the day I first met Jim in the city room of the Kansas City Star until my last sighting of him more than a decade ago, his looks hardly ever changed.
He always had a four-day growth of chin stubble (I never understood this…at some point wouldn’t it either turn into an actual beard or be cut back to baby-bottom smoothness?). His hair was trimmed close…not quite Marine D.I. close, but getting there.
His wardrobe never varied: Well-worn blue jeans, a wrinkled shirt and, incongruously enough, scuffed penny loafers and white gym socks. The look was that of a ‘60s frat boy gone badly to seed.
In latter years Jim gave up smoking and switched to chaw…which meant he always carried with him a styrofoam cup in which to spit carcinogenic juice.
Actually, Jim was a rancher.He had a spread south of K.C. on which he raised horses.
Early in my career I drew the unenviable Sunday morning shift at the paper. Jim filled in as city editor, and for several hours it was just the two of us going through wire stories and fielding telephone calls.
I’ve never been able to forget what he told me about spotting the actress Dana Wynter (of the original “Invasion of the Bodies Snatchers”) in an airport terminal.
“God, she was beautiful,” Jim rhapsodized. “I’d eat a mile of her s**t just to sniff her ass.”
Jim’s forte at the paper was in-depth series. He did an award-winning project on the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. He wrote several books about Kansas, its history and its sights.
And in the late ‘80s, as he was nearing retirement, he became a regular on-air essayist for PBS’ “News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” reporting about small towns and just-folks throughout the Midwest.
The last time I saw Jim was about 15 years ago at one of the Star’s service banquets. These events were commonplace back when they sent you off into retirement with a testimonial dinner and a gold watch rather than a non-disclosure agreement and an admonition to not let the door bang your butt on the way out.
A bunch of us ink-stained working stiffs were sitting at a table with our spouses, telling old journalism stories. Sitting at a nearby table was Jim Fisher, who had retired several months earlier but came back either to bask in the appreciative glow of his colleagues or to cadge a free meal (reporter behavior dies hard).
Someone at our table mentioned a legendary yarn involving Jim Fisher and a typewriter.
The tale went that back in the early ‘60s Jim had become so frustrated with his uncooperative manual typewriter that he lifted the big Underwood from his desk, marched to a nearby open window and angrily heaved the machine through it.
Since the Star’s newsroom was on the second floor, this meant that about 25 pounds of metal went crashing at high velocity onto busy Grand Avenue below.
It was a great story, but none of us at the table could attest to its veracity. If it happened, it happened way before our time.
So Diane Stafford announced she was going to go over to Jim’s table and get the truth.
And she did. She spent a couple of minutes talking to Jim, then returned with just a hint of a smile on her face, as though she was now the guardian of a great secret.
Well, we demanded, what did he say?
“I asked him to tell me about throwing the typewriter out the window,” Diane reported.
“And Jim said, ‘Which time?’”
| Robert W. Butler