Friday, September 16, 2011

Observer, Sovacool

Joe Sovacool looked like Jesus and talked like jazz. I had no idea how old he was. Maybe 42, maybe 62. All I knew was that he was the coolest guy in the room. Our newsroom.

Thousands of you heard his voice over the years. If you called the paper looking for somebody, or just to rant at the state of the world, Joe was more often than not the guy who picked up the phone. Charlotte Observer, Sovacool. Or just Observer, Sovacool. We joked that thousands of years from now, when robots ran the earth, Joe would still be there at his desk, soothing the angry robot callers in his soft and low late-night-DJ voice.

Observer, Sovacool.

Joe went and died on us Thursday. (His sister posted the news on Facebook, and I finally learned -- Joseph William Sovacool was 53.) He had been battling lung cancer for a couple of years and then the tumors spread to his brain. He was a little stick of a guy even before he got sick, and the cancer thinned him even more. He lost his Jesus hair. He had trouble with his balance. But he kept working up until a few weeks ago.

Sometimes the place you work becomes home. I'd see Joe outside the office now and then, usually at Thomas Street Tavern, where he'd drink a beer and read a book at the corner of the bar. I know the paper wasn't where he slept. But in my mind, it was always where he lived.

In every office there are one or two people who keep the whole operation from veering into the ditch. They are never the highest-paid people. For years Joe was in charge of the clerks who answered phones, ordered supplies, took obits from funeral homes, kept the copiers running, doled out the mail, and did a hundred other things to make our office go. If you were a panicked reporter in the field (and I've often been a panicked reporter in the field), when you heard Joe's voice on the phone you knew things would be all right. He'd find the editor who had run off to the john. He'd dig out the fax that was buried in the stack. He'd take care of you.

We bonded over Steely Dan. Joe was one of those fans who had heard the Japanese bootleg and the seventh alternate take of the album track. I covered one of their concerts when I was music writer in the mid-90s, and after that he'd send YouTube videos or blog posts he'd run across on the Web. To this day I can't listen to the Dan without hearing Joe talk about them in his hipster patter, man those cats were so tight that night, they laid it out and brought it all the way back...

We've had a lot of heartbreak in our newsroom these last couple of years. Like most companies in this economy, we've let go a lot of good people, and others have let go of us. Every one of those people was a big part of the paper. But no one else was as much a part of our place as Joe. His desk was right there as you walked in the newsroom, and it was so odd these last few weeks to walk in and not see him there. I don't know what it's going to feel like now. I'd just love to hear that voice one more time.

Observer, Sovacool.

Two words. One and the same.

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