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Empty desk, empty page, empty heart

By Andrew Larson,

The desk to my right is empty. It’s largely been empty for the past year or so, but as of Tuesday, July 5, 2022, it for the first time truly feels empty.

Likewise, this page feels empty. My words should not be filling this empty space. Right now you should be reading the words of James Grob, likely expositing on the thrill he had debuting his collection of short plays at the Charles Theatre the previous weekend and how he was just so overwhelmed by everyone who came to support him and enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Empty desk, empty page, empty heart
Andrew Larson

I’m sad to admit that I didn’t see his plays. This is something I will regret for a long time to come. Had I known what was to come I would have come to every show, sat front and center, clapped louder and laughed harder than anyone else there. I would have given the show a standing ovation every time, even if I was the only one standing (although I’m sure I wouldn’t be). I would have shaken his hand on my way out every time and told him how much I loved the show.

But I didn’t do any of that, and worst of all I didn’t even get to tell him goodbye.

For some time now I have been meaning to try my hand again at writing a column. I was just waiting for the right time and the right thing to write about. None of this feels right. This is not what I wanted to be writing about. How could I not, though? It only makes sense to me that the best way for me to honor and remember James, as well as to deal with grief, is to do what he loved so much for so many years. Write.

James was my coworker, desk neighbor and most importantly my friend. I haven’t actually seen him since last fall when circumstances demanded that he start working from home, but hardly a day went by when I didn’t, at least once, poke my head up towards the front door in the hope that I would see him come strolling through it. I don’t see myself breaking that habit anytime soon.

Empty desk, empty page, empty heart
James Grob

For those who never got the privilege of knowing him, James was an excellent reporter and an even better human being. Many reporters have come and gone during my tenure with The Press, but none as fine as James. I don’t remember him missing a deadline and I could likely count on one hand the number of corrections that I’ve run that come from his stories and most of those probably weren’t even his fault. He was diligent, always got the job done and did so with a smile even when there wasn’t too much for him to smile about.

I wish I could have known James better. The bulk of our relationship was simply me proofreading his stories, making the odd correction here and there. I seem to recall James had a tendency to slightly overuse commas. Most of what I know about him comes from reading his columns. They had a special quality about them.

Many times I only intended to quickly skim through one of his columns only for him to quickly grab me and have me fully invested in his words by the third paragraph. Whether he was doting on his family, talking sports or (to the chagrin of some) discussing politics, it was hard to pull away from his stories.

I was always grabbed the most when he talked about his family. It was a unique privilege to be welcomed into the Grob clan, even if it was only for the space of about 1,000 words. The column that has stuck with me the most was titled ‘The gift that keeps on giving’, wherein he shared with us his love and adoration for his nephew Christian who was born with Down syndrome.

James told the story of what happened after he gave Christian his cell phone number. Long story short, Christian learned the importance of not calling James when he was at work. Christian also learned that sometimes adults need to work on Saturdays.

The most important takeaway from the column is how James’ love for his nephew just seemed to pour out from every word he wrote. It was warm and comforting. I’m pretty sure it brought at least one tear to my eyes the first time I read it, and it gave a repeat performance as I reread it, but the tears feel different this time.

James also wrote about sports quite a bit and always found a way to turn it into a life lesson. When the Iowa Hawkeyes men’s basketball team won the Big Ten tournament last spring he used it as an opportunity and springboard to tell us about his relationship with his father, often referred to as “Coach Dad.” who taught him there’s no shame in crying when someone you care about is taken all too soon.

James and I tended to see eye-to-eye on most things, but the one thing that divided us was sports. He was a Vikings fan and I’m a born and bred Packers fan. I root for the Badgers and he was quite possibly the biggest Hawkeye fan there ever was. Those who were friends with him on Facebook always knew when Iowa scored their first touchdown on any given Saturday. “Hawk is in the house.”

As a Badger fan with no love for the Hawkeyes, I would always be a little annoyed when I saw that refrain on my Facebook feed. It meant that Iowa was doing well, and I couldn’t have that. If Hawk wasn’t in the house I always thought that could only mean one of two things: Either the Hawkeyes were having an off day and couldn’t find the endzone, or it was their bye week. It turns out there is a third scenario I never considered.

Now instead of seeing every Hawkeye touchdown as simply a potential obstacle to my Wisconsin Badgers winning the Big Ten West, they can each be an opportunity to remember James. At least the first one of the day.

And now begins the hard part. Moving on. Soon enough the desk to my right will be filled again by a new intrepid reporter, one with impossible shoes to fill. Even then I’ll still on occasion glance over at the front door. Just in case. But the things will never quite be the same.

This publication won’t be the same without James’ byline gracing the front page once or twice for each edition we put out. But we move on. It’s what he would want us to do. He’d want us to keep on writing, to keep on photographing everything that happens in this great county of ours and to just keep on keeping on, even without his byline. And we will.

I didn’t get to say it in person, so let me say it here. Goodbye my friend.

I liked your attitude, James.

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