We had the same birthday in May, and the first years, I would go to the library and say, “Happy birthday, Chris” and she would say, “Happy birthday to you too.” Later, when work took me out of the office, we called each other on the phone and raced to fight.
In the years following his departure from the newspaper, we sent out cards, his always arriving before mine. Then, for the past two years, nothing.
I asked if anyone knew where she was as she was not answering the phone or her email. Chris was born with cerebral palsy and over the years due to various complications things got worse, from canes to walkers to immobility. She had told me during our last conversation that she had been diagnosed with bone cancer, and I remember wondering why the most generous souls on this Earth always seem to have the worst breaks.
Then, a month ago, I learned that Chris was in an assisted living facility. I was traveling abroad but planned to visit him once back.
I never had the opportunity.
Chris Kucharski was not a name you saw above the fold in the Free Press. She didn’t have a column photo ID. She was not credited for the editorials, photos, or even the crossword.
But for decades it has been an integral part of this journal like the ink with which it was printed. Chris was Google before Google existed. She was doing research. Archives. The library. And the number of stories in the Free Press that owe their facts, accuracy, or punch to him is incalculable.
More than a mobile library
What young people reading this might not understand is that just 25 years ago you couldn’t just “search” for something on a phone that fit in your pocket. Research was hard work. It involved going through old newspapers, or microfilm, or indexes to card books, or the primitive mechanics of something called LexisNexis.
Chris was the key to LexisNexis. It was a computerized archiving platform. She had the password. That made her a research god for many of us journalists. I would go to the library and tell him that I was looking for reports on, say, the Alaskan Iditarod. And later that day I would get a massive computer printout and a note in his unmistakable handwriting, “Hope this helps – Chris.”
Gun violence statistics. Old titles. What a politician said on a topic 20 years ago. Chris was a detective. She could find anything.
It was also part of a more trivial exercise. Some of you may recall an occasional sports column I wrote on Fridays called “The Live Albom,” which featured photo lookalikes of famous athletes. Well, in those days, photos were actual prints kept in countless library folders.
Chris and I would sit for hours going through them, me saying, “I think Scottie Pippen looks like Downtown Julie Brown,” and Chris dutifully pulling the files on each one. We held the photos next to each other like puzzle pieces, until we found angles that proved the point.
We laughed a lot about that – and other things – but it was still in the office. We never had dinner together. We never went to each other. We were what you commonly call “work friends”.
Yet there were days when we spoke 10 different times. She knew my family, my outside life. I knew his love of old rock music and his heart for charity.
I often marveled at the physical work she had to do to fetch a file, the slow, deliberate steps she had to take, her clumsy but, thanks to her determination, unwavering gait. Someone called her “small but tough”. That’s right. And like the libraries themselves, Chris felt permanent, as if she would always be there.
But human beings are not libraries. And nothing in the world of newspapers is permanent.
Or in life, for that matter.
A beautiful soul
On Friday morning, around 35 people gathered at St. Anne’s Church in Warren to say goodbye to Chris, who passed away at the age of 71. In a lavender-colored coffin, her little earthly body, finally, fortunately, has no more pain or torsion. of CP.
The priest offered words of condolence and faith. The small gathering nodded and sang hymns. Chris was an only child, her parents moved away and she didn’t have many other family members. There were a number of old Free Press faces that came out, people who, like me, appreciated his gentle spirit, his tireless work ethic, his stubborn determination to live his life as he pleased.
His godson, Andy Kucharski, spoke of a time when, knowing how much he loved Eric Clapton, Chris picked him up and said, “You’re coming with me. No questions.”
She then took him to a Clapton concert where, thanks to her disabled status, she was able to secure front row seats. “She knew what she was doing,” he said. “I still have the ticket stubs.”
Andy was the one Chris would call during her final months, when the bone cancer had spread wildly and she suffered from bouts of paralysis, falling and having to be lifted off the floor. Still, she fought. Her spirit remained sharp, even as her physical form withered, and true to someone who sought reality, she seemingly came to terms with her impending passing. She told friends about the Korean dress she wanted to be buried in and how she wanted Andy to take her vinyl record collection after she left.
Last weekend, after falling and breaking several bones, which apparently fueled the cancer, she passed away. And that world has become a slightly lesser place.
Have you ever had a work friend you admired so much that you wondered, years later, why you hadn’t spent more time together? Maybe it’s because we get used to the boxes we live in – this person is an office friend, this one a gym friend, this one a church friend. We do not cross lines.
But we should. Chris Kucharski was a beautiful soul who for years provided information to the editors of this newspaper so that they could write substantial and true stories. It is therefore appropriate to write something true about him.
It’s here. She made us all better. She stood there. And if she got to know you, she cared about you.
Someday, maybe a certain birthday in May, someone will search through the files like she did and come across her name and her story, and learn how it’s behind so many stories you’ve read in this journal over the years. She would like that, I think. She deserves it. We miss her.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Find the latest updates with his charities, books and events on MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.