Jim Vance, the Coolest, Remembered

The Washington National Cathedral is a stopping point for tourists, for stained-glass somberness and admiration, for the day that comes when people gather together to honor the uncommonly famed and departed.

Presidents have come here and been carried away into long black carriages. Joe Pozell’s coffin was escorted here. Washington Post publisher and national doyen Katharine Graham threw her last going-away party here and everybody  came — presidents and Bill Gates as an usher.

Legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was a speaker then, and some years later departed from here also.

Come and gone, in a place that demands by its stones and shadows and lights and altar and pews awe and respect, thoughts of mortality and immortality.

There are some things that normally you might not expect to hear or see in this place which is defined by its spirituality and muted importance. You might not see it celebrating the quality of cool and coolness. Or hear Camelot mentioned at all, except as a reference to President John Kennedy. You might not hear a triumphant gospel and jazz-infused recessional by a street group called Jefferson Street Strutters.

Normally, you don’t hear a lot of out-loud-remembering-with-a-grin laughter in this place.

Except that’s what happened when friends, colleagues, big shots and regular folks came to the cathedral Sept. 12 to celebrate the life of WRC anchor Jim Vance, who died of cancer July 22, but on this day appeared not to have left our consciousness.

With the man whom everybody called Vance, how would there not be jokes and laughter and people with hands in their laps holding stories, which are always the best remains of a life well lived?

He was praised — celebrations are living praise occasions anyway — but the most apt and repeated compliment seemed to be that he was, as Doreen Gentzler, his co-anchor for many years, said, “the coolest man in town.”

Craig Melvin, currently an MSNBC co-anchor, who was mentored and schooled by Vance, called him “a walking statue of cool” and praised him for his pioneering ways as an example for every young black broadcaster. And also for pranking him by inviting him for a steak to a place that turned out to be the Camelot, a popular downtown strip joint.

Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke eloquently when she said: “He knew every part of our city, our bumps and our bruises, our tragedies and our progress. These stories changed Jim and became a part of us. Along the way his ability to capture our humanity, both our realities and the best of us, became a part of us as well.”

Watching the celebration on television, you got the odd feeling that sooner or later he would walk up to the podium, in a leather jacket, in some perfectly happy incarnation, grinning, laughing, cool.

The life was complicated, and authentic. Imagine the local news — any one of the stations — and him not a part of its history. Not that there haven’t been talented anchors, reporters, weatherpeople, sportscasters, including his friend the late George Michael.

He was easily the most inspiring, memorable presence on our local screens — his stories about his own demons, his opinions, his style, his motorcycle, his way with clothes.

He was comfortable with black people, white people, presidents, street people, you name it, with people in general and in the specific. He had style, but no pretense.

“For 28 years, I got to sit next to the coolest guy in Washington. And for that I am very, very grateful,“ Gentzler said.

The image is always rich in occasion and detail: the Harley going off to into the distance, the assured voice talking with presidents and mayors, that big laugh and grin, that joy with and in life. Everybody there, you can rest assured, was in some way his friend, even if you’d never met him.

“Rest easy now,” his son said. “You lived an extraordinary life and made the world a better place for everyone blessed to have been in your presence.”

Outside the cathedral, for sure somebody heard a Harley warming up.


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