Too Soon

By Billy Reed -- A wall in the Churchill Downs press box is devoted to photos of deceased journalists who honored the Kentucky Derby with their passion and their talent. As the age of 60 comes furiously rushing at me, the wall has a certain morbid fascination for me. I have more good friends on the wall than I'll have on this Derby Day, if I'm lucky enough to make it.

Someday soon, a new photo will be added to the wall: John Harrell of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Like my friend, Derby historian Jim Bolus, who died of a heart a ttack in 1997, John was far too young to join that distinguished group. His best work was ahead of him, although the work he leaves behind is a testimony to his talent and work ethic.

Along with his many friends, I grieve for his wife and daughter.

At last year's Breeders' Cup at Arlington Park in Chicago, John and I had a long conversation. When I mentioned to him that I had a baby granddaughter, Caroline Ruth Frederick, he whipped out his wallet to show me a snapshot of his beloved daughter, Hannah. As he was babbling on about his daughter and his lovely wife, as proud dads and granddads tend to do, he literally glowed, his expression rapturous.

John had sought me out to talk about his fairly new assignment: covering the business side of the Thoroughbred industry for the Courier-Journal, my longtime employer. He was as thrilled to be working with his friend, Jennie Rees (the newspaper's award-winning racing beat writer), as Jennie was to be working with him.

He had so much energy, so many ideas, so much zest for the quest of excellence. Listening to him, seeing the sparkle in his eyes, my spirits soared.

As often happens as you grow older, I've grown a bit cynical, and sad, about the future of my profession. Some of the best and brightest and most admirable people I've ever known have been journalists who are interested only in shining the light of truth in life's dark places, even if it means they'll be reviled and ridiculed for their efforts.

As I listened to John, I flashed back to some of my respected mentors and colleagues at the C-J. And I thought, "Wow! Would they love this kid or not?"

For a long while, I wasn't sure what to make of John. I'd run into him sometimes and he would be as friendly as a long-lost pal. But other times, he would be remote and distant, looking right through me, as if I were made of cellophane.

But then it finally dawned on me that I might have been looking at myself in the mirror. John was so motivated, so focused on the task at hand, that sometimes he seemed rude. He didn't mean to be. He was just inexorably possessed by the seductive allure of great journalism.

Unlike many of his peers, John was a sponge, soaking up every morsel of information he could about the Kentucky Derby and Thoroughbred racing. He was well on his way to being the next Jim Bolus, which is about as high a compliment as I can possibly pay a human being.

I was looking forward to giving John a copy of my new book, a collection of my favorite Derby stories. (I'd like to think that John would forgive this shameless bit of commercialism.) Being the historian he was, he might have enjoyed it. But being the kind of person he was, he probably would have lied to me even if he didn't.

Whenever I think of John, my first image will be of his expression when he showed me the snapshot of his daughter. It was joy, pure and simple. It told me all I needed to know about the sort of person he was.

I wish I could say something that would comfort his family and answer their unanswerable questions. But I can't. I'll leave that to ministers or priests or others far more learned and eloquent.

All I know is that it's far, far too soon for the photo of Hannah Harrell's dad to be placed on that wall in the Churchill Downs press box.

Billy Reed is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Ky.