Wojo: Jamie Samuelsen brought out all the goodness, in radio and in life

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

He was so tired near the end, it hurt him to laugh. He had to fight for the energy just to fight the cancer, which was especially unfair. And yet until the final two weeks, he did his radio show, told stories with his friends, played with his kids and made everyone around him feel OK.

Jamie Samuelsen always stuck to the script, the most patient, compassionate, selfless person I’ve ever known. He didn’t stray from his principles, not even when the cancer took over. He never lost his hair or his spirit or his humor. You’d never know he spent 19 months fighting for his life, crisscrossing the country with his wonderful wife, Christy, seeking treatments. He didn’t want people to know because he was afraid they’d treat him differently.

Dan Miller, Bob Wojnowski and Jamie Samuelsen.

But you should know how strong and courageous Jamie was. He fought like hell and never caught one damn break. The cancer wouldn’t let go and he had every reason to be angry and confused, but I never heard him complain.

Who gets colon cancer at 47, and then dies at 48? The recommended age for getting a colonoscopy is 50 and older, and Jamie spent many of his final breaths urging people to schedule the procedure earlier.

Who gets colon cancer when they’re perfectly healthy, a runner, a modest eater, a non-smoker? Cancer is devious and horrible in all its forms, to all the people it affects. Cancer doesn’t follow a script and that’s what really sucks, because Jamie and his family did everything right to try to beat it.

Jamie is far from alone with this last question, unfortunately, but it has to be asked: How do you spend the final four months of your life ravaged by cancer and sequestered by COVID at the same time? How does someone who is all goodness and kindness get confined to his home, doing his show from the basement? Closer to his family, farther from the world. He kept doing it, morning after morning, even when it was hard to climb the stairs. Stick to the script, follow the plan.

More:Greg Brady: Radio shows aren't meant to last, but I could've worked with Jamie Samuelsen forever

When Jamie came to Detroit in 1994 after graduating from Northwestern, he was fresh-faced and earnest, with a big head of hair that never thinned and never grayed. I worked with him at 97.1 the Ticket, and at WDFN before that, for 25 years. He’s been a staple on the Fox 2 Lions pregame shows and on Sunday night roundtables with Dan Miller, me and others. He was my on-air partner for four years, and then made the leap back to mornings with another former radio partner, Mike Stone.

Classic pairing

Jamie and Stoney were classy and funny and successful, and you can tell what Jamie meant to the audience by the response since his passing Saturday night. I’ve tried to read all the social-media posts and answer the texts and phone calls, but I can’t keep up and can’t keep my eyes dry. Christy said she is overwhelmed, and the family watched tearfully as the Tigers put Jamie’s picture on the Comerica Park video screen Sunday during a moment of silence. Sports figures have reached out publicly and privately to express their respect, from Dwane Casey to Jeff Blashill to Jim Harbaugh to Matt Patricia and more. All the kind words for Jamie confirm what most of us already knew, that he connected with people, even from afar.

More:Smart, sincere, but never had to be the star: 97.1's Jamie Samuelsen dies of cancer at age 48

A listener posted on Twitter the ideal description: “Jamie showed you could be both smart and sarcastic, without being condescending.”

Jamie was so smart, and had the perfect smirk to go with his lethal deadpan humor. Here’s a dirty little secret: Jamie would help me every single week to come up with jokes for my college football picks column. Silly, right? It mattered to him because it mattered to me. He knew the right things to say, and how to make people feel better about their work.

Jamie Samuelsen worked for WDFN 1130-AM The Fan from 1994 through 2007.

Jamie didn’t need to be the star, didn’t need to have the loudest voice or the most-bombastic personality. But he was brilliant in so many ways. As an interviewer, he knew when to get light, when to get serious, when to step in or step aside.

I am truly in awe of the grace and dignity he displayed. Only a few people knew about his illness because he didn’t want to make it public and distract from the show. When he finally revealed it on his last radio appearance one week ago, his voice was shaky and the gravity was apparent, and yet he refused to say it was over.

In one of my last phone conversations with Jamie, he struggled to get the words out, and then said something that stopped me cold. He said he was afraid he’d die without making an impact in his 25 years here, and I about jumped through the phone to thump his head. I told him he felt that way because he quietly left the show for a while and was isolated and fatigued. He wasn’t feeling the impact because he kept his illness quiet, and out of respect, we did too.

But my God, did he see the impact in the days that followed, in the outpouring of love and support from listeners, strangers and friends. He surely felt the impact in the number of people the past few days who said they're going to schedule a colonoscopy because Jamie suggested they should. An important message paid for with his life.

So many people move in and out of our lives, acquaintances, friends, good friends, best friends. But you only get a few rocks and pillars — people who make you wobble when they're gone, make you wonder if anything will ever be OK again. That was Jamie for a lot of us, for his family, for me in ways I'm trying to express and probably failing. He was the best friend who somehow also had time to be the best dad. He was the one who organized lunches and went to the baseball games and dance recitals with his kids.

Grace and humanity

Jamie taught me about discipline and selflessness. He craved punctuality, and he’d flash that rare frustration if someone (me) was late. He loved his routines. He’d buy a small bag of Cheddar & Sour Cream Ruffles after every show. When we played darts, I’d fling for the  bull's-eye and hope to collect collateral points. Jamie was meticulous — closing out the 15s, then the 16s, then the 17s, then the 18s, all the way to the bull's-eye,  never altering the pattern. 

It took so long for Jamie to succumb, and then it happened so fast. He was playing three hours of tennis on July 4 and still doing dad things with his amazing kids — Caroline,16, Josh, 14, Catherine, 11. Christy scheduled the appointments and handled the disappointing phone calls from doctors so Jamie could follow his well-crafted script.

The randomness of cancer is what makes it so cruel. You can do everything right and it doesn’t care. Wearing a mask or washing your hands doesn’t ward off cancer. You can avoid some risky behavior and follow guidelines, and yes, you can get a colonoscopy. Please.

Randomness works in other ways too. Jamie met Christy McDonald in 1995 at Channel 2 before the final taping of the Bill Bonds show. The Lions were winning then, and as the producer, Christy needed a couple sports guys to chat with Bonds. She called me and the late Tom Kowalski, another good one gone too soon. As I was talking to Christy, she asked for other suggestions. Kowalski was on another line confirming he could do the show, but I waved it off and told Christy she should ask this new kid, Jamie. When Jamie and I arrived at Channel 2, Christy greeted us, and that’s how their story began.

The last night I saw Jamie was Tuesday, laying in his bed, surrounded by a few friends. His family had been there and now was the time for one last round of jokes and stories. And did he ever try. He kept slurping water to get his voice working. He told everyone he loved them and we said the same and we all cried. After about 20 minutes, he dozed off.

As I was leaving his house, I ducked down the hallway one more time to say goodbye. He was in bed, eyes half-open, with Caroline snuggled next to him and Josh laying on the other side. They were watching the Tigers. Jamie looked up, smiled and gave me a wave, and it was brutal and beautiful, mostly beautiful.

And maybe that was the way the script was supposed to end, Jamie surrounded by family and friends and sports. When going through horrific times, people often reveal a piece of themselves you never knew they had. And sometimes they reveal exactly who they’ve always been.

He was a wondrous soul. I’m so sorry for everyone who loved him, knew him, or wished they knew him. I'm so sad the world doesn't have more pillars and more kindness. This rotten disease took Jamie’s energy and voice, but it never got his dignity or his heart. I take solace in knowing now that the pain and awfulness are gone, there is only goodness left behind.

Twitter: bobwojnowski