Steve Crews with wife Evelyn and children Sam and Meredith Credit: Polly C Photography

At a Christmas party several years ago, Steve Crews sat down beside me and asked me what I thought about Tajikistan. I had no thoughts (I bet you don’t either). It’s one of the Soviet Socialist Republics that got away from Moscow, Crews explained, and it’s one of the poorest, most backward, and repressive places on earth.

That’s where I’m going next, Crews told me.

I usually know a pipe dream when I hear one, and this sounded like one. But the fact that we were having any conversation at all confused me. Not long before, Crews had moved from Chicago to Arizona, and I’d never expected to see him again. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer then, as sure a death sentence as you’ll find in the Merck Manual. He had come back to Chicago, intending to die with his friends and family around him.

Yet here he was, talking up Tajikistan!

Crews had been a Tribune reporter before joining the dark side—PR—and he was the poet laureate of these annual Christmas parties, where reporters abounded. When the hour got late, we’d gather round and Crews, by demand, would recite for us the latest misadventures of his alter ego, Frederick J. Auerbach. That’s the “existentially challenged Frederick J. Auerbach,” as I described him in a 1992 column introducing both Steve and Fred. (I think “existentially challenged” describes most of us journalists, our job being to identify reality and describe it, without lifting a finger to even muss its hair.)

That night, we wanted more Fred, because Fred, in his bumbling way, was our kind of guy:

Frederick went to school one day,
and found the school had moved away.
When he got home, it too was gone,
as were the flower beds and lawn.
Then looking down he saw the street
slipping out beneath his feet;
and trees and bushes, one by one,
vanished followed by the sun.
So Fred cried in the black unknown,
“Wh-Why have you left me all alone?”
A voice replied in timbre weird.
“Fred, you’re the one who’s disappeared.”

The big difference between Steve and Fred is that it was hard for Fred to get out of bed, while Steve, having whipped cancer (for the time being), was on his way to Tajikistan. Another difference is that Steve, by his own account at least, had finally found peace of mind. It was something he insisted on.

Crews spent a few weeks working at a relief agency in Tajikistan, and came home with stories about water that ran brown from the tap. Once back, he dropped out of the book club we were both in because he didn’t see any further point in arguing with the rest of us over the existence and merits of God. There was no upside he could see to these debates. His new-found faith worked for him, and life was too short.

Which it was. Steve Crews died this month at age 75.  Several weeks ago cancer returned with a vengeance to his chemo-ravaged body—this time as leukemia. He was diagnosed in late September, and he died at the JourneyCare hospice in Glenview November 3. When he got sick, he’d been volunteering at JourneyCare and also at Wagner Farm.

“I left journalism,” Crews once told me, “because I was always wanting to raise my hand. When I was covering things, I kept thinking, ‘These assholes don’t know how to do things. Let me take over.’ I’d be at a block club, and they’d be talking about fixing the curbs, which is why the club existed. And then all of a sudden their debate would be over what should be their position on the war in Vietnam, and they’d all start shouting and their group would break up. I saw that happen 80 times. Nobody asks the reporter’s opinion. You offer it, but nobody asks for it.”

Among journalists, hauteur and humbleness often go hand in hand. Frederick J. Auerbach didn’t expect anyone to ask him what he thought. Steve Crews could think of himself as the smartest guy in the room and refuse to curl up in a corner. Never underestimate the capacity of a journalist—present or former—to dare, persevere, and refuse to be flattened by time.