Jeffrey Zaslow, The Last Lecture author, killed in car crash at age 53

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Jeffrey Zaslow

Jeffrey Zaslow – a former Chicago Sun-Times columnist who went on to sell millions of books with themes of compassion, inspiration and empathy – was killed Friday in a car crash in northern Michigan.

Mr. Zaslow teamed up with some of the country’s most inspirational people to help tell their stories, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Randy Pausch, the subject of Zaslow’s huge hit The Last Lecture, which has been translated into 48 languages and sold more than five million copies in English.

He was a columnist at the Wall Street Journal at the time of his death. He was 53.

Mr. Zaslow, the father of three daughters, was killed in a crash near the northern Michigan town of Elmira at 9 a.m. Friday, according to FOX 2 Detroit, where his wife, Sherry Margolis, is an TV anchor.

Police said Mr. Zaslow lost control of his car and was hit by a semi-trailer truck on a snow-covered road. He had been in the area previously for a book-signing.

Mr. Zaslow, a native of suburban Philadelphia, initially worked at the Wall Street Journal from 1983 to 1987, when he entered a Sun-Times contest to replace Ann Landers.

Mr. Zaslow, based in Chicago for the Journal at the time, applied with the intention of writing a Journal column about the experience.

Instead, out of 12,000 applicants, he and Diane Crowley, daughter of the original Ann Landers, were chosen to do side-by-side columns.

His column, “All That Zazz,” was wide-ranging. He brought together a group of readers called the Regular Joes who would chime in with advice. He held an annual singles party that drew national attention – and led to many marriages.

Mr. Zaslow launched school supply drives in his column. He also raised untold sums for the Sun-Times charity.

“Jeff was just a bundle of energy,” said Sue Ontiveros, Sun-Times deputy features editor, who spent time as Zaslow’s editor. “He did so well with the column, and his subsequent books, because he was such a compassionate man who was interested in people. He was kind and funny and so humble about his talents. And oh, how he loved Sherry and their girls.”

After leaving the Sun-Times in 2001, he went on to write The Last Lecture, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, The Girls From Ames, The Highest Duty and The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for our Daughters.

In 2009, Zaslow spoke to the Sun-Times’ Miriam Di Nunzio about writing his then-new book, The Girls From Ames, a story about 11 women from Iowa who have been friends for 40 years.

Mr. Zaslow matter-of-factly explained how the women let him read their diaries and letters they’d written to each other through the years. And then he offered his take on why men are not like women:

“Those bonds are just not there. . . . Don’t get me wrong. I talk to my wife, and that’s it. I play poker every Thursday night with the guys, and we can go six hours and not one person will say a thing. And 80 percent of the conversation that does occur is about the cards.”

Wall Street Journal Editor Robert Thomson told his staff Friday: “Jeff’s writing, for the Journal and in his books, has been a source of inspiration for many people around the world.”

His Journal column focused on life transitions.

Neal Boudette, chief of the Detroit bureau where Mr. Zaslow worked, described his colleague as a confidant and the “humblest” of people.

“The person who was least impressed with Jeff’s success was Jeff himself,” Boudette said Friday night.

Mr. Zaslow’s work cubicle was plastered with photographs of his wife and three daughters, and filled with “voluminous notes” on story ideas and columns he had written, Boudette said.

In September 2007, Mr. Zaslow, a Carnegie Mellon grad, attended the final lecture of dying Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch. Mr. Zaslow’s column about the lecture went viral, leading to the best-selling book – co-written with Pausch.

Boudette recalled congratulating Mr. Zaslow when the book first hit the best-seller list.

“ ‘I just don’t want it to be an embarrassment,’” Boudette remembered Zaslow saying at the time. “‘What if it’s on the best-seller list for a week or two weeks and then it disappears, and that means it’s a flop?’ ”

The book, about overcoming obstacles and seizing the day, stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for more than two years.

Contributing: Stefano Esposito

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