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Reporting on the suffering of children is never easy

I was in a coffee shop four days before Christmas when I pulled up an e-mail that said Jack Fried was losing his fight against cancer. Doctors gave the then 8-year-old Cedar Mill Elementary School third-grader only a few months or less to live.

Over my last two decades in journalism, I've covered numerous topics involving the loss of life - from accidents to murders - but children who die or are dying are always the toughest ones to write about.

Like many reporters, I've had to make those calls to the family or friends of a young person who has died. They are always invasive - the conversations awkward and emotionally raw. And they don't get easier.

As a journalist, you're trained to keep your distance and stay objective when it comes to people you interview. That's kind of hard to do when you see the smile on the face of a little boy with a chemo-induced bald head who is enjoying a celebratory cake.

I know of a fellow reporter who has dealt with several losses involving sick children and she always takes it personally, never treating it as simply another day at the office.

Years ago, a crusty old editor came in to talk to my college journalism class. I don't remember the exact topic of his discussion, recalling only his observation: 'Too many journalists know how to write great stories but they don't know the first thing about being decent human beings.'

But back to Jack.

The first time I met him he and his fellow second-graders at Cedar Mill Elementary School were purchasing eight wagons for children at Doernbecher Children's Hospital for young patients to carry their belongings around. Later, a photographer and I caught up with him at the hospital where he presented the wagons to the staff. Jack said little, but he had a big grin on his face and flashed a 'thumbs up' sign to the camera.

As Jack was dying, his mother, Hadley, told me that her son was an 'old soul,' someone who possessed wisdom beyond his years. Others saw it too. After all, this is the same kid who planned what his classmates would eat at his memorial party, making sure that there were 'veggie burgers for the vegetarians…and veggie hot dogs…if they make them.'

He was a mini celebrity of sorts, attracting a following wherever he went because of his low-key, matter-of-fact manner.

'He's a rock star,' Hadley once described her son.

The last time I talked with Jack was in January. He was sleeping in the Fried's living room, only his face poking out of the blanket, exposing the tussle of blond hair that had disappeared during his chemotherapy. He woke up a short time later and it was clear that he was in a lot of pain. Hadley said he didn't enjoy having people see him in that condition.

We talked about what he liked to eat and what he missed most about school. While Hadley said Jack had come to terms with his fate, I couldn't bring myself to ask him about it.

On March 17, I got the news that Jack passed away. I cried only because it's tough to be objective about death.

Ideally before it's over, everyone should have their 15 minutes of fame. It's difficult to sum up a life in 20 to 30 inches of copy but hopefully stories of a person's life serve a greater purpose than simply imparting information. They should point out several things:

That a person was here.

That they accomplished a thing or two.

And in Jack's case, that he really was a rock star.

Ray Pitz is the schools reporter for the Beaverton Valley Times. You can find Jack Fried's obituary in the April 11 Valley Times.