She sent a text message that afternoon. Four words were all that was needed.
|Gift of Life Organization|
"Hugh Grannum has passed."
They hit me like four sledgehammer blows to the chest.
Hugh Parker Grannum, you see, besides being an award-winning, legendary, trailblazing photojournalist at the Detroit Free Press for more than 37 years prior to his retirement in 2007, felt to me like my kindred spirit because we shared an intimate connection:
We both contracted kidney failure at about the same time, and were on waiting lists for a transplant simultaneously, albeit in different states.
Hugh, 72, was at the Free Press long before I started writing for the rival Detroit News, and he remained there long after I left. We weren't exactly what you'd call bosom buddies during those years, but we knew of each other and were cordial whenever our paths would cross. (Bitter competition between the two daily papers in those days often hampered close friendships.)
But oh, how I admired his work! Hugh's photos consistently captured the essence of humanity, grace and quiet strength. As noted in his obituary, which you can read here, he was extremely mindful to shoot his subjects with dignity, especially African Americans, knowing it may be the only time in their lives they were photographed by a professional. I have worked with a number of very fine photographers over my career, but I always wished Hugh could have embellished one of my stories with his singular magic.
Hugh Grannum just radiated cool. The late, fabled Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who generally despised anybody who even appeared to have a media connection, maintained an open-door policy with Hugh. Nattily dressed, thoroughly professional, devoted to his art, he was every inch a role model, and after his kidneys began heading south our mutual admiration deepened.
Because of the close timing of our end-stage renal diagnoses and the fact we were both creative black men who worked for Detroit newspapers, our illnesses became closely intertwined. We often were mentioned in the same sentence; the great Freep columnist Rochelle Riley wrote about our mutual transplant needs. I recall one "friendraiser" benefit in Detroit that was held on behalf of us both. Mutual friends would keep me aware of his condition, and I'm certain they did the same with Hugh.
He received his transplant first, in 2010. I sent him a congratulatory card and effusive online best wishes. When I got my Cheyenne in November 2011, I received the same in return. We began speaking on the phone semi-regularly, just checking in and offering encouragement. Then last winter, we finally coordinated my travel plans and his hectic post-retirement schedule in order to meet for dinner.
Hugh, his delightful wife Carolyn and I met at Slows, Detroit's hottest barbeque joint, on a snowy, windy night. He was wearing a jaunty winter cap (oh, he could wear some hats) and his stylish little round glasses. We talked and laughed for hours, comparing transplant waiting list stories, hospital tales, surgery sagas and medication inventories. It was a magical, cosmic kind of evening. It's not because he's gone now that I'm saying this, but it was a night I will never forget.
There was a lot more wrong with Hugh than kidney miseries. He was afflicted with leukemia and, like me, still waged a constant battle against hypertension. Yet he seemed so upbeat, so happy, so...healthy that night, so positive in looking forward to his future with Carolyn and his lovely daughter, Blake.
A lot of people say, "I can't believe he's gone," when someone close to them dies, but in this case I mean it. In a very real sense, losing Hugh is like losing a part of my body, a slice of my history. Admittedly, it's a stunning, slap-in-the-face reminder of my own fragility and mortality. Hugh was literally my brother under the skin, and we both had the scars to prove it.
I can't imagine ever forgetting you, my friend. Hugh Grannum and I will be forever joined at the renal artery. Godspeed to you, man, and deepest sympathies to your family and your many, many friends who will remember you long and fondly.
Again, for more about Hugh, here is the obituary from his newspaper home, the Detroit Free Press.