Someone asked me how old Darrell Preston was when he died earlier this week. Even though I’d known him for almost 30 years, I realized I didn’t know his age. So I did what Darrell would have done: I pulled his driver’s license records. He was 55.
I think he would have liked that his obituary required a records search. Had I ever asked him his age? If so, he probably said something like “Oh, I’m sure you have ways of finding that out,” with a sly smile that grew from the corner of his mouth. He loved to dig, and it didn’t matter if it was for a story or just idle curiosity. You knew he considered you a friend if he pulled your property tax records.
On my first day at the Dallas Business Journal in 1989, he took me in his old red Jeep C-J to lunch at Chip’s, a greasy burger joint off Central Expressway. Most of the meal was consumed with awkward silence. Darrell was comfortable with silence in a way that few people are. He tended not to notice because his mind was always occupied, but not always with the present conversation.
He asked me what kind of music I liked. I shrugged. The Travelling Wilburys weren’t bad. He nodded, but didn’t say anything. “What about you?” I asked. “Well,” he said, and stared into the distance for a while. I wasn’t yet familiar with his habit of thinking about what he was about to say after he’d started to say it. “My tastes are a little more esoteric.” He didn’t elaborate.
Years later, laughing about the awkwardness of that first meeting, he told me he had been trying to keep me off guard to see how I handled myself.
I soon realized that in the DBJ newsroom Darrell, his desk piled high with files and notes on various investigations, was the guy to beat. He did the stories everyone talked about, stories that he spent months poking around in his spare time. He did the kinds of stories that I wanted to do.
For the next two years, we paced each other, each trying to do bigger, better stories. In the process, friendly competition grew into mutual respect. Then, one day, he paid me the ultimate compliment: he shared a source.
Our deadlines were on Thursdays, and on Fridays, Darrell was usually out of the office, working sources and getting the jump on the next week. The rest of us joked that he was really getting an early start on the weekend, because he often said “I have an interview in far north Dallas, and I’ll probably just go home after that.” Years later, if the weather was particularly nice, I might say to him, “It’s a good day for an interview in far north Dallas.”
Before headsets and cell phones, most reporters cradled the telephone receiver on their shoulder and took notes. Darrell reached over his head with his left hand, holding the receiver to his right ear from the top, and took notes on paper with this right hand. He looked like a contortionist, but he found it oddly relaxing. (Perhaps this explains his later love for yoga.)
When I interviewed for a job at the Dallas Times Herald, Darrell knew before I made it back to the office. As I walked toward my desk, he was holding the Herald in front of his face like Ward Cleaver. After I sat down, he folded it and slapped it on his desk in feigned disgust. “Oh my God. What a piece of shit,” he muttered under his breath. Then as he turned toward his computer he added, “who would ever want to work for that rag?”
I tried not to react, but he didn’t need my confirmation. He’d already nailed the story, and as always, his sources were impeccable. To this day, I don’t know how he found out. I wasn’t even offered the job until the following week.
Darrell went on to run the southwest bureau of the Bond Buyer, breaking news about the arcane world of municipal finance. Technically, he was a boss, but really, he was a coach to younger reporters. He always led by example, and he was at his best when he was digging in the places no one else bothered to look — zagging while everyone else zigged.
By then, I was running the Dallas bureau of Bloomberg, and when Bloomberg wanted to expand its muni coverage in Texas, I knew there was only one man for the job. He spent the next 16 years digging around obscure corners of the financial markets – muni bonds, insurance, pensions – making them more transparent. He broke a lot of news and won national awards that brought long overdue attention for his work.
I left Bloomberg (managing, with great effort, to keep Darrell from finding out first) and moved to Houston, but we got together whenever I went back to Dallas.
A few years ago, I had a book signing at a new store on the northern edge of the Metroplex. No one showed up – except Darrell. He’d driven almost an hour to get there. Let’s go get a drink, he suggested, then spent the next hour pointing out that the book store was too new, the location was bad, the store hadn’t promoted the signing – anything he could think of to make me feel better.
The last time I saw him, he took me to a barbecue place where they served big slabs of meat on butcher paper. We reminisced about the days when we would head to lunch early, to the original Sonny Bryan’s on Inwood, and eat barbecue sitting on tree stumps in the parking lot.
We shared stories of work, but we also talked, as we increasingly did, of family. We had daughters about the same age, and Darrell loved being a father even more than he loved chasing down a good story.
I knew him best as a reporter, but Darrell’s life was not consumed by work. He had a wide range of interests, a broad circle of friends, and countless adventures. His life was too short, but it was well lived.
This past week, I have tried to imagine what my career would have been like without him. Less fun, certainly, but also less successful, because he was the kind of colleague who made you want to try harder, to push yourself a little more.
Perhaps it’s a cliché to say Darrell was a reporter’s reporter, but he truly was. I think of him shuffling into the office, his arms filled with files and notepads. His desktop never knew sunlight. I think of it now, still piled high, I’m told, with the detritus of unfinished investigations, unwritten stories and leads waiting to be chased. With Darrell’s death, a bright light of journalism has been extinguished far too soon. I prefer to believe he has left for one final interview in far north Dallas.