Drew Silvern, in memoriam

1960-1997 Reporter courageously chronicled his cancer battle

UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

June 12, 1997

 

Reporter Drew Silvern, whose poignant articles on his three-year struggle with brain cancer took San Diego Union-Tribune readers through an ordeal of anguish and hope, has died. He was 37.

Drew died yesterday in his Point Loma area home with his mother, brother and girlfriend at his side.

“When I began this series last year, I wrote that I didn’t know whether I was living or dying,” he told readers March 20. “Now I think I’m dying.”

Drew’s award-winning “Living With Cancer” series chronicled the challenges of coping with the disease from the jarring diagnosis in March 1994.

Late last week, his vision gone and his hearing impaired, he finished dictating his last story, which is scheduled for publication Monday in the Union-Tribune’s Currents&Arts section.

“He felt that when he finished his article, he might let go,” said Peggy Breslin, Drew’s home care nurse with UCSD Medical Center. “Doing his articles and his love for writing was one of the things that kept him going.

“When he could sit at his computer to write, it brought a sparkle to his eyes.”

Helen K. Copley, publisher of the Union-Tribune, said, “I am greatly saddened to learn that Drew’s long struggle is over. He was a remarkable young man who made a considerable contribution to this community. I know he will be missed by many of us.”

Said Union-Tribune Editor Karin Winner: “Drew was one of those rare individuals who saw life through a journalist’s prism, always looking for ways to explain what it all means and hoping that in his own way he could make a difference.

“Through his brave, candid chronicle of his battle against cancer, he has left an indelible imprint on our readers and all of us who were fortunate enough to know him. He will always be one of my heroes.”

Drew’s series, begun in April 1996, spawned a stream of supportive letters from Union-Tribune readers.

Drew's friend Michael Smolens accompanied Beasley to Drew's memorial service in late June 1997.
Drew's friend Michael Smolens accompanied Beasley to Drew's memorial service in late June 1997.

One of those readers, Mary Rudiger of Poway, characterized Drew’s battle as heroic, noting that “he has faced his fears with courage, suffered indignities with dignity and shared the depth of so many of his emotions with gut-wrenching honesty.”

Wrote Vicki Lowe of San Diego: “The articles Mr. Drew Silvern has shared with us, from the schoolchildren to his own dying, have become a part of my life, an indelible part of who I am.”

Drew first wrote of his illness in September 1995, the last in a series of Union-Tribune stories detailing his nine months with a class of first-graders at Canyon View Elementary School in Rancho Penasquitos.

As a reporter assigned to the education beat, he had written the articles and befriended the students while undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

When he revealed his illness to the pupils, they were fascinated.

“It was as if I had told them I had webbed feet and lived in a cave,” he wrote.

Jill Roberts, the teacher whose classroom Drew visited, said, “The kids grew very fond of him in a short time.

“They wanted to sit next to him at lunch as early as the second day and hold his hand. He earned their friendship, trust and respect.”

The spring after he left Canyon View, as he began his introspective stories on living with cancer, he vented his uncertainty:

“Will things get worse? Will they get better? Can I stay hopeful, or will I fall down a slippery slope of terror and slog about, worrying that I might die young?”

He underwent eight hours of surgery after his diagnosis. Weeks of radiation followed, along with six months of chemotherapy.

“I was on my way to a total recovery. Or so I thought,” he wrote.

He suffered a setback in December 1995 and underwent a second surgery in April of last year. When a tumor was shown to be growing again, he began a downhill slide, his anguish reflected in the disarming candor of his words.

“I feel as if I have ‘Death Sentence’ stenciled all over me,” he wrote in March. “I just know that I seem to be losing my ability to live and am deteriorating rapidly.”

In May 1996, Drew noted in his writing that the disease had enabled him to break through self-imposed communication barriers.

“When you feel as though the worst thing that can happen to you is happening, it becomes time to give as much as possible to the people around you, and to accept, even demand, as much as they’re willing to offer to you in return.”

Last spring, fifth- and sixth-graders at Logan School in Logan Heights, who had corresponded with Drew, invited him to a classroom talent show.

It turned out to be “Drew Silvern Appreciation Day,” with a luncheon organized by parents.

Students Drew wrote about in his "Life in the First Grade" series were among those who gave tributes to Drew at his service.
Students Drew wrote about in his "Life in the First Grade" series were among those who gave tributes to Drew at his service.

Drew’s series was recognized last October by the San Diego Press Club, which presented him the Cabrillo Award for special achievement in journalism. He also was honored for journalistic excellence in September at an event recognizing Union-Tribune Publishing Co. employees who were nominated by their peers for exemplary work.

His series on the first-graders, “Life in the First Grade,” was awarded a first place among features in June 1996 by the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

That series, in which Drew reflected on the childrens’ progress over the course of the school year beginning in the fall of 1994, also earned him a second place from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The award was presented in the feature category of the association’s annual Better Newspapers contest last July.

Drew’s struggles deeply touched his colleagues at the Union-Tribune, who brought him meals and videos, bought him a walker and helped care for his Labrador retriever, Beasley.

“Drew embodied everything that is good and true about journalism,” said fellow reporter Uri Berliner. “He was curious, compassionate and a fiercely committed writer. All of this was reflected in his work. He was, and will continue to be, an inspiration to this newsroom.”

Said Sharon Jones, like Silvern a Union-Tribune education writer:

“I admired him tremendously as a journalist and grew to love him as a friend. For years, we shared a work space. I will greatly miss him — his sense of humor, his wisdom, his appreciation of life. My life is richer for having known him.”

Before his condition worsened, Drew’s morning walks along Sunset Cliffs with Beasley were a therapeutic ritual.

“Often,” he wrote a year ago, “I feel an indescribable joy that I’m able to do this. It’s a cancer dividend, and I always offer a prayer of thanksgiving at the midpoint.”

A San Diegan since joining The San Diego Union in 1990, Drew was born in Los Angeles and graduated from Grant High School in Van Nuys.

He received a bachelor’s degree in American studies in 1982 from Stanford University, where he was a varsity oarsman.

For the next two years, he served as a research assistant at the UCLA School of Medicine, managing a laboratory that investigated the neurophysiology of epilepsy.

Intrigued by the promise of a career in medicine, Drew enrolled in 1985 in the University of Vermont School of Medicine. After a year of study, he withdrew to pursue a career in writing.

“I think he made the right decision,” said John Gilmore, who edited Drew’s education stories at the Union-Tribune. “His gift of writing touched so many people.

“Drew reported with depth and sophistication. But most of all, he was a special friend, and I feel privileged and blessed to have worked with him, even for such a short time.”

Drew graduated in 1986 from Colorado Outward Bound School and contributed that year to various publications, including the current-affairs monthly Fast Times and the recreationally oriented City Sports.

In the weeks after Drew's death, the Union-Tribune received morew that 800 cards and letters, faxes and email messages from readers telling of the impact of Drew's life - and death - on their lives.
In the weeks after Drew's death, the Union-Tribune received morew that 800 cards and letters, faxes and email messages from readers telling of the impact of Drew's life - and death - on their lives.

Before joining The Union in 1990, Drew worked for the Pasadena Star-News, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Los Angeles Times, where he was an intern in the Glendale bureau.

Drew earned a master’s degree in print journalism in 1990 from the University of Southern California, where he was the founding editor of Network, a newsletter of the USC Graduate Journalism Students Association.

A Drew Silvern Scholarship has been established to enable a junior or senior student at his Stanford alma mater to spend a paid summer in the Union-Tribune newsroom.

Survivors include his mother, Lila Silvern of Los Angeles; his father, Rudy Silvern of Laguna Niguel, and his brother, Eric Silvern of San Diego.

Readers can access Drew Silvern’s “Living with Cancer” series as well as other samples of his work on SignOn San Diego, the Union-Tribune’s Internet site, at www.uniontrib.com.

 

Reproduced with permission from the San Diego Union-Tribune.