Orlando Sentinel: “Sean Holton chronicled death with a writer’s eye”

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on December 3, 2011

Sean Holton 1959-2011

The Orlando Sentinel
November 29, 2011

Sean Holton, who inspired a large following with his two-year struggle with brain cancer, died this morning at his home in Orlando. He turned 52 on Oct. 29.

Holton, who worked as a reporter and editor at the Orlando Sentinel from 1987 to 2007, wrote a blog about his disease, its treatment and his life that spoke eloquently to those who also suffered from the disease. Oncologists at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Orlando, where Holton went for treatment and surgeries, referred other patients to his blog called same time tomorrow.

With his characteristic humor, Holton subtitled his blog: “How Sean Holton Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Have Brain Cancer Instead.”

“Thousands of people were following him,” said Ann Hellmuth, a Sentinel colleague who first met Holton when they both worked for the Kansas City Star in the mid-1980s. “He was always such an original thinker, even as a young reporter.”

Born in Kansas City, Mo., Holton graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and political science from Rockhurst University. After receiving a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University, he started his career in newspapers at the Kansas City Star in 1983. At the Sentinel, Holton was a city desk reporter; investigative reporter; national correspondent; Washington, D.C., bureau chief; associate managing editor for investigations and special projects, and AME for local news.

He conceived and edited a nationally recognized, year-long series on Florida’s water crisis. He oversaw the team of reporters who worked on the Sentinel’s prize-winning series on the ballot recount following the disputed 2000 presidential election. He coordinated the paper’s coverage of the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003 and the four devastating hurricanes in 2004.

Holton approached his death much as he lived his life — with intelligence, curiosity, a writer’s eye for detail, and humor.

“He really did live life to the fullest,” said his brother Brian Holton, 53, of Philadelphia. “I think he went out without any regrets.”

Another Sentinel colleague Alex Beasley said Holton approached his disease with the same persistence and determination with which he reported a story: “He never quit, he never gave up. He never would get discouraged. It was the same thing that made him such a fabulous journalist.”

Beasley remembers the day Holton showed up at his house for a bike ride with the seat of his bicycle missing.

“I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘My seat broke.’ I said, ‘Well, you can’t ride a bike without a seat.’ He said, ‘The hell I can’t.’ He rode standing up the whole time.”

Hellmuth said Holton brought to journalism an insight and intellect that ignored the obvious and found the most revealing detail, the most interesting angle. Assigned to follow the Pope during a visit to Florida, Holton — a Catholic — wrote a story about how far does a Pope’s blessing travel: the first row, to the back of the arena, outside the arena?

“He had that incredible eye for detail and a wonderful approach to a story,” Hellmuth said.

Another former Sentinel co-worker Mike Griffin described Holton’s unique ability to see a story from all angles and perspectives.

“Some people can see the big picture. Sean could see the forest, the trees, the leaves, the squirrels and make sense of it all. That was his gift,” Griffin said.

In his time as the Sentinel’s Washington correspondent, Holton wrote the stories everybody else ignored. On the day President George H.W. Bush was to give a State of the Union speech, Holton wrote about D.C.’s two 1600 Pennsylvania Avenues: one the White House, the other a neighborhood of crack houses and poverty.

“His skill set was incredible research with poetic writing,” said Craig Crawford, who worked with Holton in the paper’s Washington bureau. “He could take a cute idea and turn it into a social essay on the times.”

Sean Holton died wearing a Kansas City Royals T-shirt from his hometown. He was a long-suffering fan of the Royals and Kansas City Chiefs. He left Missouri, but never gave up his love for a big slab of beef.

Holton was a large guy with a big head, which earned him the nickname Bucket Head. He considered it a term of endearment and sometimes referred to himself as simply “Bucket.”

Of all his achievements as a newspaperman, Holton’s proudest moment might have been the book he created from letters he found in an attic suitcase after his parents’ deaths. The letters chronicled their love affair while they were separated by World War II. Holton compiled the letters, adding historical perspective with the events that took place at the time of each letter.

He made enough copies to share with his brothers and sisters — and resisted all urgings that he find a publisher for his book so that it could reach a wider audience.

“It was such a labor of love from start to finish. It was very personal and he felt very proprietary about it,” said Brian Holton.

Holton celebrated his last birthday with his family and a few friends, Brian said. It was a special day, but every day was a special day since he was first diagnosed with the brain cancer in July 2009. Every day was a gift and he wanted to share that gift with those he loved.

“He knew that things were drawing to a close at that point,” Brian said. “There was no sadness on his part, no self-pity. He was definitely a role model for all of us.”

In one of the last entries on his Same Time Tomorrow blog Holton wrote about being able to foresee his own death.

“I am not afraid. I still refuse to be afraid. That would be a fate much worse than just curling up to die. If there is any single thing anyone has learned from following my journey on this blog for these past two years, it is that. Do not be afraid. Fear is a waste of time, and a waste of life.”

In addition to Brian, Holton is survived by his brother Timothy Holton, of St. Louis; sisters, Kathleen Kaplan, of Las Vegas, and Ellen Holton, of Los Angeles; one nephew and two nieces.

A memorial tribute will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Baldwin-Fairchild Funeral Home, Ivanhoe Chapel, at 301 N. E. Ivanhoe Blvd., Orlando.

In lieu of flowers, his family suggests donations be made to M.D. Anderson Cancer Support Community Initiative.

Sean’s Obituary (by Sean Holton)


21 Responses

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  1. CindyO said, on December 3, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Thank you for updating us on Sean’s journey. Although I didn’t meet him in person, I am thankful for the way he blessed my life. My husband was diagnosed with a glioblastoma 9 months ago, and Sean’s blog really helped me gain some perspective during a very challenging time in our lives. His words will continue to educate and strengthen many people – he left a wonderful legacy which will illuminate the difficult challenges we all face in our lives. Our thoughts and prayers will be with your family during this difficult time.

  2. Marnie Martin said, on December 3, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    I met Sean a million moons ago when he cared for the Hellmuths’ dog and I lived across the street. Then I “re-met” him, through Facebook, when he inspired me through my own cancer journey. He sent me some wonderful personal messages, cheering me on even when he was enduring his own struggle. Sean was one special and amazing human being! He lived and died with such grace, and your family should always hold that in your hearts. from Marnie Martin, Brevard, North Carolina

  3. craig crawford said, on December 3, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Cindy, Marnie — your comments really reinforce Sean’s legacy as he moves on to his next assignment. Thanks for sharing.

  4. solarcrete said, on December 3, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    I don’t have anything special to say; every wonderful thing that could be said; has been said already here already and over at Trail Mix.!

    Craig just want to stay on the Journey until the end; thanks for keeping us posted…Solar

  5. Jamie said, on December 3, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    I never met Sean face to face only heart to heart. He was such a special human being simply filled with humor and warmth. It was a privilege to know him as a presence in my life. May those joyful memories of a life shared strengthen and comfort his family now that he has taken this last journey away from all who loved him.

  6. Janice Blase said, on December 4, 2011 at 4:29 am

    I have two thoughts about Sean tonight. The first is that he, like another friend of ours who died earlier in November, was torn from a rare cloth. His grace, his kindness, his wisdom, his talent…a rare cloth, indeed. The second is simply how very much this Joan Baez quote makes me think of him…

    “You are amazing grace.
    You are a precious jewel.
    You—special, miraculous, unrepeatable, fragile, fearful, tender, lost, sparkling ruby emerald jewel rainbow splendor person.” —Joan Baez

  7. Tom H said, on December 4, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    I’m so sorry to learn of Sean’s passing, and even though I didn’t know him, I feel as if we were friends. I extend my sincere condolences to his family and friends. I’ve been reading Same Time Tomorrow for well over a year now. I hope Sean’s family keeps his articles archived on the Web as they provide me strength, insight and some laughs as I go through my own battle with incurable cancer.

  8. Becky Bultemeier said, on December 5, 2011 at 1:52 am

    This song will alway remind us of Sean.
    Pat and Becky B.

    CIRCLE GAME – Joni Mitchell

    Yesterday, a child came out to wander
    Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
    Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
    And tearful at the falling of a star

    And the seasons they go ’round and ’round
    And the painted ponies go up and down
    We’re captive on the carousel of time
    We can’t return we can only look behind
    From where we came
    And go round and round and round
    In the circle game

    Then, the child moved ten times ’round the seasons
    Skated over ten clear frozen streams
    Words like, “When you’re older”, must appease him
    And promises of someday make his dreams

    Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
    Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town
    And they tell him, “Take your time. It won’t be long now.
    ‘Til you drag your feet to slow the circles down”

    And the seasons they go ’round and ’round
    And the painted ponies go up and down
    We’re captive on the carousel of time
    We can’t return we can only look behind
    From where we came
    And go round and round and round
    In the circle game

    So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
    Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
    There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
    Before the last revolving year is through.

    And the seasons they go ’round and ’round
    And the painted ponies go up and down
    We’re captive on the carousel of time
    We can’t return, we can only look behind
    From where we came
    And go round and ’round and ’round
    In the circle game
    And go ’round and ’round and ’round in the circle game.


  9. Sallie Feavel said, on December 5, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    My grand daughter, a five year “survivor” of a glio, had a recurrence in June of this year.
    She is again fighting for the best life she can have and enjoy!

  10. claudine hellmuth said, on December 7, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    missing you Sean. xxoxox

  11. Dalia said, on December 10, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    I did not know Sean, but I had the divine pleasure of seeing how many people truly loved him tonight. With “It’s Just a Shot Away” – by the Rolling Stones playing, there was standing room only as people crowded around to view pictures of Sean and his family. Roars of laughter were heard all over the building. The energy in the building was full of love and compassion. Because of the masses of people, I was not able to tell all of his siblings this as I slid out the back door to leave for the evening, so I am hoping that they may read it here.

    It was truly my honor to be with you tonight as you celebrated Sean. This service was one of a kind, and it was beautiful. The care that was taken was impeccable. I wish you and your families Love, Light and Blessings in your many days to come.

    • Craig Crawford said, on December 11, 2011 at 11:46 am

      Dalia, You captured the spirit of that amazing evening far better than those of us who knew him. Thanks for that!

  12. anon paranoid said, on December 11, 2011 at 12:19 pm


    There I go again. Meant to leave this comment here and instead ended up putting on your last post. So let me try again and please forgive me again for my stupidity.


    Sorry I was late arriving for your memorial, but I know that you would be forgiving for my lateness. You have shown to the world that it is better to look ahead then to dwell on the past and things which can not be changed.

    You have a wonderful family and many friends who loved you. May the Lord give you the Peace and Rest you so richly deserve. Now you can write for those whom you’ve been reunited with who passed before you.

    Take care and friend and God Bless you.

  13. Laurie said, on January 23, 2012 at 1:18 am

    God bless all of you. Sean was a truly remarkable man and I’m so glad he shared his journey on his blog. My mom was diagnosed with glioblastoma in July. She was also a writer and of the last year or so, a blogger. I found Sean’s blog when I was looking for ways to support her through everything. Unfortunately her cancer moved incredibly quickly and she was in hospice before we knew it. Her sense of humor was with her until the very end and I wish that she could have blogged more to help others going through this same thing and their families. Please know that Sean’s blog has helped me through everything and I know it will help so many others who find themselves looking for support after receiving a diagnosis of brain cancer.

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