Jack Fischer, who spent 20 years at the Mercury News as a local news reporter, investigative writer and visual arts critic, died Friday at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View after a two-year fight with lung cancer.
A voracious reader, a lover of politics and Steely Dan, a family man who joined a college class on feminism because he had his eye on the woman who later became his wife, Fischer from 1986 through 2006 wrote thousands of news stories for the Mercury News. His topics ranged from an award-winning 1991 series on guard brutality against inmates at the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections to feature stories on the reopening of San Francisco's de Young Museum and downtown San Jose's Green Rice Art Gallery, a small space exhibiting contemporary art by local Vietnamese artists.
"I've worked with several art critics, including some fairly respected hotshots at the L.A. Times," said Tony Lioce, a former Mercury News assistant features editor who worked closely with Fischer, "and, of them all, none would get as excited, touched, moved or thrilled as Jack, whenever he'd find something worthy in a gallery or museum. He saw the task of conveying that pure joy as a sacred trust."
A man with a big heart and a rapier wit, whose emails often would leave colleagues in stitches, Fischer, who recently turned 59, was born in Hoboken, N.J., and raised by his mother Tilba Fischer, a high school French teacher. It was at Park College in Parkville, Missouri, that he joined that feminism class and met wife-to-be Joycellen Floyd, now a family medicine physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
"He had beautiful hair and a long pony tail," she remembered, "and we would take long walks along the river, and he would talk about all these philosophers. I pretended to be interested in philosophy, but mostly I was interested in Jack."
She and Fischer maintained a long distance romance, as he wound up transferring to the University of Kansas, graduating with a journalism degree in 1976. His first newspaper job was at the Paterson (N.J.) News, where he was fired for trying to organize a union. He moved to the States News Service in Washington, D.C., then the Dallas (Texas) Times Herald, before being hired by the Mercury News in 1986.
He and Floyd married that year and had three children: Molly, 26, a writer in New York; John, 23, a student at Sonoma State University; and Joey, 17, a junior at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose. Fischer, raised by an Italian mother who loved to cook, prepared most of the family's meals: "I remember my high school best friend coming over and being sort of shocked and amazed," daughter Molly said, "when my father special-ordered goose fat in order to make this bistro chicken we found in a Dean & DeLuca cookbook."
She credits him with teaching her that there's "excitement in life, when you keep learning all the time." Fischer carried that maxim into his final job, from 2006 until this week, as communications officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park.
Writing about grant recipients in the arts, education and other fields, Fischer "disarmed people," said his boss, Eric Brown. "He used to say that his job was to play the fool, to ask the stupid questions that everybody was afraid to ask, like, 'What is it that you do, anyway?' Or, 'Why does that matter?' The simple things that will reveal the most interesting, useful answers."
When Fischer was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in 2011, he didn't ask, "Why me?"
"He was a mensch," said Scott Willis, former Mercury News editorial cartoonist and Fischer's best friend. "Anyone who had Jack as a friend felt very lucky."
Larry Slonaker, a former Mercury News reporter and also a close friend, recently received this email from Fischer, who was in the midst of yet another round of radiation: "We'll see how it goes. Meantime, though, I've figured out that if I strap slabs of bacon over my ears, I can have breakfast half-done before I leave the clinic."
"He was just good," said Floyd, his wife, recalling Fischer's ambulance ride the other night from the Palo Alto Medical Clinic to the hospital in Mountain View. "He was on oxygen, and he was so uncomfortable, and they were giving him morphine, trying to settle him down. And the first thing he said was, 'I forgot to thank everybody.'"
Funeral arrangements were not available at press time.