When the first hint of something wrong came Tuesday morning, the first response was total disbelief. Surely, this terrible rumor was a mistake. It had to be somebody else.
Not Ted Eastburn. No way.
But the truth slowly came out, and by afternoon the tragic story was undeniably clear. One of Colorado Springs' most influential and admired figures, a renowned cardiologist still in his prime at 56, was gone. For reasons unknown, this easygoing, principled and compassionate man who had saved so many lives couldn't save his own.
Nobody understands, but for many who knew Ted, it was therapeutic to talk about what he meant to them — and to Colorado Springs.
First, though, let's revisit a quote from former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, also a cardiologist and Eastburn's longtime friend from their four years together creating a heart transplant center at Vanderbilt University. In a March 2003 interview with the Independent, Frist offered this:
"I'm probably the only person in the world who has sat with him night after night from midnight until 5 in the morning at the bedside of patients, watching him hold the hand of a 16-year-old boy, scared to death because I was going to cut the fellow's heart out the next day and put a new one in, and to have Ted sit there next to his bed and hold his hand the whole night, and talk about the great life that he is going to be able to live once he goes through this operation..."
That was the Ted Eastburn so many friends and patients knew. That was also the man who might have been elected mayor of Colorado Springs in 2003, if not for a strong position he took early that year. Fellow City Councilor Richard Skorman tells it best:
"Ted was really the key vote on the plus-one domestic partner benefits issue for city employees. He felt strongly that it was the right thing to do, so he connected with Ted Haggard and others in the faith community, because he wanted to tell people why he was doing this.
"Later, he thought maybe that's why he wasn't elected, because he was for it [plus-one] and Lionel Rivera was against it. But he always told me that he would have made the same decision, no matter what. Ted would always do what he thought was right."
It didn't stop there. Eastburn championed such causes as purchasing Red Rock Canyon, adding bicycle lanes in the city, caring for the homeless and installing defibrillators inside city buildings as well as the airport.
"He pushed for all those things while others were focusing on bridges, roads, fences and yards," Skorman says. "And if he'd been elected mayor, he wanted Colorado Springs to self-insure and deliver public health to everyone, using the churches as well. He felt too many people were being left out of health care. That was going to be his legacy."
And as several friends described, Eastburn was beginning to re-engage politically. He was endorsing some candidates and was intrigued by the idea of a possible strong-mayor government, as well as whether the city should sell Memorial Hospital. But now that influence and wisdom are gone.
We could go on, because Eastburn touched so many lives. But it seems best to go to someone who knew him even longer, back to 1993 when he supported his first wife, Kathryn, in her co-founding the Independent with John Weiss. Cara DeGette came aboard and eventually got to know Ted as a friend and a journalist. She was the one who did that interview with Bill Frist in 2003. Here are her thoughts, expanded from the print version of this column:
"One story, which we condensed during that Bill Frist interview while Ted was running for mayor, put the way that Ted thought into perspective. It also reminded me how extraordinary people like Ted and Bill Frist — these guys created the heart transplant center at Vanderbilt University, for God's sake — come to commit to doing what they do in the course of being actual normal human beings.
"The story Ted had shared, was about being inspired to run for office by his old friend Frist when the two of them were chatting in a middle-of-the-night powwow in Frist's kitchen a decade or so ago. Eastburn, too, was interested in improving the human condition in a new way, beyond the scope of his expertise as a brilliant cardiologist. When Frist filled out the story, it reminded me just what smart, committed, engaged people can do to improve the worlds around them.
"Ted was committed to the disciplines of heart science and public service and contributed to both with passion, clarity, and great style. This is how Frist described what Ted undoubtedly would have described as a late-night Come-to-Jesus:
'Ted and I have talked about public service and his participation at length and personally, because it's a huge major decision for him, as it was for me. I worked with Ted when he was doing transplant cardiology, which is dealing with life-or-death decisions on a daily basis. To do both well requires compassion. Both require careful listening; both require venturing into the unknown; both require accountability; both require boldness and courage; and both require a deep sense of humility that our own lives are governed not by coincidence but by our past experiences, and to some extent by providence.'"
Let's finish with a more personal, eloquent view from DeGette, also on behalf of those of us who knew and respected Eastburn from a media perspective:
"To a reporter and as an editor, he seemed almost too good to be true: Selfless; interested in the machinations of public policy far beyond what really is normal, yet still managing to be incredibly engaging and interesting; with a biography that made you wonder why this guy was even in Colorado Springs. And then the more you talked to him, the more you knew him, the more you realized that this was no act.
"He was as real as it gets."