A great friend, Craig Stanke, is gone too soon

It was going to be a day like every other.

Wake up, commit to starting the diet tomorrow, laugh off the Kings’ success because if I didn’t care about them yesterday why would I today, and eat a big dinner because the diet doesn’t start until tomorrow.

And it was going so well. Great breakfast, and I had two days of hockey coverage in the newspaper to ridicule. How do you not make fun of a newspaper story with the headline, “Slovenians keep track of Kopitar”?

Better them than us, I say. And who is this Kopitar?

But then I get one of those phone calls. Craig Stanke, 56, a friend, the best one anyone could possibly have, didn’t wake up.

And I know what some of you are thinking: “Who is this Stanke?”

Glad you asked.

He was a genius. A newspaper genius and there aren’t many of those anymore — newspapers or newspaper geniuses.

Craig never met a stranger, as folks like to say. He was the guy most likely to be playing a banjo at a party. He ran cross-country in high school because someone had to.

I hired him 35 years ago this week out of the University of Wisconsin. How cool is it to be able to hire someone who will become your best friend?

Almost immediately he won a writing award, and to no surprise I ended up working for him at The Times’ San Diego and Orange County editions.

Craig could have been a terrific writer, but he touched so many more by becoming an outstanding teacher as a newspaper editor.

He cared so much for the written word and what a creative writer could do with them, it was inspirational. I nearly took a job to work for him at, and aren’t you hockey fans disappointed he wasn’t as persuasive as he was inspirational?

There was a fine whine to Craig’s voice as he coaxed the best out of editors and writers alike. You would have loved the guy because he wanted only entertaining stories in the newspaper. That would have almost certainly eliminated any kind of Olympics story in the paper until the Games were actually played.

Now you probably have as much interest in Stanke as I do Kopitar. But you have a best friend or several who qualify, so you can understand how it’s not fair he went away with the five bucks he won the last time we played golf.

And with no chance now to win it back, you’d probably want to let him know about it.

Craig had been working in Florida, but he was back in Orange County a few weeks ago to meet with friends. He had an endless supply of those.

Craig was talking to me about “social media,” and as social as he is, I wondered if it had been invented with just him in mind. He was a tweeter or twit or whatever they call those people who once owned pet rocks.

He was so bubbly, and it’s hard to imagine a day when he was not. He was feeling young, losing a lot of weight, and I sure do wish I could tease my good buddy about all the good it’s going to do him now.

Anything to get a laugh out of him, because when he found something funny, “Sweet Jesus,” as he would proclaim, the whole room would know it.

Now, beyond family, how many really good friends does a person make in a lifetime? Can you really afford to lose one, and without any hint they aren’t going to be here anymore?

Craig ran a half marathon on his visit here, and a 5K on Monday. He finished second to some guy, and if only that guy could have let him pass with the finish line so close.

When Craig was here, he talked about his two kids and how proud he was of them. Too bad they weren’t here to hear their father gush.

Maybe you didn’t know Craig, but you certainly can relate. A proud father really doesn’t need much more in his life.

In the background there was a hockey game on TV, and Craig wanted to know if I would be covering the Kings if they advanced.

I told him Plaschke would be covering the finals if the Kings got that far and he was probably out there right now looking for a one-armed, blind goalie to write about.

Craig let the whole room have it again, but now I can’t believe he didn’t wait around to see if I was right.

We got back to his children. Funny how he managed to always maneuver the conversation in their direction. He wouldn’t shut up, and how do you know you’re having the last conversation you’re ever going to have with a great friend?

I was in a rush to get home. I was tired, just returning from Memphis and looking to crawl under the covers so no one might find me and send me back.

I recall telling the wife when I got home that something was just not right with Craig. But I never gave it another thought.

No reason to do so. After all today was going to be like every other day except for some hockey drivel in the newspaper.

And I thought it couldn’t get any worse than that.