The Tragedy of Losing a Son Too Soon

Erwin Potts was a legendary newspaperman who survived the tragic early death of his son.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Valentine’s Day.  

Before Potts and his wife leave town, Bryan promises again to be careful. There has been a difference of opinion over leaving Bryan alone for the weekend. Potts is uneasy—this is his youngest son’s first time unsupervised, he’s never been left to himself overnight before. The kid of course thinks it’s crazy for his folks to worry. As kids of that age always do, always will. He is in high school now, in a five-alarm-fire to grow up. He promises to be responsible, to be careful. Turn off the stove, shut the refrigerator door, no running around with friends who can drive. Yes, yes, promise. . . He promises to be safe. 

Potts has given in—Potts’ vague unease versus the assurances of his son and his wife that things will be fine—and in the end he and Sylvia drive to San Francisco, maybe three hours behind the wheel when traffic is at its usual, tolerable level, which it usually isn’t. Still, only three hours away. Their youngest kid growing up. A timeless, ordinary hitch in a family’s life as the children grow up. Erwin and Sylvia Potts, better people you will never meet.  

As I remember, the reason for the trip was some high-level corporate ordeal that Erwin couldn’t get out of, although I could be wrong about the details. Most of what I know about the day comes from the book Erwin wrote after he retired, that I tried to edit. I am still nagged, by the way, by the feeling I didn’t try hard enough, but for whatever reason, the book was never published. Still that had been the intention—to help someone else who might find himself in Erwin’s situation, meaning he never intended to keep his story to himself, and however you read about what happened, none of it is a betrayal of his privacy. It is inconceivable to me, being unfaithful to Erwin. 

* *

In any case, Erwin and Sylvia have not been in their hotel room long when the phone rings.  Suitcases still on the bed, not even unpacked. Sylvia is in the shower, getting herself ready for the party that night, and Erwin Potts, the calmest human being you will ever meet, is suddenly screaming into the receiver. Not hysterical screaming, but furious. Furious at the man on the other end of the line, who is a friend from the business side of the McClatchy newspaper chain, who keeps saying that there has been an accident. Words that don’t make sense, and maybe there is a glimpse now into a side of Erwin Potts you never saw, that in the face of the greatest tragedy of his life, he tries to will what has happened out of existence. I am hard pressed to explain how this is different from simple denial, except to say that it is.  

He goes into the bathroom. He can’t see for the steam, he can’t think for the noise. Somehow in the confusion and the running water, he can’t think. He is still screaming. He screams, “(The friend from work) says Bryan’s dead.” 

Her head comes out from around the shower door. “What?” she says. “Who?” 

They drive back to Sacramento, three hours, and every mile it is all more clearly a mistake. Back at home, a stop sign where the road dead-ends. Beyond the dead end is the American River, and as their headlights cross the driveway they see someone parked there, waiting. And then the rational side of Potts resumes command and he knows. They know. The strangest possible explanation for this strangest day of their lives—there is no mistake.

* *

A car wreck, not much of one at that. Two kids in front, two or three in back. Nobody but Bryan was even hurt. And from all the fear and confusion this single fact is distilled, and a line is drawn through the lives of Erwin and Sylvia Potts, and afterwards everything is dated by Bryan’s death, defined as before or after. 

The next years are the black beyond hope—doctors, therapy, group therapy, anti-depressants—they are helpless. For a long time they can’t even help each other. And this is when I meet Potts, as cordial and honest a human as I will ever encounter, although maybe not at the very first. My history with powerful people has always been that I look better in the rearview mirror than when I was there in person. Erwin’s history with newspaper columnists is that they don’t know much about the business that pays the bills, and don’t know that they don’t know. 

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But what I am getting around to saying is that Potts hung in, through years of crushing depression, taking a major newspaper chain public—selling shares as stock—in the teeth of the beginning of the hardest times in newspaper history. Much of this was accomplished in spite of the sudden death of C. K. McClatchy, who was by a long mile the brightest light left in the McClatchy house. Whose death, by the way, left Potts with a board of directors chucked full of McClatchy relatives. Oh, the follies of sperm. 

Erwin and Sylvia sold the house on the American River, they sold the little ski cabin where the family had collected for short vacations in the winter. Trying to put themselves in places where they didn’t see Bryan everywhere they looked. 

* *

Potts retired somewhere around the turn of the century, and lived most of the time on the ocean down in Cabo San Lucas. He wrote his book that we couldn’t get published, and year by year, Valentine's Day passed a little easier than it had before. This, in fact, was why Erwin had written his book in the first place, to tell people who’d lost a child that things get better, but only a little, and only a little at a time. He filled his days with things. He read, he learned to play golf, Christmases he loaded his van with toys and spent the day in the poorest parts of town, passing them out.  

And so this Friday my own phone rang, and there had been another accident. This time down in Cabo San Lucas, a fall of some kind. The house he had there was full of stairs, but it was a strange thing. Erwin was in his early 80s or so, but still an athlete. Powerful, bowed legs like he’d been riding mules. According to the Mexican doctors, he’d been gone about three hours or so when he was found. A gracious, warm human being. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago, and as always I ended up telling him things I wouldn’t tell anybody else. 

And while we talked a story came back to me. I’d once dedicated a novel to Potts. The novel was about the newspaper business, about the importance of facts—of things, hard, real things, and the damage that can come from not getting them right. And I asked him that day if I hadn’t called him to apologize when I realized what I’d done—if I hadn’t done that, if he would ever have mentioned that I misspelled his name.