Remembering James Lebowitz – For all of us, there’s a time to give and a time to receive

For all of us, there's a time to give and a time to receive

Family and friends gather to give James's ashes to the sea. La Jolla, California, February 23, 2015. Photo by Aaron Schmidt.

Family and friends gather to give James’s ashes to the sea. La Jolla, California, February 23, 2015. Photo by Aaron Schmidt.

By Jeff Moag

If you spend enough time chasing fish in little plastic boats, you'll realize it's not just fish that you're after. Nobody knows that better than Paul Lebowitz, the founding editor of this magazine. Paul has a nose for fishing stories that are about more than fishing. As a behind-the-scenes editor at Kayak Fish, I had a ringside seat as Paul searched out those stories that matter the most, and found a way to share them with great impact and respect.

I'll never forget opening my email one morning to read about a soldier who had been severely wounded in Iraq. Kayak fishing was the only thing holding together that soldier's life, and his family. The soldier's wife had written the story. It was full of raw emotion—a tough thing to read. But by the time I'd finished it and blinked back the tears, I had a deeper understanding of the sacrifices our military members have made on our behalf. I didn't just know that veterans are having a tough time coming home. When I'd finished that story, I felt it.

Paul worked with the soldier's wife as she crafted that story, draft after draft. Himself a veteran of the first Iraq War, Paul wanted nothing more than to help her get that story right. He knew that it was bigger than kayak fishing.

Joel "Mooch" Lotilla's fight with cancer was bigger than fishing, too. Paul was one of many kayak anglers who supported Mooch in any small way they could. When there was nothing left to do but say goodbye, Paul paddled out with the NorCal Kayak Anglers to give Mooch's ashes back to the sea. He wrote about it in the magazine, somehow managing to turn a thing as ugly as cancer into something beautiful. He found that beauty in the way the kayak fishing community rallied around Mooch in his time of need.

A lot of editors wouldn't have run Mooch's story, or that piece about a wounded soldier rebuilding his life and marriage. But under Paul's leadership, every issue of Kayak Fish has featured stories about life's struggles and joys, seen through the lens of fishing. Tales about fathers and sons always seemed to make the cut at Kayak Fish, and Paul's careful editing never failed to make them just a little bit better, a little more heartfelt.

James Lebowitz, fishing with his dad circa 2005. Courtesy the Lebowitz family.

James Lebowitz, fishing with his dad circa 2007. Courtesy the Lebowitz family.

I think Paul loved those stories so much because he loved being a dad. That was clear to anyone who heard Paul talk about his two kids, and his son James in particular. James had a type of autism known as Asperger's syndrome. He was a smart kid who learned to read before kindergarten, but the Asperger's made it hard for him to interact with others and perform the tasks most folks take for granted. The experts said James would never be able to live independently.

Paul and his wife Susan decided they'd do everything in their power to prove those experts wrong.

Susan had the better-paying job. She would rather have stayed home with James, but it just made sense that Paul left his job to care for James full-time. There's nothing else in nature like the bond between a child with special needs and a parent that won't quit on him. Paul became James's champion and his best friend. He went to war with school administrators to get James the help he needed. Most of all, he showered that kid with love. Against the odds, it worked. Last September, James started his freshman year at Cal Poly Pomona—where he lived independently, made friends, and was sweet on a certain young lady.

In a roundabout way, James is the reason you're holding this magazine now. Paul bought his first kayak at a sportsman's show after young James took an interest. That bit of serendipity launched Paul's career as the most respected and influential kayak fishing journalist in the sport's brief history. Paul wrote about James and that first kayak in the foreword of a recent issue. The story ran with a photo of James holding a fish that only an 8-year-old, or his father, could be proud of. The headline read, "Life Takes Unexpected, Wonderful Turns."

Flowers and a lei mark "James's Spot" at La Jolla.

Flowers and a lei mark “James’s Spot” at La Jolla.

Unexpected: At 2 o'clock in the morning of January 13, a blood vessel in James's brain burst. In the anguished hours that followed, as their son lay comatose and doctors said there was no hope of recovery, Paul and Susan arranged to donate James's organs so that others might live. Despite paralyzing grief, Paul reached out on Facebook, asking that anyone who knew a person in need of an organ transplant contact him. In the midst of this unspeakable tragedy the kayak fishing community responded with a flood of support. Several names surfaced. There was the Army buddy who had served with Paul in Desert Storm. No match. Then, a fishing buddy named Tommy Gomes came forward with a name.

Tommy had struggled with addiction, and the man who got him back on track—the man he credits with saving his life—is George Martinez. Martinez needed a kidney.

He was a match, and became one of six people to receive an organ from James. On January 16, three days to the hour after James suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in his Cal Poly dorm, Paul posted to Facebook: "Our James is giving up his lungs, heart, liver, kidneys and pancreas so others may live. We escorted him to the OR at 2:15 a.m. then kissed him goodbye one last time. His heart was matched with an 18-year-old—the same age as our dear son."

When Paul announced plans for a remembrance and paddle out in San Diego, kayak anglers in Florida and Hawaii organized their own local gatherings to honor James. The Hawaiians sent leis.

The generosity didn't stop there. Within hours of James's passing, Paul and Susan decided that they would do whatever it takes to endow a scholarship at Cal Poly, so that James's name can live on in the campus community he loved, and that loved him back. Anglers from all over the country responded with gifts of a few dollars here, a few dollars there. The NorCal Kayak Anglers—Mooch's crew—sent $1,000. Companies chipped in as well. Jackson Kayak is auctioning a custom Kraken fishing kayak. Native Watercraft donated a Redfish 12 and Wilderness Systems an ATAK. Both kayaks are being raffled as part of the James Lebowitz Memorial Sticker and Kayak Raffle, organized by Yak Gear and YakAttack. All proceeds go toward James's scholarship. None of this was planned, and Paul never asked. It was just folks coming together to help a friend.

Paul, for once, is at a loss for words. "I've never seen anything like this, and I've reported on and participated in plenty of generous, heartwarming community efforts in the world of kayak fishing," he says.

Several of our regular contributors dropped everything to get this issue to the printer on time, and to make sure it lives up to the high standards that have been a hallmark of Paul's leadership. Jerry McBride stepped into the breach, bringing his skill as an editor and deep knowledge of kayak fishing. This issue is Paul's baby; Jerry and the rest of us just pushed it over the top. The next Kayak Fish will be all Jerry's.

Paul is stepping down as editor of the magazine. He'll still write for the magazine from time to time, and we'll do our best to live up to the standards he set. But Paul has a new calling. He's going to make that scholarship happen, and use his gift as a writer to become a voice in the autism community and for organ donation.

He's going to give back.

This story was first published in the Spring, 2015 issue of Kayak Fish magazine, under the title “A Time to Give, A Time to Receive.”

4 James: The making of the James Lebowitz signature Kraken, in Cal Poly colors.