Journalist Michael Feeney: "If you face adversity, find a way to get through it. If you fail, get up."

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CNN editor pays tribute to journalist Michael Feeney, who died January 31 at age 32

Feeney was set to begin his dream job as an entertainment writer for CNN Digital

Editor’s Note: Mira Lowe is a senior editor for Features at CNN Digital. She oversaw the hiring of Michael J. Feeney, who had been due to start work at CNN in January.

CNN  — 

Michael J. Feeney was someone who walked the talk.

In his 2014 convocation keynote at his alma mater, Delaware State University, he told graduates to “figure out your goals and do whatever you have to do to achieve them. If you face adversity, find a way to get through it. If you fail, get up. If you find success, keep it going.”

That is what Feeney did in his life and in his career. A respected and rising star in journalism, his imprint on the profession and on the communities he covered belied his age.

Feeney, 32, died January 31 of complications from a staph infection in his kidneys. Before he was hospitalized, he was preparing to leave the New York area to start what he called his dream job as an entertainment and pop culture reporter at CNN Digital in Atlanta.

News of his death in Teaneck, New Jersey, sent shock waves through media and public circles. I and the rest of his would-be future newsroom colleagues at CNN have been stunned and deeply saddened by the loss of someone we were just getting to know. Although he never made it to Atlanta to start work here, we feel his absence.

Hundreds of mourners filled the sanctuary of the historic First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem on Monday to pay tribute. It was the first of two memorial services in Feeney’s honor. A letter from President Barack Obama expressing his condolences was read during the ceremony.

The second service was held at the Community Baptist Church in Englewood, New Jersey, on Tuesday and also was streamed online.

Feeney managed to squeeze a lot into his 32 years. Determined and driven, he pursued a career as a print journalist with a vengeance after a high school English teacher told him he was a good writer and encouraged him to write for the school newspaper. He continued his studies at Delaware State, where he graduated with a B.A. in mass communications.

Soon thereafter, he started as a writer at the Associated Press in Detroit. He moved on to become a staff writer at the Record in northern New Jersey, covering municipal government and police, and then the New York Daily News, reporting on breaking news and local neighborhoods. He was a frequent contributor to, and Ebony magazine.

I came to know Michael through NABJ (the National Association of Black Journalists), which awarded him the Emerging Journalist of the Year Award in 2010. A beloved figure in the organization, he started serving as a student chapter leader in Delaware and eventually became president of the New York chapter. Many of us saw him ascending to be national president one day.

Over time, I watched as he reported on some of the region’s biggest news stories, including the Sandy Hook school shootings and Superstorm Sandy. He also wrote with compassion about the often-overlooked communities of upper Manhattan: Harlem, East Harlem, Inwood and Washington Heights.

While covering his news beat, he somehow also found time to contribute to the Daily News’ entertainment pages by interviewing such musicians as Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z and Drake.

Feeney’s versatility as a reporter and writer – he wrote equally forcefully about the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore and the rise of hip-hop artist Fetty Wap – made him an attractive candidate for any news outlet, including CNN.

He was the epitome of a modern, multimedia professional who could report accurately, write gracefully, shoot images and produce audio and video. Personable and brimming with positive energy, Michael was going to be a great addition to our digital team.

CNN recruiter Fabienne Lauture Gordon recalls that when Michael spoke to her about a story he was pursuing, “he smiled and rocked with a palpable energy, fueled with a passion to get and tell the story.”

Michael was remembered at both memorial services as someone who spent his time thinking of others. Friends and family recalled his impromptu dance moves, his love of baseball and the New York Yankees and his enjoyment of New Orleans music. Evoking the jazz funeral tradition that pays homage to a life well lived, a New Orleans jazz band did a slow yet joyous march down the aisle of the church in Englewood. They exited playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Speaker after speaker at the memorial ceremonies noted that Feeney had an irresistible smile that would light up a room. You couldn’t help but smile when he smiled at you, whether you knew him or not. He also had a generous spirit that touched the hearts of many and was committed to helping as many people as he could, especially young journalists, along the way. Several of them showed up at the services to pay their respect.

“Don’t give up,” he’d encourage them, despite warnings from people who said there was no future in journalism. “If you’re chasing your dream, keep working hard. It will pay off. I’m proof.”

In our talks over the past several weeks, Michael said he was “so excited” to be moving to Atlanta to start the next chapter of his life. He told our recruiter that he wanted to make his mother proud. I’m sure he did.

Being a full-time entertainment reporter was something he really wanted to do. He also said he aspired to be an editor someday. He wanted to be a decision-maker in a newsroom, to shape coverage, groom talent and champion diversity.

He was eager to work with, and learn from, our experienced team of editors and writers at CNN. We were looking forward to working with and learning from him, too.