Jim Mateja, one of the nation's most trusted auto writers and a fixture at the Chicago Tribune for four decades, had that tough-as-nails Chicago persona. Mateja, who died last week at age 71 after a battle with cancer, turned a deaf ear to the musings of automaker marketing departments and PR spin-meisters. The only spin he was interested in was where the tire met the road.
I met Mateja in the winter of 1990 at the Detroit auto show. We were both employees of the Tribune Co., which owned the Tribune as well as my paper, the Orlando Sentinel, where I was the auto writer. He was well into his career; I was just starting mine. We would review the same cars and often have completely different impressions.
I came to realize that mostly because of geography, Mateja could do the more thorough job in a car review. He had snow; all I had was the occasional hard rain. Each year in Detroit, I would see Mateja at the car show; sometimes we'd walk the floor, comparing notes on cars, companies and executives. I was in awe of him.
Every time I spoke with Mateja, I learned something. And I am not the only one. Because Mateja told the truth, often brutally, car companies listened, and he helped them make better vehicles. When the news broke of his death, Mark Reuss, General Motors' product development chief, posted this on Facebook: "So very, very sad. I loved and went to the Chicago [show] to see him and learn a lot. Prayers are with all. Peace to you, Jim, and thanks for everything as a mentor."
During my time at the Sentinel, several reporters were offered jobs at the Tribune -- a move akin to going from a minor league baseball team to the majors. Mateja didn't know this until many years later, but I secretly hoped, and I worked as hard as I could, to get his job.
I was convinced that he'd be retiring soon. But every year when I saw him at the Detroit show, notebook open and scribbling notes, or head cocked toward an executive in a media scrum, it was always a mixture of emotions. I was glad to see him but frustrated that he hadn't retired.
I am thankful I didn't get his job. I know now no one could have filled those shoes. He filed his last story five days before he died.