Jessica Lum, a former reporter and editor at Mission Local, died Sunday morning.
She was 25 years old.
We all knew her as Jess, a technophile who was fanatical about football, family and photography. What many didn’t know is that in December 2008, two years before she started at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and while still a senior at UCLA, Jess was diagnosed with a rare cancer.
Starting on Christmas Day, 2008, Jess wrote about her illness on Facebook.
“To be perfectly honest, I hate the situation I’m in — I’m dying. No matter what I do, the truth is, I’m dying. This cancer will most likely kill me, a few years down the road, maybe sooner.” (Quoted from the Modesto Bee.)
By the time she arrived at Berkeley in the fall of 2010, Jess was symptom-free and had managed to get rid of most of these online posts, so that few here knew she had been seriously ill. No one would have guessed.
The native of Sacramento took on graduate school with abandon. Some students try to duck community outreach; Jess turned it into an opportunity to create a new portrait series, Mission Bikes.
Students are distributed randomly among the school’s hyperlocal sites, but if Mission Local was inconveniently across the bridge, that mattered little to Jess. She stuck with it through two years of school, working weekends as an editor and advising on multimedia projects. Her street photography reflected her love for the neighborhood’s variety of residents and her ability to talk to anyone.
Mission Local would have been enough to keep most people busy, but Jess had way too many interests to be tied down. She went to South Korea with her video class and produced work for the Washington Post.
Her master’s project entailed several week-long trips to Slab City. At the end of it, she created an award-winning website of images and videos about those who drop out to live in the southern California desert squat. To finance her project, she ran a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Through all of this, Jess managed to maintain a social life and in August became engaged to Christopher Tanouye, a young man who remained at her side throughout her illness.
From the outset, Mission Local benefited from her talents. In her first week at school, Jess produced a feature on campaign contributions to Proposition 19 and updated them throughout the election period.
A football fan, she noticed that Mission Local did not regularly cover local sporting events, so she chose to write about the Mission High football team. With Lisette Mejia, another student who also became an editor, she created an interactive piece, “Meet the Mission High School Football Team.”
That fall, as the Bears approached the city championship game, she volunteered to postpone Thanksgiving with her family if the team made it to the finals. Her headline about the outcome of the semi-final was as much a reflection of her own emotions as on the loss: “Mission Bears Lose in Heartbreaker Semi-Final Against Balboa.”
Jess had an artist’s visual sense and the technical skill for design, so she advised on the site and would often send emails along the lines of, “I’m going to do a little work on so-and-so’s photo to make it sharper.”
She loved the collaborative process, and when I returned one time after being away and complimented her on the production of “Heart Murmurs in the Mission,” she corrected me. Yes, she had coded the design, but the idea for its look came from brainstorming with the class.
She was immensely considerate and understood the little things that make office life tolerable. I remember her arriving one day and popping into my office. “There’s ice cream in the freezer,” she said. There was — Mexican chocolate with salted peanuts, a favorite around here.
In recent months, when it became clear that she would be spending a lot of time in the hospital, Jess returned to posting on Facebook, this time writing less about her illness and more about whatever grabbed her attention — family, contemporary photos of her immediate world in the hospital and links to the ingenious outside that world. Always, her humor shined through.
“Amazing,” she wrote on a Friday post that linked to an NPR story, “What do you pack for a seven-year-trip?”
“I am going to eat these without regret,” she wrote on Jan. 9, with a photo of a stack of Oreo cookies.
On Jan. 10, she posted a stark photo of a clock in what was probably her hospital room. The caption: Time.
Jess had too little of it.
She is survived by her mother, Anna Lum, father Bob Lum, sister Bethany Ayres, fiance Christopher Tanouye, a grandmother and brother-in-law, nephews and a niece, as well as numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. In the last few months, she delighted in posting photos of her family on Facebook.