Jim Pagels, CC ’13 and former Spectator sports editor and columnist, died on Friday. He was 29.
Pagels’ death was the result of a five-car chain-reaction crash in Washington, D.C. He was struck by a vehicle at 7:30 p.m. on April 9, while cycling on Massachusetts Avenue. Earlier that day, Pagels had received his second COVID-19 vaccine and tweeted about the dangers of cycling through the New York Avenue/Montana Avenue traffic circle. Hours before his death, he wrote alongside a Google Maps image of the roundabout, “Had to bike through a roundabout over a highway to get my Covid jab. Lifespan maximization function is clearly perfectly well-calibrated.”
Originally from Dallas, Texas, Pagels was close to his older sister Laura and, according to an interview with his parents for WUSA9, was such an excellent student that he skipped a grade in elementary school. After spending his first year of college at the University of Texas at Austin, Pagels transferred to Columbia College. Christine Jordan, CC ’12, who was Spectator’s arts and entertainment editor when Pagels was in the process of transferring, recalled him emailing her and numerous other members of Spectator to ask about their experiences at Columbia and at Spectator. What began as a series of emails about the University became long emails discussing their ambitions to work in media and the current state of the industry, creating a decade-long friendship that began solely through written correspondence.
At Columbia, Pagels was a Dean’s List student and double majored in English and American studies. In addition to his roles on Spectator, he worked for WKCR as a sports reporter and worked for the Columbia University Film Program.
As a member of Spec Sports, Pagels wrote about many Columbia sports, including football, men’s basketball, and tennis. Within one semester on staff, Pagels was promoted to sports editor alongside Mrinal Mohanka, CC ’12.
Kunal Gupta, CC ’11, who wrote under Pagels’ term as sports editor, described him as an “out-of-the-box thinker” who approached sports reporting through a different lens than many of his peers. Pagels was an avid football fan and covered the team during some of its worst seasons to date. Unlike many of the reporters he worked with, Pagels did not skirt around the weak results and preferred to approach blowout losses as what they were.
“If nine out of 10 people walk in one direction, Jim was more than happy to challenge people and walk the other direction,” Gupta said.
Finn Vigeland, CC ’14, was city news editor when Pagels was sports editor. He noted that it was Pagels’ passion and animation in talking about the topics that interested him that sparked their friendship.
“[Pagels] really wanted to invest himself deeply into Columbia sports, even though he knew the audience for sports was small, but he loved throwing himself into that.”
Following his tenure as sports editor on Spectator’s 135th managing board, Pagels wrote a self-titled sports column, in which he discussed the larger issues confronting Columbia Athletics and offered humorous satire content. He made the transition to be an opinion columnist because he wanted to write content that felt more relevant to the entire student body, such as administrative spending and “inefficient administrative procedures.”
“What interested me wasn’t the unfortunate Spec Sports protocol of loudly cheering on the few wins, glossing over the many losses, and glorifying athletes playing mostly trivial games at an overfunded and below-average college athletics program,” he wrote in his senior column, “but rather the serious and controversial issues the athletics program is confronted with: almost zero support (or even awareness) from campus, decades of (mostly) irrelevancy in an irrelevant conference, and the very real stigma that divides athletes and non-athletes.”
At Spectator, Pagels managed to balance his passion for sports with an innate ability to create a welcoming, spirited culture in the sports section. He frequently lightened the mood of long nights at the office with friendly competition, challenging Mohanka to see who could “PDF” their writers’ work the fastest, keeping diligent records of their times. He organized section-wide contests to pick the correct scores of various games, tirelessly attempting to beat his friends and relishing in his frequent successes. His competitiveness and passion for the section were magnetic: He fostered an environment at Spec Sports that made an impact on everyone who passed through.
Rebeka Cohan, BC ’14, who was an associate sports writer while Pagels edited the sports section, said his leadership inspired her to become Spectator’s sports editor a few years later.
“I really enjoyed going into the office to work with him, and that’s what made me want to be the sports editor. … He made me love the section and want to continue to get more involved in Spec, both by his writing and the way he managed the section and just the personal interactions.”
For Mohanka, who cherished his close relationship with Pagels throughout his life, their bond went beyond the countless articles they published together.
“Jim and I’s [relationship] was almost like a sibling rivalry, where we really got along with each other, but we also really loved to banter and almost provoke each other,” he said.
After not speaking to Pagels for a few years following graduation, Gupta discussed how he and Pagels were brought back together by their teasing each other about their favorite tennis players and football teams, which were rivals. Gupta’s allegiances were to Roger Federer and the Philadelphia Eagles, while Pagels had been a Dallas Cowboys fan for his entire life and rooted for Novak Djokovic. The pair’s teasing after major wins and losses only strengthened their decade-long friendship.
“We used to joke that the overlap in the Venn diagram between passionate tennis fans and passionate football fans, I think we’re the only two people in the USA who cared so deeply about those two,” Gupta said.
Pagels’ effortless humor and wit were important parts of the legacy he left behind at Columbia. Whenever there was space in the printed newspaper, Mohanka and Pagels tried their best to fill it with embarrassing pictures of the other. His playfulness was always couched in unforgiving honesty, though, like when he lamented the unfortunate architecture of Columbia’s campus or contemplated the meaninglessness of Ivy League basketball. That mix of unflinching authenticity and sharpness stuck with Mohanka.
“Jim was just so brilliant with his humor, that even as recently as 2017, I was in grad school, and I was doing something where I felt like humor could help. I reached out to Jim to ask him how he would think about writing it because that’s how much I admired and respected his creative brilliance,” Mohanka said.
Following the final football game of the 2010 season, Pagels had wanted to spice up a production night at Spectator. The team had lost almost every game that season and feeling as though then-head coach Norries Wilson would soon be fired, Pagels jokingly wrote “Norries Wilson, head coach until 12 p.m. on Sunday” following a quote Wilson had provided the newspaper. Pagels wanted to see if a copy editor or the managing editor would catch this. They had not, and it printed in the paper the next morning. Noticing it in the print edition, Pagels feared that he would be fired, but he was instead greeted with a call from Columbia Athletics asking, “How did you know?”
That same spirit came through to the Spec Sports staff, who wrote, “I want a love as pure as Jim and Mrinal’s” and even found a YouTube video of Pagels from high school where he was encouraging members of his class to attend prom. Mortified, Pagels deleted the video, but one of his staffers still found it and then played it on loop at the Spectator office for a week.
Pagels juggled many passions throughout college, whether it was the Dallas Stars, board games, or writing for Spectator. Despite his numerous passions, Mohanka remembers that Pagels managed to stay committed to all of them. Pagels even scheduled his life around those passions—Mohanka remembers countless weekends Pagels spent listening to podcasts, reading blogs, and playing fantasy sports. His ardent love for his interests was contagious, as Mohanka, originally from India, knew nothing about Pagels’ beloved sports teams before meeting him, but soon came to appreciate his friend’s spirit.
“[Passion] is part of his personality, and nothing gets done half-heartedly. He's really all-in and committed,” Mohanka said. “It was an infectious enthusiasm. It made me care more about baseball and tennis than I honestly did prior to meeting [him].”
Lanbo Zhang, CC ’15, who befriended Pagels in college and wrote for Spectator’s opinion section, saw Pagels about a week before his accident in Washington, D.C., staying with him for a few days as he returned from a cross-country road trip he took during the pandemic. Zhang remembered how vibrant Pagels’ personality was during and after college.
“He didn’t change a bit. He had a very firm sense of who he was and was unapologetic about it, not in a confrontational way. He knew who he was, and he was comfortable with it. I really admired that about him,” Zhang said.
After graduation, Pagels continued his journalism career as an online editor for the Dallas Morning News where he edited blog posts and features and managed audience growth and engagement for the sports page. In addition, he helped develop SportsDay, increasing user engagements by 300 percent and making it the most successful Dallas Morning News app to date. Pagels continued to spread his passion for writing by freelancing for publications like ESPN, Bloomberg, FiveThirtyEight, and the Atlantic, where he wrote about the stock market and sports.
His writing explored unique intersections between sports and economics: He defended Kevin Durant’s controversial decision to join the Golden State Warriors in 2016 with a detailed analysis of the NBA’s max contract rule and criticized regulating daily fantasy sports. He never shied away from addressing challenging topics and was always willing to defend and explain his opinions. His fascination with difficult ideas was well-known among his friends: Zhang called him “the king of the hot take.”
Eventually, Pagels fell in love with economics and made a sharp pivot from sports journalism to economics. A student without any prior coursework in economics—and someone who used to tease his friend Mohanka about his economics major—Pagels had to improvise and learn the basics of the field on his own. It was that hard work that culminated in his acceptance to the University of Michigan’s economics program. Jordan, Vigeland, Mohanka, and Gupta noted his “hustle” and how Pagels poured himself into every aspect of his life whether it be his writing, his fandom, or his admission to one of the top master’s and Ph.D. programs in the nation.
“I had the ultimate respect for how much he cared about economics and how willing he was to sort of go back to square one and change his entire career trajectory,” Gupta said.
In all parts of his life, Pagels took risks and went big with every gesture he made. On one occasion, he brought a date into a park with a public piano so he could show off his skills as an expert pianist and perform one of her favorite songs. Described by his friends as rational and frugal, Pagels purchased 200 boxes of pasta when they were 10 percent off and spent the next three years eating them. He was almost obsessive about maximizing his time—in college, Pagels would cook a stack of pancakes and a heap of spaghetti and meatballs on Sundays, so he wouldn’t have to spend time cooking during his week.
“He always went for it in life. He had no fear of failure. And he was always so willing to try things. A lot of people get caught up in hesitation and fear of failure. But Jim was the kind of person who had no issue cold emailing every single person on the Spectator before he even accepted his Columbia offer and see if anybody was willing to help him figure out what was the right thing to do,” Jordan said. “Jim was willing to take no for an answer, but he was never willing to roll over without giving things a try.”
Pagels remained consistent in his passions. He railed against binge-watching, even writing about it in his “magnum opus” for Slate—and refused to partake in it throughout his life. He brought his glove to every Texas Rangers game—of course, the one game he did forget it, a home run was hit right to him and he dropped it. This passion was evident in his love for board games and tennis which he would play with the utmost competitiveness, as if “it was an ATP match.” After teaching his friends to play a board game, or even feigning not knowing how to play himself, Pagels would promptly defeat them.
While receiving his Master of Science in mathematics and statistics from Georgetown University in 2019, Pagels worked for the Federal Reserve studying trends in global markets. He was in his second year of a Ph.D. program in economics at the University of Michigan, but had returned to the nation’s capital, a place which he claimed was “the first city he truly loved,” during the pandemic as his teaching and classes were all remote.
According to those who knew him, he was the “ultimate rational thinker,” as Pagels loved to have long conversations and discussions that could stretch on for hours. He would analyze and debate any topic and found true interest in those discussions.
“He believed because he had gone through this process of carefully thinking through every different facet of a given topic, that he should reward that logical train of thought by loudly arguing why he was right,” Vigeland said.
It was that love for deep conversation and frequent communication that Jordan felt she shared with him. She discussed how “easy” it was to maintain a friendship with Pagels because he had a skill for staying in touch with people. He kept a spreadsheet where he would mark down the things he wished to tell his friends. Broken into tabs for specific people, he would store anecdotes and links he wished to share with them so he would not forget. His “Friends Share” spreadsheet also included common ground between his friends and plans to connect them so they could chat and he could help build new friendships.
“He was always bursting at the seams with interesting thoughts and recommendations for his friends and funny stories to share. There wasn't ever like a wall in the conversation with Jim or if you reached out to him, he had this whole queue of things he wanted to tell you,” Jordan said.
Vigeland cherished the long conversations he had with Pagels, as he too shared a passion for “making stories last for too long.” While his wit was evident in his writing, the word limit hindered him from discussing topics in his signature style.
“In his columns, he had a word limit. And in person, he could tell you a story forever. This was a treat that he and I shared. We delighted in telling each other stories that were overly detailed, that included every possible thing you needed to know about the situation and more,” Vigeland said.
Even in his time at Columbia, Pagels’ columns also urged others to begin conversations, to become more empathetic, and to listen to one another. In those columns, he urged others to view the world as an opportunity to learn something new, even if their minds did not change after the end of a conversation.
“It's important to read opinion columns, but they’re only effective when read with an open mind, rather than with preordained convictions on the dozen reasons the writer is obviously wrong. … Columbia teaches us many things but, as professor Andrew Delbanco has opined, it often fails in its lessons on humility,” he wrote in a column for Spectator.
Pagels’ friends appreciated the open attitude that he brought to every issue. Although he frequently engaged in spirited debates with his peers, he always made sure to address an individual’s argument, never attacking their character.
“I think what was very remarkable about Jim was the two of you could vehemently disagree about something. … [He] very much embodied the idea of having separation of what we believed in and in our personal relationship, and I really did admire him for that,” Zhang said.
While at Columbia, Pagels channeled his intellectual spirit in opinionated sports columns and long conversations; in his adult life, that fervor translated to advocating for expanding housing developments and affordable housing at city council meetings. His love for cities translated into his love for board games where he would analyze how each new round could maximize efficiency. Pagels was passionate about building better cities that were more accessible with infrastructure that could support more people.
As an economics scholar, Pagels found interest in the rational economics space reasoning in cities, but beyond his purely academic interests, his fascination with cities extended to their atmospheres and cultures.
He believed that biking was the best way to fully experience a city and all it had to offer. He felt that a decreasing dependence on cars would create stronger cities and happier civilians. This led to his bicycle safety advocacy work, promoting safer riding conditions and city planning that considered the safety of cyclists. Before his passing, Pagels would tweet about the dangers of biking in Washington, D.C.; shared stories about traffic fatalities; and wrote about his experiences as a cyclist.
In his memory, Vigeland is helping plan a memorial ride on April 15 at 6 p.m. in Washington, D.C., where participants will install a Ghost Bike—a bicycle painted white and permanently installed at a location—to signal that a cyclist died at the location. As Vigeland stated in an interview with WTOP, following the installation, participants will “go on a ride around D.C., as Jim would have wanted us to.”
In his memory, many who loved Pagels are now working to push forward the causes he cared about. For Gupta, this means becoming educated about bike safety.
“I hope that other people that knew him and cared about him, or even they didn't know him and just learn about his story, try to make their mark on the items that he cared about. And make sure that there's something good that comes out of this terrible tragedy.”
Above all, the people that knew him expressed an intense admiration for the way Pagels carried himself. For many of his friends, like Mohanka, there was never a chance to tell him how much they cherished his endless authenticity and vigor.
“Jim was the epitome of authenticity. I think that’s hard for me to ever forget because no one I know was that comfortable being different from a crowd. And that is something I always admired. The regret that I have is that I never got to tell him how much I admired him.”