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Former Clevelander Dana Canedy tells the story behind the new biopic 'A Journal for Jordan'

Jordan, Dana and Charles [Dana Canedy]
Dana Canedy poses with Charles and their baby son Jordan.

In 2005, former Plain Dealer reporter Dana Canedy gave a present to the man she loved. Charles was a soldier who was about to leave for Iraq. She gave him a journal so that he could write messages to their unborn son. A movie based on Canedy’s best-selling memoir, “A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor,” opens in theaters on Christmas Eve.

[Crown Publishing Group]

Both the film and the book are about love, about connection and about the importance of telling your own story. Canedy began her path toward being a writer as a little girl.

“I couldn't have known at 12, when I started writing poems and short stories and so forth, that it would lead to a career like this, though in my high school memory book, when asked, 'What will you be doing in 10 years?' I said, I'll be a writer in New York,” she said. “So, I had a goal, but it's only by God's grace that I was able to achieve it. But, I really do believe that it was all to prepare me for this moment.”

Canedy grew-up near Fort Knox, Kentucky in a military family, and she credits teachers at the University of Kentucky for helping develop her writing skills. She sharpened those chops as a journalist at The Plain Dealer, before moving on to the New York Times, where she would win the Pulitzer Prize.

But her life took a fateful turn one day on a visit back home to Fort Knox. She walked into her parents’ living room and first laid eyes on Charles King.

“I walked in, I said, ‘Oh crap, I know I'm going to like this guy,’” she said with a chuckle. “My parents were friends with him because he was a soldier and he was also just a very generous man and he was an artist. He was showing some of his art at a community event and struck up a conversation with them and then started coming over to their house. And he'd sit with my dad, listen to his military stories and my parents would invite him over to eat so forth. My father was a drill sergeant, and I saw a lot of military life that didn't appeal to me at that time. And I thought, last thing I want is to end up with a soldier.”

Canedy said it wasn’t love at first sight, but they started learning about some mutual connections.

“He was from Cleveland,” she said. “He grew up in Cleveland, and was very fond of Cleveland all his life, always talked about Cleveland. He was a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan.”

If she had mixed feelings about this guy, she also had her own self-doubts.

“I've always been very confident professionally, but very insecure personally,” she said. “I thought, ‘There's no way this, this gorgeous, good, decent Christian man is going to want me.’ And I think I subconsciously tested him over time. I, you know, I pushed him away and he just kept coming back, and I realized in time that we were just meant to be together.”

Then came the time that they had to part. Charles was due for a deployment in Iraq. Dana had a baby on the way. One day on a shopping trip she spotted a stack of journals for sale. She bought one for Charles.

“We were sitting at the dining room table going over his will and his life insurance and power of attorney for me and I decided that was the moment to give it to him,” she said. “And I said, ‘You know, sweetie, I bought this journal for you, so that you can write things for your son.’”

She thought he could write things like “I love you.” She thought it would be a chance for their son to see the word “Daddy.” She said Charles was a quiet person and she didn’t expect him to write much more than a few pages. But that wasn’t what happened.

“He became obsessed with this journal,” she said. “He wrote two hundred pages.”

A page from the journal that Charles wrote to Jordan. [Dana Canedy]

For a soldier in the middle of the terror and stress of the battlefield, the journal turned into guidebook for his future son’s life, covering all sorts of topics.

“The power of prayer. How to treat a woman on a date. How to choose a wife. Why he loves military service. Why he chose me," she said. “On the last page, he wrote a letter that in essence said: 'This is everything I could think of to teach you to be a man, if I don't make it home.'”

Charles did make it home, for a few days on leave. He got to see his newborn son, Jordan. But inevitably, he had to return the duty. And this time, he didn’t come back.

Charles and Jordan [Dana Canedy]

Canedy started sharing the journal with Jordan at an early age.

“When he was a baby, I'd read to him every night,” she said. “It was bedtime stories and I'd pull it out and read something to him. Then, I put it away for a few years, because I just wanted him to be a boy. I was grieving for the first few years of Jordan's life and so, you know, I wanted him to run on the beach and, you know, just be a typical boy. Then, when he started asking questions about his father or when he would ask me something that I knew was in the journal, I would pull it out and read it to him.

“And now he reads it on his own. But he'll also ask me something, sometimes, and I'll say, ‘Go see what your father had to say about that,'" she said. "There are different entries that are his favorites now. But imagine, you know, it's going to be something different to him on his wedding day, you know, and the day he becomes a father. And I tell Jordan all the time that he is having an ongoing conversation with his dad that, in many ways, fathers who are living don't have with their children.”

One part of that conversation has to do with sports.

“I think my son is becoming a Cleveland Browns fan now just because of that, just because it was important just to his dad,” she said. “Charles loved Cleveland very much. In fact, he's buried in Cleveland. In the movie, for dramatic purposes, he's at Arlington, which is actually where he wanted to be. But his mother, after he died, said, 'I need to be able to visit him,' and I understood that. So we buried him in Cleveland.”

Having a movie made about your life can be heady stuff, especially when Michael B. Jordan is playing your husband, Chanté Adams is playing you and the director is Denzel Washington. But Canedy said her son, played by Jalon Christian, is taking it in stride.

“Up until a few weeks ago, he hadn't told a single person in the school anything about the movie,” she said. “They didn't know that he knew Michael B. Jordan. They didn't know that, ‘Uncle D’ was Denzel Washington. They knew none of this. And he said, 'Mom, I didn't want to seem like I was bragging.'”

Dana Canedy’s life in the written word continues to evolve. The 12-year-old who wrote poems in Kentucky is now a senior vice president and publisher at Simon & Shuster. And for over a decade, she’s spent a lot of time talking with interviewers about her 2008 memoir. The film has brought on a new round of interviews.

“There are some moments that are hard, obviously, talking about his death," she said. "But I have to tell you, getting the questions, any question, I'm grateful for, because all these years later, people all over this country are giving me hugs. They're showing interest in our story. I can't be anything but grateful for that. It's a blessing of my lifetime the fact that Americans all over this country care about us. It really moves me to tears. You know, with all that's going on in our country and in the world, it reinforces for me the goodness of people. And I'm grateful for every interview, every comment, every conversation. I really am."

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.