Evanston RoundTable, Aug. 18, 2021
This was supposed to have been about my 100th column, a milestone worthy of some celebration and reflection.
I started writing my bi-weekly column for the RoundTable in the fall of 2017, so 26 columns a year would mean hitting 100 roughly in the late summer of 2021. In other words, now.
It’s been great fun, being able to write about almost anything, and so I have: columns on writing, music, politics, cosmology, weather, nature, confidence, growth, living and dying. People ask me if my column has a name. No. They ask me if it has a theme. No. Just whatever is on my mind that week.
The only restriction, during our print run days, was length: 490 words, give or take a few – one 20-pica column. Occasionally, when I thought I had something important to say, I’d ask the editor, Mary Gavin, if I could “jump” the column inside. (One good thing about writing exclusively online is there’s no limitation on length.)
Despite (or maybe because of) the brevity and rambling nature of my work, the last two years I’ve won best column awards from the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association.
How did this come about? Some background. I started in journalism working for a community weekly, Lerner Newspapers, in 1973, first as a reporter covering local education, government and politics, then as the managing editor of the Rogers Park, Uptown, Ravenswood and Albany Park editions. Lerner was a terrific way to break into the field. The operation was small enough that you could see and do everything: write, assign and edit stories; design pages and work with printers to lay them out.
Many of my colleagues – such as Larry Persily, Leslie Murray, Greg Hinz, Beth Granat, Pam Kohler, Robert Feder, Bruce Wolf, Pat Butler, Marla Paul and others – went on to stellar careers as columnists, publishers, authors and TV personalities.
In 1979, after six years grinding out five editions a week with a small staff at Lerner, I “graduated” to the copy desk of the Chicago Sun-Times. I worked at one time or another with Kup, Royko, Roger Simon, Ed Darby, Clark Bell and other journalist legends. One Saturday morning, coming into the office to start work on the Sunday edition, I passed a bleary-eyed John Belushi. He had been filming the movie “Continental Divide” overnight and crashed on the sofa just outside the newsroom.
In 1982, when I completed a Master’s in Business degree from Loyola University, I decided to “go over to the dark side,” as journalists call the world of corporate communications. My journalism background and business school studies were good training for writing press releases, speeches, management and employee magazines and annual reports. My last half dozen years, I ran monthly officer meetings and annual offsite conferences, where I was able to hire esteemed historians Doris Kearns Goodwin to talk about Lincoln and David McCullough to talk about the founders. Both were terrific speakers and wonderful to work with.
But I missed journalism. At some point before I retired in 2010, I approached Mary Gavin at the RoundTable and asked if I could write about business. There already was a business writer, she said, the wonderful Vicky Scott. How about the arts, I countered? I played viola in the Evanston Symphony and thought I knew a thing or two about arts in Evanston.
Thus began my first “column,” which was really a compilation of arts activities for the week with a “lede” story that was based on interviews I did with the featured arts organization.
I did that for a year or two, then switched to film reviews. I’ve always loved going to movies, having grown up in the fabulous 1950s of “Ben-Hur” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” In college I belonged to a film club that enabled me to see the great Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd silent movies and later the melodramas and noir classics of the thirties and forties. Bogart in “The African Queen” or “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” were perfection. Watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” in June 1968 was one of the great artistic experiences of my life, comparable to seeing Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia in Florence or hearing the Beethoven Ninth at Orchestra Hall. Same sense of awe and joy.
But writing about movies was different. No movie critic DVDs for me: I went to the theater with the hoi polloi and tried desperately to take notes, scribble dialogue and figure out my lede in the dark. It was a good challenge but took a lot of the pleasure out of moviegoing.
Meanwhile I had started coming into the office to edit copy, which I’ve always loved. Thus I was back in the greatest inner sanctum the working world has ever known: a big-city newsroom. The energy, camaraderie and shared sense of purpose are always glorious.
When I asked Mary whether I could write a regular column in 2017, she requested some samples. I cranked out five or six and satisfied, she gave me the green light. I have yet to miss a deadline.
What are the takeaways of having a column? Simple. It’s interesting to research and fun to write on different topics. As many people have said before, writing is one of the best ways to figure out what one thinks. I think better at a keyboard then on my feet.
Also, it’s hugely important to set a big goal and exercise one’s mental muscles.
Most of all, it’s been a terrific privilege to have my own column.
So that’s what I had planned to write about: the glorious centennial column. Only, when I went back into my files, I discovered that my first piece was dated Nov. 17, 2016. Not quite five years ago. By my count, there have been 133 pieces I’ve churned out in that time, mostly columns and a few news stories.
In other words, the 100th column would’ve been a year or so ago.
Nevertheless, aside from the errant count, everything else is the same: same challenges, same joy.
Thanks Mary! Here’s to another 100 – or 130, depending on how you add ‘em up.