Death of the Writer

It was a perfectly normal day for a funeral viewing.

The skies were as overcast as ever they were when the steel mills of northwest Indiana were spewing full employment and vibrant economies in the many towns assembled to supply their workers.

On the main line to the funeral home, I passed through six towns, borders unmarked and distinguishable, as I have taught my daughters, only by looking at the color of the signs announcing side streets, as each town has its own motif.

As I wheeled into the parking lot, the crowd was growing even as the viewing began.

This was for an old acquaintance, old, yet still two years younger than myself. We had first met at Indiana University in the wonderful whirl of the ’70s at the fabulous student newspaper. Then again, he was the Hammond paper when I arrived for a short stay and had proclaimed my coming with a solid reputation builder.

He had married another former coworker of mine. They have two children and had not stayed married.

Strangely, she was the only person at the viewing (besides the guy asleep at the front) that I knew. We exchanged hellos and some quick catching up and I signed the book. I was heading away with 15 minutes of arriving, having stayed half as long as it took to get there.

I never know what to think when a contemporary dies and I haven’t. The same about someone younger.

He was also a writer, eventually ascending, as we writers do, to the columnist of the hold newsstand. He was decent enough to hit a homer every once in awhile and did produce the expected number of columns each week to justify the paycheck.

The trick of writing has always been to not make it look so easy. If you have been gifted with the ability, the truth, of course, is that it is that easy. Long ago, in my first paying job watching a succession of mediocre writers try to own the best beat in sports, I realized it was all about access.

If you are granted access to the playing field, the locker room, the practices and can even just report what you see as a human tape recorder, you will have a readership guaranteed. Some will think you are all that. Unless you can write, you are not.

If you remember what you have seen and can bring back salient points at the right time, you are above average. If you last long enough, you are remembered for that. You get to be a part of the paper that is expected to be there, revered and dissed in equal parts.

When you die first while still active, you get to be remembered by your friends.

I am never comfortable with us in the business over-honoring our recently departed. The death of a writer is no more important than that of the retired steelworker who died the same day, or the child of the city who lost his last drug argument.

The writer gets headlines.

Viewings are for the survivors, for his two teenage sons in this case. We feel better, all of us, because we are not dead and we all wonder what our own viewings will be like. As long-serving writers do, he had touched thousands of lives and yet there were not thousands of attendees. Not even a lot of former associates.

And I guess I went to honor the body of work and the workers who made it happen.

And I wondered how he would have written this up.

[Life] Angels Among Us at Christmas

 Angels flying close to our hometowns

Salvation Armey Giving Tree in place at First Choice Barbers

 by Mike Siroky

There is proof that angels live among us.

Each holiday season, the Salvation Army places Angel Trees in businesses. The idea is children in need of presents have ornaments with their names on them hung on the trees and then anyone can come by, answer the request and deliver the goods back to the tree site.

The children get a renewed belief in Christmas.

The donors get much more.

So it is that a brand-new business, First Choice Barbers in Portage, 5973 McCasland Ave., has such a tree in place.

But that is only the first part of the holiday happiness story.

Carlos Chavez is the new proprietor of the business.

But he is not new to the idea of sharing Christmas joy. He started as a recipient.

“Times were tough and we accepted what we could when I was a kid,” said the Portage native. “When I was a kid, things were tough for us, too, so I know what it is like to hope for something you want for Christmas.

“So, while this is actually first one I’ve done, it is part of giving back to my community.”

He said his sister-in-law had the idea and told him about the Angel Tree and the Salvation Army.

“So I made some phone calls to find out about it,” Chavez said.

“I volunteered for 50 kids and they actually got quite emotional about it, said they had never had anyone start with 50. It apparently is a large number, but it is the number I picked.”

Vicki Burge is part of the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.

“We are all over Porter County, through Chesterton and Valparaiso,” Burge said. “As many as we can get out.

“The key to this is to make sure even the neediest kids get at least something new for Christmas, nothing used, something to unwrap.”

Thought children are the centerpiece, the families and the family of the community also benefit.

“Everybody has needs,” Burge said.

And the Army answers. The rewards for the givers may be greater than the rewards to the recipients.

Burge has eight years’ worth of stories to tell.

“I rode on a firetruck with firemen who were answering the requests of a child who was dying of cancer,” she said. “They answered his every wish.”

Burge said the Angel trees are just part of the larger giving season.

“We have a Neediest Families program, where other families will pick a name and supply gifts for everyone. It is like they adopt that family.”

One of the nicer stories this season is of a family group not from the area who chose Porter County for a family reunion because that is where their family started, though none of them live here now. They are all from other states.

“They had researched us and knew what we were doing and they adopted a family, even though they are not in this area anymore,” Burge said.

“Overall, it is pretty cool. We encourage people to look at the requests as kind of a guidance but to make their own choices as to how much they can help.”

Burge said there is a real sense of “Do right thing.”

“A lot of people (among donors) say doing the right thing is of crucial importance,” Burge said.

Distribution is done on separate days, one for food, one for families and the last Friday before Christmas for the toys. Businessmen have volunteered space for the distribution. Volunteers help with the dispersals.

Another crucial aspect is all the donors want to be anonymous. This is a gift from the family of the community to families in the community.

And so the joy spreads.

“Every time a family comes to get the gifts, they also get a gift certificate for food,” Burge said. “We decided to not be so presumptuous to pick out their Christmas dinner so they go to local grocery stores and pick out their own.”

The stores thus join in the joy as they help feed the community.

Chavez believes in his hometown. In a sense, it is how he has become a new businessman in it.

“I have cut hair my whole life,” he said. “But I just graduated to get licensed.”

The 1992 graduate of Portage high school had a lot of jobs since then. He was most recently a mechanic before this. He wanted to become a certified electrician but was told there was a five-year waiting list just to start.

“But I made being a barber my first choice. I can’t complain about the way it is working out,” Chavez said. “Barbering was more than finding a means to an end.”

The immediate plan was to “give back” to the community, he said.

“Customers just don’t stop here with gifts; their generosity is amazing and they keep giving and giving.”

The site of the shop was established as a neighborhood barber shop, even if the most-recent former owner sort of just drifted out of business.

“It had been a barber shop since 1959,” Chavez said. “It was one barber shop, then another then another.”

Now it is all his.

“I don’t even think about it as work,” Chavez said. “Not many people can say they found what they wanted to do all their life and then did it.

“When I got my hands on it and reopened it, it was just right.

“I had always goy my hair cut here. My goal was to come to this barbershop because it had been established for 30-40-50 years. Everyone once liked the barbers here.”

The traditions of such barbering are not lost on the new guy.

“I figured we can do a little more, make it the way it is supposed to be,” Chavez said.

“We have a motto: ‘If they butcher it, we’ll fix it.’

“Come and get in the chair and we’ll make it look like you had a real barber.”

It’s a slight dig at the national chains of barbers. Chavez observed you never know what you are going to get there. And the person who cuts your hair this time might not even be around when next you need a haircut.

“It’s all about consistency,” Chavez said. “Everyone wants to be able to say, ‘That’s my barber’ and know what to expect every time.”

The neighborhood sometimes seems whole again with a business in a familiar place with a familiar face running it

“So many customers come in and are so happy to see the shop reopened,” Chavez said. “It is open six days a week and I am always here.”

[Sports] Suicide by Cash

Suicide by cash

 

We all wail and gnash our teeth at the deaths.

Why doesn’t someone do something?

The millionaire sports earners seem to be killing themselves, either by vehicle or with guns. There have been three self-inflicted gun deaths in the NFL this year and another by drunken driving. Can you name one of them (and, as this is written, two were within the past 10 days). One is/was famous and if I reminded you of him, you’d say, “Oh yeah, him.” But few of us can recall a name right now. If we can even recall the team with which they were associated after a month, that’s amazing.

None of us know what is the edge that has to be passed in order to commit suicide. So none of us understand it.

There are alleged pysch professionals (and even one TV show based on it) associated with most professional teams. If this is true, why do they not spot the ones who are weakest and heading towards and early fate?

A commonality in the NFL deaths is, of course, the violent game. Do you feel immortal when playing and come crashing down when not? Even in the days inbetween? There is the money thing which means you seldom have to wonder what it would be like to have anything. And that includes guns and fast cars.

You seldom allow people around you to say no to these whims. It would not pay for them to be a naysayer.

As a former drinker, I understand a little about the driving under influence thing. When I did it, there was not near the publicity about results of doing so. I remember quite clearly driving home (a good 20 miles) when too wobbly to walk. I made it home. I fortunately swore to never risk it again and did not.

But I also drank into blackouts, waking the next morning with no idea how I got where I work up and with whom I had been after a certain mental time stamp. So I may have driven more often that I know.

All I really know is I never drank to intoxication after January 1, 1983. Because New Year’s Eve was rough.

Like most of us, I grieve for others killed who had nothing to do with the person having a gun or driving a car on public roadways.

I feel sorry the young men never got help or noticed that they needed help.

I used to keep a yearly list on how many of these sports guys died each year. I gave that up because it became depressingly routine. Sometimes, the dead would be at first almost heroically mourned until it came to light they had been intoxicated at the moment of death.

Sometime, often times, they had “traces of (usually cocaine) in their system.”

I know whenever I go I will not.

That lowers the altar of adulation.

So we are back to what can we do about it. The percentage of dead athletes is minimal in the universe of all sports. What role does society (the rest of us) play in it.

I would guess, as the year closes, the best we can do is pledge to pay more attention, to put more pressure on team owners and operators to counsel the suddenly rich, to encourage a car service whenever someone goes out to drink.

It is s sad way to end a life. And there is already enough unpreventable sadness in this world.

 

 

[Life] Not living in, but learning from the past

You know how we always say we do not really realize we lived through history until after it was over?

 

The drama of certain events are so overwhelming that we just roll with it and only put it in perspective through the fullness time.

 

I have written before about the summer of 1969 and the universal, national and personal impact of that special summer.

 

It started with man’s first steps on the moon. My dad woke me up, my maternal grandfather happened to be visiting and so three generations sat there and watched this live show (TV was not often live then) on our little black-and-white living room television.

 

A couple of months later, my dad and I were at a Cubs game in their special season and saw Kenny Holtzman throw a no-hitter live. My dad was a lifelong baseball fan and mentioned at the time how rare a no-hitter was. I still have the scorecard, mostly in his handwriting.

 

A few more months later, my dad died at age 43, forever altering who I am and what I have become.

 

It took me almost two decades more to realize how all these events happened within months of each other. I had segmented my memory until then, placing the awesome perspectives in separate life chapters, rather than all in a rush of weeks.

 

And this kind of memory is what I am bringing to the death of newspapers, my first adult career, to which I devoted three decades.

You all know my analogy: That we in the  newspaper business kept perfecting the artform long after it was pass relevancy. It is like making the perfect buggy whip at last, the best darned buggy whip in the history of buggy whip evolutions.

 

Problem is, who needs a buggy whip nowadays outside of the Amish.

 

As newspaper fold into themselves, reduce actual size, therefore content and chances at new readers; as staffs dwindle, reducing and educated workforce; as the ’Net continues to flourish, all I see remaining are a lot of high salaries with scared hunkered-down mostly white male executives trying desperately to get to retirement.

 

I think of this as I think of the fine folks who have allowed me to use their names as references on my resume.

 

I am at an age where seven of the best I ever had listed in that endgame have passed away. All were great references for me and my career.

 

Now I list former coworkers, more as character references, but all younger than me which increases the chances I can keep the current list unrefreshed.

 

They knew what they were about. They knew and basically helped shaped the business as I know it. And, maybe, they will represent what newspapers meant when they were relevant.

 

Colleen “Koky” Dishon was a dynamic, impish woman who shared the survival of cancer with me and also came into my newspaper life late, sort retired then but still vital. She had helped define The Chicago Trib, my all-time favorite newspaper. She had broken many “this is the way we always do it”   rules along the way.

 

I think she would laugh now as some of the decades-old revamps she put in place at the smallish newspaper I was working then still use the changes. The point is to always change. Eventually changes become what they beheld,  a “this is the way we always do it” rule its ownself.

 

Doug Kneeland did it all, on all sizes of newspapers, proving talent is talent. He launched hundreds of careers and through them thousands. He also worked the Chi Trib at the end of his career life. On a whim, he got me an offer to move up into the chain at one of the outposts.

 

It was a life’s crossroads and I was not ready. He knew I was. I did not heed. I have never once complained about the choices I did make but this is one that would have been most interesting. A single guy would have jumped. I was not and did not.

 

Had I jumped, I maybe never would have met Cokie, but then I believe in fate and so probably would have.

 

In my real hometown, of Gary, I once witness the local newspaper actually getting better for an arc of a few years, four years in the ’80s. It has since dramatically declined and is back on a death watch as part of the Sun-Times debacle.

 

Beverly Kees was the editor who made the difference once called me when I was editing a small chain of weeklies in the area and just wanted to talk to whoever had attracted her attention with what she liked in newspapers.

 

It was me. I was having too much fun working with young folks and writing, writing, writing to want to make a move. She did. She took her impactful national life tour to Fresno and other places and was subsequently killed in a traffic accident.

 

Among my first great references was Jack Backer. He was in charge of establishing the Indiana Daily Student as the dominant college newspaper it remains.

 

He was a hands-on publisher, everybody’s pal, the first to meet and greet a newbie in the newsroom. We hit it off after I convinced Bib Greene to let us buy his column when Bob Greene was a big deal columnist that did not cut rates for anyone and certainly not for a school newspaper.

 

 Jack Back offered me a dream internship in Hawaii for simply achieving decent grades while writing, writing, writing and editing the paper.

 

I had just gotten married and could not see telling my bride I was off for a summer in Hawaii and she was to enjoy her summer in Bloomington.

 

Jack had redesigned more newspapers as a consultant than any man alive. Newspaper folks will know what modular layout means. If he didn’t invent it (and I suspect he did) he certainly elevated it and took it national.

 

He died of cancer while I was still an undergraduate. I volunteered to write his life story for the alumni association and got a lot of amazing responses for simply telling the truth, Maybe it was because I walked up to the unapproachable school president at a basketball game and asked for a comment. The guy was so shocked that a student would dare approach him, but he gave me a lead quote and I knew Jack would have just smiled at the attempt and success.

 

Lately, I had a lovely lady in Wyoming who defined that state’s newspapers. Carolyn B. Tyler had survived polio as a child and was forever wheelchair-active and CBT was a pistol. When I inherited her office long after her time there, there was this mail slot sorta thing connecting the office with the main newsroom, more like the drive-up at a bank than anything else.

 

 

I had to ask. It was her way of staying sane. You had something to say to her, you pushed it into her office that way. In other words, the door did not open unless it was really important. I sometimes sat in that office as a tribute to her, trying to absorb the magic she left behind. She asked if she could be a reference as she liked me. She passed this year.

 

Her body had finally given up. Her mind is still with us, though, because she visits me in the silent moments of the nights and gives me advice still.

 

These folks all lived the newspaper life and died while it still meant something. They enriched me. There is an old American Indian thought that believes a person never dies as long as someone remembers them.

 

I will not forget.