“So I’m thinking it’s either a Pulitzer in six years, or a mental hospital for you.”
That was Bob McClory, a journalism professor of mine who died last Friday at age 82. Or at least that’s what I remember him saying at the end-of-the-quarter meeting about my writing and final grade when I was a journalism undergrad student at Medill at Northwestern.
He thought my continual use of quotation ledes ventured onto the less sane side of decision-making. What I heard though in that sentence was: I see what you’re doing. I don’t always get it or agree with you, but I believe in you. He probably said the same thing to lots of other students.
The thing about my writing is that I often have voices in my head: of people I’ve interviewed for journalism, of characters I’ve created in my fiction, and of the many teachers I’ve been lucky enough to have over the years.
I hear Bob’s voice most often when I’m focusing on the structure of the piece, when sentences and paragraphs turn into a chunk of meaning that can be lifted from the rest of the text, moved around, and appended to another part of the text to make it better. I can see his hand in the kinds of lines I draw on rough drafts as I move things around. I often remember the bewildering lecture in which he took a 10,000-word Chicago Reader story and turned it into a mosaic of circles, squares and rectangles, revealing the structure of the piece in a systematic though messy patchwork.
Then, of course, there’s Sgt. Smiley Wossek, the Chicago Police public information officer whose identity Bob assumed for in-class press conferences. Wossek was a great example of a kind of reluctant source who would confine responses to the minimum required of a question. Definitely someone I’ve met in my career (though I most often would encounter people who would give responses that did a minimal job of responding to the question with a maximum number of words, digressions and attempts at changing subjects).
What I learned from Bob and Smiley is something I’ve passed out to other journalists and interns: the necessity of the stupid question. Maybe “stupid” is too harsh of a term; maybe “obvious” would be better. Lots of smart people get into journalism, and by “smart” I mean people who can wade through a lot of information and synthesize it into a new meaning that can have broader implications in multiple contexts. The problem for journalists is that synthesizing can be full of all sorts of assumptions, and so the best kind of interviewers will be aware of their own assumptions so they can get at more fundamental ideas behind why a source has said or done something. This of course can make the journalist sound stupid or like they don’t know anything, but it is always a good technique to force a source to step back from his or her own assumptions and lay out some of their motivating principles.
Sgt. Smiley Wossek was always reluctant to impart facts. The key was to ask the right question to get the right facts. And to do so you had to constantly stop yourself from assuming you knew that you knew the facts, or even what the facts you did know really meant. There was always more to the story.
There was always more to Professor Bob, or Father Bob, as I sometimes referred to him. Journalism professor, frequent Chicago Reader contributor, and former priest (which is the lede in the Trib’s obit of him), Bob had a far-ranging intellect and an always curious mind that I felt a kinship with. He was a great and generous listener, which made him a wonderful reporter and teacher. And he presented everything he did with such a strong core of integrity that his very approach — curious, open and grounded — was a model of behavior, of a way of being as a journalist and as a person, that I strive to live up to.
So, thank you, Bob, for being the great teacher that you were.