So I missed my own anniversary.
No, not the all-important wedding anniversary. To forget that would be something akin to a China Syndrome Chernobyl meltdown.
What I missed was the 35th anniversary of my “Reflections” column that’s been running in the Kendall County Record, Inc. newspapers (and now the KendallCountyNOW division of Shaw Media) since July 31, 1980.
I started in the column game back in August 1977 when Dave Dreier gave me a chance to start writing a local history column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel. It was interesting part-time work that came in handy since I’d retired on disability from my previous job.
I began writing every other week, with the intervening weeks taken up by Mike Muzzy’s column on the local arts and music scene. But gradually, Dave moved “Epochs” up to running weekly, at least when there was room.
The Sentinel was always short of money, so getting paid was often an adventure in itself. When the checks were handed out on Friday afternoon, there was a general stampede to the bank to cash them before the money in the account ran out. While Dave was creative, business sense wasn’t really his forte. Later, it was found that the woman Dave hired as the paper’s business manager was stealing him blind.
Working at the Sentinel, even part-time, was what I imagine working at one of those underground ‘60s papers must have been like. Dave managed to assemble a great group of writers that committed actual journalism in Oswego, really for the first time ever.
Gradually, though, that talented bunch went on to other things as they saw the business problems at the Sentinel increasing.
So Dave wondered whether I wanted to cover some actual news for the paper since I had free time and needed the extra cash. I reminded him that I had no journalism training or experience, but he waved that away, noting that writing news stories is pretty easy.
“Here,” he said, “Let me show you.”
And he proceeded to sketch an upside-down pyramid on the back of an envelope.
“This,” he said, “Is an inverted pyramid. You write your stories like this: The most important stuff at the top, and the least important at the bottom. That way, if it has to be cut due to space problems, the less important stuff is always handy to clip off.”
And with my journalism training complete and I was sent off to cover the Kane County Board, where I learned the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure from Phil Elfstrom, who used it masterfully to maintain an iron-handed control, and the West Aurora School Board, where I got my introduction to the education beat.
But while the Sentinel was fun in a guerrilla journalism sort of way, it really wasn’t sustainable because it was in direct competition with the Oswego Ledger. The Ledger had been started in 1949 by Ford Lippold as a free-distribution paper he and his family mimeographed and assembled in his basement. It was purchased in 1965 by Ann and Don Krahn, who turned it into a subscription-based tabloid weekly. Don and Ann sold it to their son, Dave, who subsequently sold it to Jeff and Kathy Farren, publishers of the venerable Kendall County Record in Yorkville. The Record was begun in 1864 by John Redmond Marshall as the county seat paper. The Marshall family kept control until selling to Howard Pince in the 1960. Jeff and Kathy, newly-minted graduates of the Northern Illinois University School of Journalism, bought it after they got married and then also started the Plano Record. One evening Jeff Farren and Dave Dreier got together down at the Oswego American Legion (a popular local watering hole) and, concluding the community couldn’t support two papers, came to the agreement that Dave would sell to Jeff and Kathy. Which he did, and the first issue of the Ledger-Sentinel was published July 31, 1980.
I’d met Jeff and Kathy during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration when Kathy served on Kendall County Bicentennial Commission with my wife, Sue, and me as we worked on creating an updated county history. We’d all worked well together and after the Ledger-Sentinel deal was going down with Dave they asked whether I’d be willing to be the new paper’s editor. I reminded them that a) I still didn’t have any formal journalism training, b) I knew nothing about editing, and c) due to health problems I could only work part-time. They told me not to worry, that editing isn’t as hard as it might seem to some and that my familiarity with Oswego would be invaluable. Further, they’d been reading my “Epochs” column and liked it and wanted me to continue it—only they hated the name of it, to which I suggested changing it to “Reflections,” which was satisfactory to all concerned. The part-time part also wasn’t a problem, they said. They didn’t want to cover Kane County or the West Aurora Schools any more. And the village boards in Oswego and Montgomery met on different weeks, as did the Oswego School District Board, so it was possible for me to cover all of them by dedicating my Monday evenings to meeting coverage.
After a few months of that schedule, it was pretty clear I needed some help covering local government, so they authorized hiring John Etheredge. John was newly graduated from NIU’s journalism program and had actually been promised a job by Dave Dreier one evening months before when they enjoyed drinks at a popular bar called “The Office.” John was fresh off helping his dad win election to the Illinois State Senate, and was a good writer. So we hired him part-time at first, and then full-time so I could concentrate on editing, writing “Reflections,” and covering the Oswego school beat along with writing occasional features, doing annual in-depth coverage of property taxation, and the rest of the things weekly newspapers cover, although in my case on a somewhat limited part-time basis.
We must have been doing something right, despite my lack of training, though. From 1980 through my retirement as editor in 2008, the Ledger-Sentinel earned 216 awards from the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association and 99 from the Illinois Press Association. Dave Dreier’s back-of-the-envelope journalism instruction back in 1978 turned out to be pretty effective. That, along with covering local government and learning the ins and outs of how it worked led to several first place awards for school board coverage from the Illinois Association of School Boards and coverage of property taxation from the Tax Federation of Illinois.
Although I retired as the Ledger-Sentinel’s part-time editor—I’d given up the school board beat a couple years before—in 2008, Jeff and Kathy wanted me to keep writing “Reflections,” which they had started running in all four Kendall County Record, Inc. papers a few years before. And I agreed to do that, since it’s fun and because I think it’s good for folks new to our community to find out a little about what came before.
And there are a lot of new folks living here. In 1990, Kendall County’s total population was just above 39,000. In 2010, the census bureau counted nearly 115,000 county residents. Oswego’s population, during that same period, literally exploded from 3,900 to 30,000 residents.
Since that first column back in the summer of 1980, I churned out roughly 1,820 of them up through July 30 of this year, and since then I’ve added another 15 or so. That adds up to around 1.6 million words in about a half-mile of columns set at its normal 3.25” width.
Every once in a while as I was working as the Ledger-Sentinel’s editor, someone or other would pitch an idea for a column to me. When they did, I’d use Dave Dreier’s method to separate the wheat from the chaff. Write a half dozen columns for me, I’d reply, and we’ll see what they look like. The thing is, as Dave once noted, just about everyone has an idea for one good column. A few people might even have ideas for two or three. But coming up with good ideas for six columns is pretty difficult. In fact, I never had anyone get back to me with their packet of six columns.
So far, it’s been 35 years and counting for me at the “Reflections” column game, not to mention writing something now and then for this blog—something that didn’t even exist when I blundered into journalism back in 1977—plus the columns I did for the Sentinel. The thing about history, even local history, is that new stuff keeps popping up which leads to new takes on old stories and ideas. I plan to keep on chronicling as much as I can as long as I can so that the things, good and bad, people have been doing around these parts for the last few thousand years aren’t forgotten.