Thursday, May 12, 2011

Trios of tragedy: Waiting for the final shoe to fall

There’s a saying in newsrooms that bad things come in threes.

Some insist the expression pertains only to celebrities, but many journalists will share anecdotes of trios of bad news events that share nothing in common except that the observer has linked them into a string of three because of one subjective element – “bad” news.

But let’s face it – one man’s trash is another’s treasure is a principle that can be applied to news. In point of fact, Osama bin Laden’s death certainly was greeted as good news in the United States.  But I am fairly certain he was not too fond of the idea at the time. After all, if dying a martyr is such a great and honored aspiration in Islam, why did he choose to use his wife as a shield before he was shot down? Seriously.

Regardless, this week, I am left wondering, when will the third hammer strike in the lives of my friends and family.

On Saturday, a good friend of my oldest son passed away in his sleep. At 24, Jeff had made his share of poor choices, but I have been convinced for some time that despite that, he had a good heart. I found out about Jeff shortly after our church service on Sunday morning.

I felt badly for his family – his grandmother attends the same church I do and has been a fantastic friend for years. I also felt badly for my son, who also is a remarkable person. Of course, I say that about each of my three sons and two daughters, but let me explain about Brian, who at 24 is my oldest, and then share something about David, 19, my middle son, before concluding my observations about trios of tragedy.

Years ago, after moving my family from Fort Collins, Colo., to Elgin, Ill., my brother-in-law took his own life. My family got word of the tragedy while I was busy working as the night desk chief of The Courier-News in Elgin.

Brian called me on deadline and said something like, “Dad, Uncle Steve killed himself and Mom is crying. I think you should come home.”

At the time, Brian could not have been any more than 10 years old. I wrote a column about it afterward, because I was impressed with the character he showed in the midst of awful evening. He must have learned it from his mother, because for more than four years of his still young life, I had been so devoted to my work in a town an hour’s drive away that most days I was home only long enough to sleep, shower and grab a bite to each day before rushing back to work. That, of course, left me wiped out on the weekends.

Back then, I was spinning my wheels with all my might to advance my career, which ultimately I thought would be good for my family. Ultimately, however, it kept me from drawing too close to that boy and nearly killed my relationship with my wife.

Oh, to be able to do it over again, differently.

But Brian’s call that night saw me, for the first time in my life, say to hell with deadline. I told a co-worker I was leaving and why as I headed out the door so that I could try to comfort my grieving wife.

So when I heard on Sunday that Jeff had died – Brian was working at the time – I considered how best to tell him. I wanted to call him, but then I wanted to be able to tell him to his face. Yet, when we got home, Lisa thought it best to wait. I respected that, but still inside I wrestled with the idea of driving over to tell him personally. A big part of me thought it would be best for him to hear about this from someone who loved him.

I need not have been concerned.

Soon after we got home from church, Brian came home himself. He had left work early, after David, my 19-year-old, had shown the same kind of concern and character I had admired so much in Brian so many years ago. David had called when Brian was on a break to let him know what had happened.

To say that I was grateful to David for his compassion is an understatement. To say I am also proud of him doesn’t seem nearly enough, either.

Brian seems to be doing OK. He came home from work early Sunday because his
friend had died. He grieves, but he will have some good memories to comfort him in his grief.

I love and am proud of each of the five children my wife has borne. Lisa is pretty incredible herself. She’s gone through a lot in her own life, including nearly 27 years with me, and yet has emerged a remarkable woman in so many ways.

The memorial service for Jeff is tonight, May 12, and unfortunately, I will not be there on time, if at all. I made a commitment a week ago to take my daughters to a school carnival, and I intend to honor it.

But back to the threes.

For all the relief I eventually felt after I was laid off in December, it didn’t take much for a renewed grief to come rushing back like a fully loaded freight train on Wednesday.

The first inkling came with an instant Facebook message from Mike Bjorklund, a talented young designer I had come to know while employed by Sun-Times Media. I had been looking through job listings when he messaged me that he had been let go. By the time I saw it, he was offline, so I could ask him no questions.

I e-mailed another former colleague I was sure was working that day, but Julia Doyle did not respond – not then, anyway.

I tried instant messaging another former colleague, but he IM’d back that he could not chat at the moment.

So I finally got on the horn and called another. It took more than a few rings before he picked up. And he sounded haggard.

It turns out that Sun-Times Media had not only laid off Mike, but also three very good friends of mine as well – friends I had hoped were safe from the massive blood-letting the struggling media company has done over the past three years.

One is Julia, a great pal who is very talented as both a copy editor and as a page designer. I had the pleasure of working with her for nearly six years before I was let go.

The other two, Joe and Char Gillette, I had come to know soon after I started at The Courier-News in Elgin, even though they worked for a sister paper, The Beacon-News, in Aurora, some 24 miles to the south. It's very difficult for me to describe my feelings for this dear, dear couple, I got to know them more than 16 years ago, usually talking to one or the other by phone about the status of the stories our two papers often shared. With each call, I got more of a kick talking with them, and this went on for years. So when I was forced by the company to start working in Aurora in the summer of 2008, I was angry about the forced commute each day but relieved that I would be in good company with Joe and Char and some of the other Beacon-News staff.

I tried calling Julia but realized I had dialed her work number. I did not find her cell number until later. I tried calling Joe and Char but could only leave a message on their voice mail.

Then I rushed off to a marathon Elgin City Council meeting, which I was covering for BocaJump, the hyper-local Elgin news site where I work as a free-lance digital journalist.

During the meeting, I sat at the same table as another former colleague, a reporter. The Sun-Times is not apparently looking to cut reporters at this point, and we commiserated during breaks in the meeting.

As the session progressed, I typed almost mechanically – for these meetings, we use Cover It Live, an online application like Twitter, but on steroids, to provide live-blogging coverage of the City Council meetings to our readers. I listen to what’s being said, digest it for a moment and then type a shortened translation for our readers to consider.

As I typed, I thought of the shock and pain I had experienced on that day a little more than five months ago when Sun-Times Media let me go. My heart ached for my friends who had been hurt in this way, and for those who remain, wondering what is in store for them.

The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal, in his “Tower Ticker” blog, wrote that Sun-Times Media was believed to have cut at least nine copy editing positions at its papers in Joliet, Tinley Park and in northwest Indiana. He posted an update later saying that the company planned to cut at least 20 jobs in all, with cuts yet to come at the Sun-Times in Chicago as well as at its Aurora office. Well, I knew for a fact that four of those cuts already had been made at the Aurora office. If Rosenthal’s total is correct, seven more people will be unemployed by week’s end.

As the City Council transitioned from a committee of the whole meeting to a regular meeting and then to a meeting of the Elgin Liquor Control Commission, this now slightly cynical journalist began to think of threes and to wonder: When will the other shoe fall?

I do not think it will, because the longtime newsroom adage about tragedies coming in threes is more anecdotal and coincidental than a reflection of reality. It's kind of like all the conspiracy theories that crop up. People like to draw connections, frequently where there are none.

Over the years, for example, many people have put in their claims for 20 minutes of fame. So, when three of them die in, say, a week’s time, they are back in the spotlight for a last curtain call, as it were.

The lives of three unrelated people with little in common except that one fleeting thread called fame ultimately are united by the fate that all mortals share. And that common thread, because it is so yearned for by so many, stands out in an exceptional way that seems to invite remarkable conclusions – such as tragedies in threes.

So according to the myth, the first two tragedies have occurred and another is hanging out there in the not-too-distant future. I hope the old newsroom adage is wrong.

So to my friends and former colleagues Marty O’Mara, Paul Harth, Nick Petersen, John Russell, Tom Johnson, Nick Reiher and Jason Bauman, among many others, I pray your jobs are safe, at least until the next round, and I hope for far longer.