Archived Story

John Eby: Talking like trying to corral soap bubbles

Published 4:34pm Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happy 114th birthday Feb. 6 to the Dowagiac Daily News.

Since this year marks my 30th anniversary as Daily News managing editor, against my better judgment I accepted Dee Leversen’s invitation to address Dowagiac Rotary Club Feb. 3.

ebyShe suggested I talk about meeting deadlines (like the time I felt vindicated by being four minutes late when the yard was dug up, cutting power, and I drove the paper to Niles on a disk, only to have a publisher impress upon me that I owed him more than $300 for all the people standing around in his mailroom), how I pick articles and how much leeway I have writing a column.

I figured I’d recount a few career highlights — lying on the ground in 1991 with a tee clenched in my teeth while a highly-trained (I hoped) trick-shot professional drove golf balls off my face deep into the woods behind the Elks course for my birthplace, Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital; driving a police car from a fire scene with lights flashing; kissing a pig in 1994 at the third annual Pork Country Festival and getting “crowned” with a straw hat by Miss Dowagiac Stacy Dean; scaling the water tower; witnessing Rainbow Farm; receiving three write-in votes for school board in 1987; me and Ron Reagan at the 1992 Pit Spit; suing the school district in 1985; getting a dedicatory shout out in Michael Collins’ “Lost Souls”; being included in Editor and Publisher’s 2003 look at “What America’s tiniest papers think about Iraq”; angering George W. Bush in my one-on-one interview; shaking hands with Jimmy Carter; getting quoted in Rolling Stone last summer; and, thanks to the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, meeting my literary heroes (Kurt Vonnegut lectured me on the difference between cynicism and skepticism) and now starting through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Writing is safe, like stringing word necklaces. You can examine each, rearrange them, replace them like burned-out bulbs on a Christmas tree to create different colors. But talking? Words tumble out in a tangled torrent until your train of thought derails and your tongue ties.

Spoken words are unruly, as I learned the hard way moderating a 2000 League of Women Voters House debate at Beckwith Theatre or addressing 800 high school students at Southwestern Michigan College’s 1988 Community Awareness Day.

I’m unique in Cass County, the only daily newspaper editor.

That’s partly how I got to know Michael Collins, who disparages a fictional journalist in Cass County, though I did finally cover a bake sale after Hurricane Katrina. Michael told Rotary on April 15, 2010, “John Eby and I have had a give and take over the years. He always thinks he’s the star of my award-winning novel, The Keepers of Truth. And he is. And he isn’t. I giveth and take away. But I don’t think there’s anybody else in America in a small town newspaper who documents the history of a town like he does. You go out to any event and John’s there, and somehow the story gets written the next day. He just kind of absorbs the whole community, so in 50 or 100 years when you look back and say, ‘What was Dowagiac like?’ it’s going to be one person that you look to who wrote the history of this town.”

What an epitaph for a shy guy, but that was one of the pulls of journalism — being close enough to the action to see behind the scenes. I covered Fred Upton’s first campaign for Congress in 1986, when Mark Siljander brought Jack Kemp to Niles to stump. I wrote the story when Gov. William Milliken appointed Judge Michael Dodge. It was heartening in Detroit to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning Free Press reporter Jim Schaefer describe himself as shy. I received a “Pullet Surprise” — an egg — from Cass County Farm Bureau in 1990.

My mom always counseled me to get a teaching certificate to have something to fall back on. I couldn’t even cut teaching Junior Achievement at Patrick Hamilton, where I began my career 43 years ago in fifth grade.

We sold our paper for a nickel and “commissioned” Alice Lewis to paint a picture of the school that last I knew still hangs in the office. Our teacher, Florilla Chapman, retired in 1974, but I hunted her down in retirement in 1985 to write a column about My Favorite Teacher. “It brought a lot of sunshine in my life,” she wrote. The only other real job I’ve had was barpretending at the Grand Hotel two summers in college. Journalism enabled me to mingle with my heroes while chronicling my community.

Growing up, I wanted to be Bob Greene or George Plimpton.

Not only did I get to cover both, but when Bob came to the fair with Jan and Dean, I caught him buying a Daily News out of the vending machine.

I remember going to vote in 1992 after having seen Bill and Hillary Clinton on 9/11, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Ross Perot, who autographed a Daily News. The Internet opened up a whole world of possibilities. When I wrote about Brad Yazel helping in New Orleans, FEMA called the next day. When a UFO hovered over O’Hare  and I remarked how odd it was no one snapped a phone photo, I was besieged with scientific papers.

I thought two anecdotes would sum everything up.

In Debategate, my fleeting fame lasted 15 minutes, but the feeling of being interviewed will linger the rest of my life.

Our congressman, Dave Stockman, spoke to Cassopolis Optimist Club Oct. 28, 1980, at Diamond Harbor Inn (demolished in 1989) and confided he was just back from prepping Ronald Reagan for his debate with Carter with a “pilfered” briefing book. It was a big laugh line. The article ran across the top of the paper, but I hid my shame that Newsweek magazine was unable to obtain pictures of him at the infamous podium because I forgot to put film in my camera. When the story resurrected in June 1983 with publication of a book, the national media blew in with gale force. Barbara Walters, the Chicago Tribune, CNN, BBC.

The Free Press insinuated I was lying since Stockman didn’t remember making any such claim. I pointed out I took notes while Optimists sipped cocktails, and why did it take three years for anyone to object?

The Baltimore Sun thought the account was so detailed it reprinted it. But when Columbia Journalism Review weighed in, the magazine said if I interviewed Mrs. Lincoln I would have asked her how she liked the play. Ouch! That slam was written by Chris Hansen in his pre-predator catching days.

I especially wanted to share with Rotary the humbling story with the Paul Harvey punchline of Helen, an 88-year-old Keeler woman whose house was being shot at. My column, “Nobody Wants Nobody,” won me $300 for first place in distinguished opinion in the Detroit Press Club Foundation’s 16th annual statewide awards on May 7, 1981.

Van Gordon Sauter, president of CBS Sports, made the presentation. Finalists included Free Press columnist Jim Fitzgerald and Betty DeRamus, later a Detroit News columnist.

Helen’s peaceful existence was being shattered by bullets whizzing through her kitchen.
Hunters likely didn’t even know it was inhabited, but she had a fascinating story as the daughter of a prominent Chicago architect. I already felt sheepish because I hadn’t wanted to talk to her initially. The paper matched the prize money. I got a proclamation from City Council.

And another phone call. This acclaim had not gone unnoticed by Helen: “Where’s my cut?” As my gut felt punched, her laughter filled the phone. She was just pulling my chain. She even sent me a box of handkerchiefs.

Sometimes, if you keep an open mind, stories look for you.

I was supposed to split the time with Sheriff Joe Underwood, but my back was to the clock. Minutes sped by.

Sorry, Joe. No wonder President Don Woodhouse laughed when I told him I was voted quietest in high school.

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