How You Know When You Should Go

So Linda and I took the train down to Ogilvie Station Tuesday morning bright and early and then hiked (it’s a long hike) down Adams to State and then over to Wabash by way of the DePaul Barnes & Noble and the food court. We walked out the back door then turned left and went one block, turned right and then there we were, at the entrance to Roosevelt University.

It was time to say goodbye in a formal way. By the time I got home, I had almost all of my 10,000 steps in and a sense that this part of my life had come to a fine, comfortable end.

I had to sign some papers setting my termination date for health insurance as Aug. 31. My last paycheck will come in a couple of days and then I will be floating into the world of Medicare, A&B&D and it’s complicated array of supplemental programs, one of which we must choose. I had spent 11 years teaching at Roosevelt, an unlikely assignment for a man who spent most of his time chasing stories or the challenging lives of reporters who worked for me, or with me.

Chuck Middleton, the former Roosevelt president, asked me to lunch just as my time at The Chicago Tribune was coming to an end, 27 years after it began and about 37 years after I started working as a not-old-enough-to-drink reporter at the Mirror in Altoona, Pa. He told me he had been reading my columns and thought I would make a good professor at Roosevelt, where he was president.

There are a lot of things I need to say thank you for in my life, and my job at Roosevelt was a big one. I had nothing but tons of experience and my own undergraduate degree from the school (honors grad and so on). I told him I didn’t think I was qualified for a world of tenure and academic achievement. I was, after all, just a reporter and writer.

On the other hand, I had written a whole shelf of books, investigated all kinds of wrongdoing, covered the Soviet Union back when that meant something (76 to 79) and had been up to my eyes in a lot of great stories in my career. He said I was well prepped to talk to young people about journalism. He thought I would accept a position at Northwestern, where I had taught for a couple of semesters, because of the prestige of the place. I thought not. It was great to be there for a while, but kind of stuffy and newly wrong-headed about journalism.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, had little of the reputation of Northwestern but more than enough passion for me. What a great faculty the place had! Very dedicated. Experienced. Human. Not stuffy. And so on. It wasn’t hard for me to make that choice. Besides, Roosevelt offered me beyond the salary of Medill. I have always been pushed along by a need for money. So I took the Roosevelt offer.

It didn’t work out the way I thought it would. I found it hard to relate to people who lived in such an abstract world. One thing you had to recognize about my journalism career, there was no abstraction there. Who, what, when, where, why and sometimes how. I built a good reputation on being able to handle those realities.

It was also full of adventure, which academia is not.

Very not.

I never went for Tenure, which would have pretty severely limited what I could teach.  I created courses based on my career. Presidential Rhetoric, Campaigns, Crime, and one of my most favorite courses, Dirty Words. All I had to do was line up enough students and the courses would run. The title I got, Presidential Writer in Residence, confused almost everyone. Some people thought I wrote the president’s speeches. Not at all.

Before I knew it, 11 years had passed and I was called into the provost’s office and told, very kindly, that my contract would not be renewed when it ended in 2020. I was a money thing, I was told. I would get the strongest references anyone could imagine if I wanted them. There were no complaints about my work. My students gave me very high grades. I never harassed anyone, except for that one guy who thought I made up my background and looked angrier as the semester went on. We talked and that one calmed down.

I thought about it and something no one intended was sparked. I left the Tribune after a strong career because the place was out of money and senior reporters and editors were being asked to take early retirement. This felt the same way. President Middleton was gone, replaced by a new president who was just as interesting a guy, but who didn’t know me from Adam. He was shaking the trees to save money and I and some others who were not tenured professors fell out.

I’m actually happy about that.

I’m 69 years old. I can’t get away with pretending I am cool anymore, my stories are all so old and outdated, along with my skills. It was time. Maybe beyond time. So I told them I wasn’t waiting until 2020, I was going to leave at the end of spring semester in 2018. Which is what I did.

There is something I have to take note of as the door closes on that part of my life.

I really loved students, even the dubious ones who clearly did not know why they were in school. The more troubled they were, the more I liked to listen to what they had to say. They could not scare me, not even a bit. But they certainly did engage me in a way I did not expect. I have never been the most well-behaved of characters.  I have deep and barely controlled angers that sometimes come exploding to the surface. But not with students. Strange how that can happen. I looked forward to every class, every day. I wanted to help anyone I could.

And I will miss all of them more than I can tell you.

“What are you going to do now?”

That’s the most frequent question I get. Other than being Charlie Madigan, I just can’t say. I will build ukuleles, play guitar, write songs, pick up the occasional book contract and try to age gracefully, which is a big challenge.  My aches have aches. But I stumble along in my own ungainly way, an old man constructed of layers of memories, most of them quite wonderful, and now with 11 years of faces I don’t ever want to forget.