Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Next American Tragedy

I’ve just finished a good book. Two things made this reading experience unusual. Larry Tobin, copublisher of the Tomahawk Leader, is the author of Pressing Matters. I started my journalism career at the Leader 53 years ago, and could relate personally to his tale of a weekly newspaper owner's adventures. Although Tobin spent years writing his first novel, its appearance at this point in history could not have been timelier.

The other half of the publishing team in my northern Wisconsin hometown, Kathy Tobin, recently issued a positive review of my memoir, Days With The Dads: Recollections of a Small-Time Journalist. Reviewers look for a key attribute that differentiates the book under examination from others. Mrs. Tobin said, “Yes, Dick Klade has a knack for remembering the most unusual ordinary moments.” After pondering that observation, I realized it’s a pretty apt description of the tales in my book. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

You may think Mrs. Tobin’s friendly comments influenced my analysis of her husband’s work. I recognized that possibility, and took pains to consider his book objectively. After all, I have no obligation to say anything whatsoever about it, although it served as a springboard to an important forecast.

Two things separate Larry Tobin’s novel from the herd. He builds suspense in a masterful, and quite unusual, way. He gets a reader engrossed in guessing about the outcome of a situation, relieves the tension by giving us the problem’s resolution, and immediately starts building new suspense about another problem. Most novelists build suspense about a single situation, with a grand-climax revelation at the end. Tobin does it differently, and the result is a good read.

Pressing Matters has a central theme—a moral to the story, if you will—running through it. The plot has a small-time newspaper publisher exposing serious corruption involving city officials. The discovery of the wrongdoing doesn’t happen because the publisher is a crusader by nature or stays up nights looking for dirt to dig. It happens just because he and his newspaper are there, and their normal news-gathering work begins to reveal suspicious activities. The big message is that newspapers are vital parts of our society.

To me, that’s a truism that cannot be repeated too often. It has been true since our founding fathers protected newspapers in the first amendment to the constitution. It has been true in big cities where crooked mayors were forced out of office by editorial heat. It has been true in small cities, like De Pere, Wisconsin, where embarrassed city council members threw out the bids for a new police car after I reported improper conduct at the bid opening by the Ford dealer who also was a councilman.

Somebody has to keep an eye on the everyday activities of public servants. When that stops, democracies are doomed. Tobin’s mythical publisher tells us why: “There is an arrogance of power that afflicts not just heads of state—the Napoleons, the Tsars, the Nixons. Whenever authority is unchecked it can be abused at every level of our lives. Some people feel their sense of power—real or imagined—gives them the right to act without consideration for those around them or for the moral effects of their actions.”

Unfortunately, the newspapers big and small that have been there when needed to hold public servants accountable are doomed. Radio didn’t do them in; people couldn’t remember much of what was said. Television didn’t kill them, as many predicted it would; stations made a lot more money airing comedies than presenting news. Free shopping guides didn’t do the deed, although they hurt papers in many localities by siphoning off advertising revenue. Newspapers survived because they could deliver a product to subscribers that the competitors could not match with sound bites and exclusively commercial offerings.

The Internet is what has plunged the daggers into the hearts of newspapers large and small. It can deliver ads, news, and opinions instantly at little or no cost to the “publishers” and with great convenience for the readers. Free want ads available at sites like Craigslist have crippled the lucrative newspaper classified ad business that radio, television, and shopping guides could not destroy.

Growing numbers of young moderns do not subscribe to newspapers, nor do they read them at all. The total number of newspapers in the United States has been declining rapidly for more than a decade; the current economic crisis merely accelerated the mergers and failures. Some of our oldest news institutions are suffering mightily or disappearing.

The owner of the Chicago Tribune, which immodestly called itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper” when it was our family paper years ago, was $13 billion dollars in debt in December when he declared bankruptcy. Just as it was about to turn 100, the Christian Science Monitor announced it will stop publishing next month, except for a puny weekly offering, and shift to providing Internet news. The decision was based on rising costs and dwindling circulation.

With the Wall Street Journal on the right and the New York Times on the left, the Monitor occupied the center ground as one of the only newspapers that could be thought of as “national” in the U.S. Its daily editions restricted church news to a small, clearly labeled section. The rest of the paper was considered by most professional journalists to display excellent, objective reporting and some of the best analysis available. The “print bite” approach taken by U.S.A. Today hardly qualifies it as a worthy replacement for the Monitor in the national newspaper arena.

So what? If Americans can get their news and analysis from a flock of TV networks, websites, and blogs, why should we care if newspapers die?

For one thing, we should care because of potential government control of the very organizations who should be watching it. The first amendment is precise about what type of media it protects from control:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press . . . “

When commercial radio appeared, so did the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC regulates the airways by licensing stations, including those used by the rapidly proliferating television networks. Although court decisions have gradually extended first amendment protections to broadcasters, the coverage as yet is not equal to that afforded the print media. It probably never truly will be. Those who assign channels obviously could control what is presented. That is a risk we should not be willing to run.

The great strength of the Internet, total freedom from any control other than feeble attempts by legislators to limit pornography, is its great weakness as a news source. It’s a free for all. Few bloggers have any credentials, and so far the few websites claiming to purvey legitimate news have taken the TV sound bite approach and probably will continue to do so. Some legitimate analysis is presented, but it’s hard to recognize it amid all the junk. Most of the good analysis is merely a repeat of articles from the dwindling number of print media.

When the newspapers are gone, who will cover the local school board meeting? Who will have the training and motivation to cut through red tape and secrecy and get to the bottom of things when an action of a town or county board smells funny? Who will write thoughtful analyses giving us the meaning, not just the fact, of events? Who will document the little things—the births, deaths, business changes, and small tragedies and triumphs—that collectively become the history of our country? We don’t know, and that is sad.

One of the great founders of our nation made the strength of his feelings on the subject clear:

“. . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1787.

Mr. Jefferson, the newspapers you saw as necessary in a vibrant democracy are about to disappear from the American scene. That disaster is not many years away. I may not be around to say, “I told you so,” but perhaps those of you who are younger will recall you first read the dire prediction here. I very much regret feeling compelled to make it, but I think a death announcement from a friend is slightly better than one from an enemy.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bearded Look-Alikes

Ron Lindmark and I were clean-shaven young men when we worked together in the mid-1970s at Intermountain Research Station headquarters in Ogden, Utah. Lindmark moved up to a post in the Forest Service national office and that led to his appointment as Director of the North Central Research Station, the hub of renewable natural resource studies in the Midwest.

Lindmark’s messages usually contain a fascinating bit of trivia or two in addition to the normal accounts of the whereabouts and activities of mutual acquaintances. His latest communication did not disappoint. He had been reading this Blog. “I just had to include this photo after viewing your photo,” he said. “I noticed that the lower parts of our faces are similar.”

I noticed that the economist, who had been well-trained as a scientist, had carefully qualified his observation. Unlike many men of similar vintage, Lindmark still has an abundant crop of hair on top of his head as well as on the bottom. He also continues to be a rather handsome guy for an old gaffer. Unfortunately for me, those facts seriously limit the number of our similarities. However, the story Lindmark sent with the photo of himself and his alleged famous likeness described a situation with Latino hero worshippers somewhat similar to one of my experiences.

Lindmark said he had taken to sporting a scraggily full beard he started on a camping trip shortly after retiring. He converted it to the present carefully trimmed goatee after his wife, Lynette, protested that he looked like Yasir Arafat. The trim job apparently made him look like another celebrity. On a visit to Mexico, several young storekeepers insisted that he was Colonel Sanders of fried chicken fame. “I said NO, he died several years ago, but I am his brother,” Lindmark recalled. “That was a mistake! I was mobbed.” Lindmark’s grandchildren also noted the resemblance, and the bobblehead pictured with him here was a birthday present from them.

I concealed myself behind a semi-full beard for about 20 years before deciding the goatee was more sophisticated (and also called less attention to the increasingly sparse cover on the top of my head). While fully bearded, I experienced a look-alike encounter in Jamaica when Sandy and I were taking a tour with a busload of other visitors. We were in the first two seats next to the driver. I was wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat.

The driver had stopped so we could walk past some open-air shops to an historic church and back. Just as all were aboard, a teenager waving his arms ran out from one of the shops. He pounded on the bus door, pointing at me, and yelling, “Kenny Rogers, Kenny Rogers!”

The driver angrily indicated he wanted the interloper to get away. When the racket continued, the driver simply started to pull away. The Rogers fan was undaunted. He ran along beside my window, and as the bus accelerated he jumped up and clung to the rear of the vehicle. He continued to bang on the bus and yell what he thought was my name.
At the next stop the driver dismounted and pried the teenager off his bus.

Actually, Kenny Rogers and I have one thing in common. Although it is true that Rogers is a great showman who knows how to tell a musical story, neither of us has much of a singing voice.
Nevertheless, I thought being mistaken for him was quite an honor; at least I did before discovering an entire web site devoted to Kenny Rogers look-alikes.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wake Up and Cheer

The University of Wisconsin basketball squad was one of the last teams selected for this year’s “March Madness,” the NCAA tournament. That was a bit of a comedown from the past few tourney designations, although in a way it was a break for my alma mater because the team did not have a banner year.

When I was a student at UW, getting into an NCAA tournament by any means possible would have touched off a tremendous celebration in Madison. The Badger hoopsters were awful. Coach Bud Foster was in the twilight of his lengthy career, still playing the slow-motion basketball that brought him success in the 1940s. The trouble was, it was the l950s.

The old Fieldhouse, which came to be known as The Barn, had plenty of vacant seats when the Badger basketballers were being overwhelmed by an opponent. This was in complete contrast to the situation nowadays in the new Kohl Center, where the fans, dubbed “The Grateful Red,” occupy every available seat and raise the roof with cheering that sometimes helps befuddle visiting teams.

In the 1950s, you could have gone to sleep at a game in the Fieldhouse. I did. Because my student athletic ticket book was prepaid, I went to see two games. For the second, a slaughter administered by Indiana, I brought along a very thick history book. After reading it for awhile, I put it beneath my head as a surrogate pillow as I stretched out across a vacant row of seats. I slept through most of the second half. So did the Badgers.

There was no sleeping in the Fieldhouse when the Badger boxers performed in the 50s. The place always was packed to the rafters with 15,000 fans. I never missed a night at the fights, especially because three fraternity brothers—Bob Morgan, Terry Tynan, and Bob Meath—were among the Wisconsin pugilists. Morgan and Meath both won NCAA championships. The team never lost to a visiting group during my years on campus. The “Grateful Red” would have been proud and loud.

The competition was fierce. Michigan State, Idaho, Louisiana State, and Syracuse had good teams. None was better than the Badgers, however. Fighters wearing cardinal and white so dominated college boxing for 20 years that a writer titled his book describing the era as Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Team.

The tragedy happened in 1960, three years after I graduated, and it happened in the Fieldhouse. Charlie Mohr, a talented Badger boxer who was an Olympic team prospect, died of injuries sustained in the ring when the NCAA tournament was held at Madison. That horrible event signaled the end of college boxing. It was to be the last NCAA boxing tournament.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tender, Loving Wear

Last night was St. Patrick’s Day eve. By chance, I was introduced to Pat Davis at a meeting of the Plainwell Arts Council. She was well-acquainted with all the members of the O’Leary family, the clan from whom we bought our home. If O’Leary isn’t Irish, what is?

We like what Mrs. Davis called "the O’Leary house.” Everyone around here refers to it that way. For us, it’s the right space in the right place. Sandy has a special area where she can stamp and craft things to her heart’s content, and I have my very own private place to create new tales that are electronically dispatched almost instantly to bore large segments of the populace. We can look through a multi-aged miniature oak forest onto a handsome golf course fairway and green, and have a deck big enough to share the view with a hundred or so guests should we choose to throw a really big summer shindig.

The only problem is that the house has been occupied by various O’Learys and several different renters for brief periods of time over the past five years. It has not had the quality of care that can be provided only by a single set of dedicated owner-occupants. The list of things large and small to be shaped up is lengthy.

When we first moved in, it seemed as though a new intriguing problem lurked in every corner. The large number of phone jacks and television connections was impressive, but about half connected to nothing. The second day, a high-powered garage door opener opened nothing. In some places less-than-wonderful amateur wiring posed potential hazards, and a small opening allowed raindrops to fall unimpeded into the attic. And, etc., etc., etc.

The most important things were fixed fairly quickly. Our handy son, Lee, did yeoman work, even sacrificing his vacation days to perform repair tasks ranging from plastering to rewiring. His fiancee, Karen, solved electronic mysteries that baffled everyone else. They worked so hard we are thinking of increasing their “Klade pay” from “free sheets on Sunday” to the old Army standard, “three hots and a cot.”

When temperatures soared the other day, we thought it was time to haul screens up from the basement. Five cover two windows and three double doors opening to the deck. The screens were in a downstairs storage area where lighting is adequate, but fairly dim.

We checked the screens out and decided finally we had found elements of the house that could be put into service without any repairs or adjustments. Surprise! When we hauled the screens to daylight, it was plain to see that the mesh in three of the five was not going to keep out mosquitoes or other pesty wonders of nature. The next stop for the screens will be the repair shop behind the local hardware store.

When we met Mary O’Leary Knecht at our sale closing, she said, “There’s a lot of love in that house.” She described how her brother had taken time out from his construction business in Texas to custom-build it for their parents. She talked about many good times in the home and neighborhood. She was gracious and helpful.

The sellers were honorable in every respect. We knew an 18-year-old house was not going to be perfect in every detail. We made a fair deal with the O’Learys. All will be well, but it will take a bit of time to get it there.

Now, if we can just figure out how to replace that bronze leprechaun holding a shamrock on the front door with a guy wearing lederhosen and an alpine hat . . . .

Friday, March 13, 2009

Degrees of Belief

Quite a few Michiganders have interrogated me about life in Utah when they learned we lived for 30 years in the Beehive State. None have asked directly so far, but sooner or later most get around to finding out if we are Mormons.

I tell them there were many good, and a few not so good, things about living for years as a minority in a society dominated by a single religion. One of the wonderful things was how LDS (stands for Latter-day Saints) believers support and nurture members of their families. Incidentally, LDS people refer to all others as “nonmembers” or “gentiles.” Even Jews become gentiles in Utah, which probably surprises quite a few of them.

Like “backsliding Baptists” in the South, who are known to get much closer to bourbon bottles and other sorts of sinful behavior than their pastors recommend, some Mormons don’t follow the letter of the law. “Jack Mormons” covertly or overtly guzzle alcohol on occasion and even smoke. Both practices are banned by the “Word of Wisdom," which is supposed to be observed by all true believers. The Jacks often refer contemptuously to the hardliners as “Churchy” people. Polygamists, who officially were excluded from LDS membership more than 100 years ago, are known by both groups as “Pligs.” Thousands of Pligs live in Utah and nearby.

Just for fun, I like to build suspense by letting the conversations about our Utah past go a while before making it known that we are none of the above. Back in the days when my work required a fair amount of airline travel, I often astonished fellow passengers by musing about which of my wives would be there to greet me when my flight landed at the Salt Lake airport.

Oh well, I also for years have introduced Sandy as my “first wife.” She is not always altogether happy about that.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Always a Lady

Recently, I sent a brief history of some highlights in my Mother’s 89-year life in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, to Darlene Wurl. Mrs. Wurl is putting together displays featuring some of the women who contributed much to my hometown community through their civic activities.

My little story included the obvious. My mother was a founding member of her Christian Science society, and later served as First Reader for more that 20 years. Mom also was a long-time member of several clubs that sponsored many civic activities and improvements. She was elected to the Board of Education, perhaps the first woman to achieve that distinction, and served for 11 years, the last nine as Board President. She was the first woman to hold the board presidency.

What my story left out, because it was inappropriate for Mrs. Wurl’s project, was the most important thing. My Mother was first, last, and always a lady. I never heard her utter a negative comment about a fellow human being. When the going got tough, her responses never were anger or regret; they were positive, sympathetic, and encouraging. She would not have considered striking her children, or anyone else. She dressed up before walking downtown to shop.

When Mother was about 87, she became very weak and tired. Finally, she strayed from her Christian Science principles in an effort to stop her decline. With a referral from Doctor R. J. Henderson, who had been a fellow board of education member, she went to the Marshfield Clinic for a series of tests.

Like the much more famous Mayo Clinic, the Marshfield Clinic was known throughout Wisconsin and much of the Midwest as an outstanding diagnostic institution. It attracted many doctors considered authorities in their specialties. Mom’s first tests showed a need for more focused exams, and she asked me to come home and drive her to the clinic for that work and to hear the diagnosis by an expert M.D.

The expert was a kindly man in his mid-50s who was very professional in explaining the problem. Mom’s hearing was not good, so he talked primarily to me and I repeated what he said so we would be sure Mom understood. The bottom line was that her body was not making sufficient white blood corpuscles, and the only treatment our expert knew of was a male hormone in capsule form, which he prescribed.

Mom nodded quite agreeably at that part of the news. But then, the doctor went into a description of side effects from taking the hormone. “You will develop more hair on your arms and legs than you have now,” he said. He smiled just slightly, and said Mom might even want to shave off a few whiskers that the drug could cause to sprout.

Mother didn’t wait for me to repeat a word of that. “Listen, young man,” she told the middle-aged physician, “I’ve been a lady all my life, and I’m not going to do one single thing that will change that.”

I reasoned with Mom on the drive home. She relented a little, and I had the prescription filled at Tomahawk Drug. About a month later on another visit, I noticed the medicine bottle in a bathroom cabinet. Mom had not taken a single capsule.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Different Solution

“Isn’t it about time for you to get ready for your appointment?” Sandy asked. I was lounging before the computer in my pajamas doing some serious work by taking on three robotic electronic figures in a game of hearts.

“Heck, that’s not for a couple of hours,” I said.

“Did you forget we were supposed to change to daylight time today?”

“I didn’t forget anything, It’s only a little after eleven, and I’m not supposed to be there until one thirty.”

An application of wifely wisdom quickly convinced me the appointment was only about 20 minutes away, not several hours. I had once again failed in my feeble attempts to adjust the mysterious workings of my digital watch, and my guesstimate of the “new” time was based on Mountain, not Eastern, time.

Several months ago, after reading about the Campbell Solution to Coping with Digital Watches (see “Seeking a Timely Solution” posted Nov. 20), Sandy handed me a comic gift. It was a duplicate of the cheap Walmart watch that had become my everyday timepiece. The dupe was set to daylight time so I could merely change watches when time changes were called for each spring and fall.

The Campbell Solution was put into effect to take care of things in Utah. After about an hour of intense study of directions and trial-and-error resettings, I succeeded in adjusting one of the watches to Eastern Time when we moved to Michigan. I forgot about the other watch, which now is several hours off the mark.

Rather than go through another digital resetting ordeal, or getting some 10-year-old kid to do the task for me, I adopted the Klade Solution to Digital Difficulties. I threw both digital watches into a dresser drawer and started wearing my 50-year-old, stem-wound Bulova. It doesn’t do anything but tell time, but I can set it right in an instant if it goes astray.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Start a Conversation

Life is going to be hard now and then, no matter what we do. But it doesn’t have to be grindingly dull.

For years, Sandy and I have long resisted the herd instincts that cause people to wear advertisements for Adidas, Old Navy, and other products and shopping meccas. What are those people advertising? That they are consumers? Can you imagine stopping someone to exchange some interesting chit chat about your mutual adventures traveling down aisles at J.C. Penney?

Why not use your personal advertising space to make a statement about who you are, or perhaps better, bring a smile to those you meet? A surprising, and interesting, array of fellow fans turned up when I wore Green Bay Packer shirts and caps in Idaho and Utah, and that continues to happen in Michigan. I’ve found fellow U of Wisconsin grads in some strange places by sporting Badger sweatshirts.

The message seems a trifle mundane to me, but a T-shirt of mine that says “Fairways Forever, Housework Never” generates smiles and laughter wherever it’s been seen. “Never anger someone who knows how to handle knitting needles” gives viewers a chuckle when Sandy displays it, and it also led to conversations and some sales when she was actively pursuing her craft business. I have yet to make one that says, “Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class,” but creating that item is on my agenda.

We don’t have any great, or expensive, art adorning the walls of our home. However, most of what we have invites questions that lead to discussions of unusual events in our lives. Conversation pieces are handy things to have around when a new acquaintance visits.

It is a pleasure to note that my harping about the value of making oneself distinctive and adding a dash of humor now and then appears to have influenced our son. Visitors to his home are greeted by a truly unique display, and its history is a nice tribute to youthful creativity.

As an apartment dwelling worker-student in Minneapolis, Lee invested in some rather fancy earphones so he could enjoy music, much of it classical, without bothering the neighbors. Seeking a safe place to rest the phones when they were not in use, he and Sandy found the perfect thing on a shopping foray during one of her visits. They bought a splendid and affordable bust of Johann Sebastian Bach. Unfortunately, it was poorly attached to a small base. Lee commandeered a limestone rock from the Mississippi River shore near his apartment, securely attached Bach to it, and drilled a fake audio cable connection into the new, ultra-stable base.

When visitors to his various homes commented about the old music master perched on a rock, wearing an over-sized set of modern earphones, and apparently tuned into something, Lee had a standard opening to his response--“Bach Rocks.”

I think Lee also accepted my message about the value of distinctive apparel. The other day he showed up wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed:

“Outside of a dog, man’s best friend is a book. Inside a dog, it is very dark.”