Friday, December 16, 2011

Resolutions forgiven and forgotten

"Forgive yourself." There's usually a story behind morning-after advice like that, but it was a mystery to me. I woke for my morning run, poked my head out the door and there it was, graffiti on my parkway planter.

"Forgive yourself." One thing's clear: At least one tagger forgives himself for vandalism. These words have been appearing on Chicago buildings and sidewalks for at least a year.

From its placement, this tag seemed aimed at people leaving the tavern next door. I could have told the tagger that the bar's clientele needed no prompting to forgive themselves for overindulgence. I would have just pointed out the vomit behind the fence. It isn't obvious when frozen.

But I wasn't asked. The tagger thinks it's better to ask forgiveness than to beg permission. So this editor started work early, not with a blue pencil but with a can of Goof-Off Graffiti Remover. Every Chicago home should have a supply.

The graffiti soon was gone, but the advice left traces all the way to the office. "Forgive yourself." I must have been the last person in Chicago to get that memo. The woman next to me on the L swatted me with her backpack, then stood back while I tried to unravel her umbrella snagged on my coat. I missed my stop. She forgave herself.

"Forgive yourself." Still, the tagger is on to something. Every year about this time I'm making resolutions not to be so selfish, so self-destructive, so imperfect. Why don't I just forgive myself? It's not as if the New Year's list is going to last till Three Kings Day.

We all can forgive ourselves for making resolutions that don't stick. We all want to make big changes, but can marshal only modest resources. In business we learn that time, resources and scope will limit any project. If we give ourselves a week to make changes, and the budget of, say, a health-club membership, we're only committing to changes around the margins. Hardly enough for changes around the waistline.

So I'm making realistic changes this year. Like that resolution to try not to win every argument. My partner and I are too competitive. We both want to win, so we take a 90 second change and hash over it all night. Getting in one final dig and charging out the door gets me nowhere. I might forgive myself, but eventually I have to come back home and beg.

Here's how I plan to proceed, and you may want to consider this strategy yourself: Forgive others. Don't insist on the last word. Concede a small point and see where it leads you.

There are plenty of reasons to blame yourself for putting on the extra pounds. Forgive your partner his taste for burgers and fries, and you start to address why you can't make a diet stick. Soon you will find an approach you can both live with.

Forgive your alderman and your congressman for trying to deliver more than your taxes will pay for. They'll stop promising the moon for once. It could spark a revolution in politics.

Will this approach help you save the world? No, but it give your personal plan a scope that's both broader and more realistic. You cannot change what you cannot see. Giving others some slack helps you think about their limitations, about how they compare to your own, and how you can move both in a better direction.

It's an approach that works for me. If you find it unrealistic, forgive me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rahm touches the third rail, gingerly

When Rahm Emanuel was in the White House, he called immigration "the third rail of American politics," which probably set some heads scratching. Not many politicians come from districts with an electrified rapid transit system. But his meaning was clear: It's a charged issue. Don't even touch it, or you'll get a jolt you may not survive.

Now Emanuel has a new job and a new third rail. Last month as mayor he made plans to cut Chicago services next year. His first budget closes three police stations, one at 29th and Prairie in Bronzeville, another in Roscoe Village at Belmont and Western and another at Augusta and Wood, a quarter-mile from where I live in East Village. In making the announcement, Emanuel called closing police stations "the third rail of Chicago politics."

This time he wasn't steering clear; Emanuel made it a centerpiece of his budget even before his police chief could say where the cops would park their squad cars. So has it really been such an untouchable issue?

As you might expect, neighbors are opposed to the police station closing, and I can tell you how that's playing out. But it's not the only issue that can get people charged up. Pretty quickly I started seeing e-mails about cuts in library hours and 9-1-1 dispatchers. A letter from aldermen wants money put back into graffiti removal. A week before the City Council votes on the budget, I'm hearing about the six mental health clinics that would close.

I'm not hearing the high-voltage sizzle of the third rail in any of this, just a lot of static. Closing squadrooms is only one of his budget gambits, and not even the one that has gotten the most buzz.

Let's look more closely at the East Village closing. Even before Emanuel produced his budget, newspapers were identifying the 13th District as the unlucky one to lose its station house. But what does that mean? Many Chicagoans aren't quite sure what neighborhood they live in, much less which police district. When police arrested four men in a Wicker Park foot chase, the 13th District got online kudos, even though Wicker Park is not in the 13th District.

About all the station house determines is where officers show up for roll call at the beginning of their shift. The Wood Street squadroom is built like a 1950s fallout shelter but showing its age. The lockup was shut down four years ago and prisoners are transported elsewhere. In closing the station house, police move to a new building with efficient heating and new computers.

Neighbors fear what would happen without police showing the flag in their backyard, yet the city's own crime statistics show nearly as many incidents near the Wood Street station as elsewhere in the district, maybe just a bit quieter just for being located on a side street.

It's more telling how many police are on patrol, and here's where Emanuel's third rail begins to look more like an extension cord. Emanuel pledged to “put 1,000 more police on the streets” but the budget sends 50 new recruits will enter the police academy, a number that won't even offset the number of cops nearing retirement. The city has reassigned street teams into the beats, which hasn't put new cops on the street.

With the police taking $190 million in cuts, about the best Emanuel can say about manpower was that he isn't larding the budget with positions he had no intention of filling.

In this environment, one neighborhood fear about merging police districts has some merit. The remaining cops are more likely to be shifted to where there's more crime. It's hard to get upset over that. But the city has been moving cops around the city for years, so we have some idea where that might lead. When Taste of Chicago borrows cops from the neighborhoods, we literally see fireworks: Every Fourth of July our neighborhood lights up with bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers set off in alleys. None of this is legal in Illinois. It's an open question whether other crimes will be tolerated the same way.

If Emanuel were serious about changes in crimefighting, he would have to put up money for crimefighters. He can't do it with spare change. But none of the city's budget cuts have had anywhere near the impact of the prospect of new taxes. Water and sewer fees are rising. So are taxes at parking garages and hotels. Street-corner cameras soon will start tracking drivers for speeding. And the mayor already has caved in on one of the aldermen's hot-button issues: the prospect that city stickers would cost more for SUVs than for economy cars.

The real problem with these taxes is that they bring so little to the table. Somehow Emanuel plans to find $25 million by putting billboards on bridge houses, blue bins, garbage trucks, snowplows, light boxes and lifeguard towers. Selling ads to pull out of a financial jam is no sure thing. Just ask around at the Tribune.

Read my lips: Raising taxes have always been the real third rail of politics. Emanuel has been giving a wide berth to this danger zone. He may live to regret it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Chicago Reader can't go home to 21 Jump Street

It was news to a neighbor that the local community group no longer spends time at board meetings folding paper and licking stamps: The newsletter is locked up and delivered online in the time it would have taken just to phone the printer. Nostalgia for those days isn't lost on me: Collating involved at least a bit of wine and a lot of friendly chatter. But none of us would go back to the days when hyperlocal journalism involved Letraset type and library paste.

Even so, it was fun to sit back with the Chicago Reader 40th anniversary retrospective in print Wednesday night before it was let loose in cyberspace, though the issue took up less time than skimming a 1980s cover story. The nightclub and sex-shop ads were still there, so the experience hasn't changed that much.

Actually the entire Internet has followed the original Reader formula: Launch with a hazy business plan, and carry on when the plan falls apart because at least it seems like progress. Yet even though the sky's the limit (or at least the cloud) for computer space, the Reader's storied 21-page-jump expositions will never be duplicated in Web postings: In the future, every one will be world-famous in three paragraphs, or 120 characters.

I can only hope that future digital media will model the more incisive Hot Type format. Michael Miner has called me once or twice in pursuit of a story, and his keyboard clacking in the background would stop me mid-sentence: Where is he going with this? Readers ask the same question, and that's the point of the whole enterprise.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

They tried to make me stop the rehab

Irony alert: There is no 12-step group for compulsive renovators, and I spend much less time remodeling than trying to forget about the last remodeling.

Hello, my name is Stephen and I'm a remodeler. I'm here this afternoon to help all of you who share my affliction: home improvement. What a cruel phrase. Renovation is a literal home wrecker. It hits you where you live, rips it apart and leaves you with nothing but the taste of sawdust.

Looking at all of you, I see the bruised thumbs, the odd burn marks, the hair flecked with paint spatter. I hear the wheeze of lungs beat down inhaling plaster dust and paint thinner. I know I'm the presence of recovering renovators. And in this mutually supportive environment I'm prepared to make a searching and fearless inventory of my compulsion.

How does it begin? We all know the pressures of life in Chicago. Workers in a high-pressure environment thirst for fellowship, and in early evening you see them rushing out of the high-rises to gather in dank basements. They say they just need to raise a few, but we know what's going on. They'll be raising more than just a few sheets of drywall cleaning up their musty, flooded rec rooms.

Reporters especially face cruel deadlines, hear gruesome stories. At the end of the day they want to let off some steam, and letting off steam is the only way rid yourself of ugly, flocked wallpaper. In one night I'd go home and finish off a couple of cans, but I was convinced I would quit as soon as I got the paint color right. As you’ll see, I was just making excuses. The walls would never look right.

Years ago I confided to my editors about how I'd go home frustrated and start pounding holes in the wall. Today this would send you straight into an employee assistance program, but newspapers had more of an old-school approach back then. I got an assignment to write about how simple it was to build a niche in your wall to display art or collectibles. For years I continued to write about destructive behaviors – teardowns, reconfigured floor plans, emerald ash borers. My enabling editors kept me from facing the consequences, till I finally hit bottom: the big kitchen remodel.

It started simply enough. The kitchen was always the job I was going to do next, except I couldn’t really start on the kitchen till I had finished the basement, and I couldn’t keep a dry basement without first doing some tuckpointing, but once I started replacing the masonry I knew water was seeping in from the top down, and it was time to tear off the roof. And as long as I was working up there, wouldn’t it be great to add a deck and a bedroom with vaulted ceiling!

Once I was finished with the deluxe master suite and its whirlpool tub with skylight views of the O’Hare flight pattern, I had to address the fact that there was not an inch of granite in my kitchen. Homebuyers in the trendy neighborhoods are stone in love with granite -- it must be something in the ultrapurified water. Cable TV channels throw the word granite into conversation every few minutes just to keep viewers hooked: “Chef Bobby Flay scores extra points for presentation by setting his bowl of albondigas soup on that beautiful granite countertop.” “Accessorize the outfit with this designer purse, which has the luxurious sheen of a granite countertop.” “Dartmouth’s front four allowed only four sacks all season for the Granite State.” “Meanwhile, on the far side of the island, the Mishegoss team was taking their good fortune at Tribal Council for granite.” Granite would be the rock upon which I would build the ultimate kitchen. I had already built the penultimate kitchen, and by the time I finished the new bedroom, deck, roof, brickwork, drain tiles, sump pump and rec room, the cabinets were out of style.

I needed new cabinets that stretched to the ceiling, with a separate stairway to the top shelf. I needed storage for the everyday dishes, and the occasional dishes, and the thought-it-was-a-good-idea-at-the-bridal-registry dishes. I needed a double oven and a triple-track lighting system and quadruple GFI outlets in satin nickel. I was blind to a compulsion I I couldn’t control even with an X10 home automation system, an iPhone app and a Bluetooth-enabled refrigerator that sent Peapod an order whenever I was low on chicken nuggets.

I sold my furniture, my books, my music collection – I had to make room for the new appliances while I was installing the hardwood floor. Rooms were stacked floor to ceiling with cabinets waiting to be installed. Fortunately they were big enough to store the kitchen table in the meantime. My house looked like the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I managed to clear a path to the door past the power tools and scaffolding. My wife was making Christmas cookies on a hot plate. Yet a new kitchen was nowhere in sight. As I wired the 50 amp service for the convection oven, I realized I was powerless. I needed help. Finally, I surrendered to a higher power: a general contractor.

I realize my environment is beyond my control. Such is the power of the Home Depot. My room addition addiction is now in the hands of others, and I will wait for them to show up for work, one day at a time.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Walter P. Rynkiewicz, 1930-2011

Walter P. Rynkiewicz, of Elm Grove, Wis., a respected corporate lawyer in Milwaukee for more than four decades, died peacefully June 7 at Aurora VNA Zilber Family Hospice, Wauwatosa. He was 80.

"He was an attorney and a man of the highest integrity," said James W. Mohr of Hartford, Wis, at one time a fellow lawyer with Mr. Rynkiewicz at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek. Mr. Rynkiewicz worked at the Milwaukee law firm from 1957 to 2005. "In a profession where integrity was not a long suit for a lot of people, everything he did he did honestly and forthrightly," Mr. Mohr said. "He was one of those people you could trust with anything.

"He was also very compassionate," Mr. Mohr said. "He took people's legal problems and handled them as is they were those of his closest friend or family member. He was always very empathetic about every problem. And of course he was very skillful. He knew estate planning, he knew business law and had enormous respect among people who worked with him. I referred friends to him, I sent clients to him, and knew they would be represented fairly, well, compassionately and honestly."

Mr. Rynkiewicz specialized in mergers and acquisitions during a time that greatly expanded options for small business owners. He was involved in many of the acquisitions of Universal Foods (now Sensient Technologies Corp.), whose chairman John L. Murray died April 18. Mergers included the sale of Thorp Finance Corp. to ITT Financial in 1965 and Pfister & Vogel Tanning Co. to Beatrice Foods in 1971.

"Walter and I were very close friends for nearly 60 years," said Robert Gorske, retired Vice president, General Counsel, and Board Member of Wisconsin Electric Power Company (WeEnergies). "We were law School classmates, associates with the same law firm, and near neighbors in Elm Grove and in Arizona. I was always in awe of Walter's ability to take very complex legal problems and to make them look easy. He will be missed by many."

Mr. Rynkiewicz chaired the State Bar of Wisconsin business law section from 1985 to 1987, and from 1986 through 1990 a state bar subcommittee to revise merger laws.

"Walter was a terrific lawyer and cut across many fields," said Robert LeMense, another Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek colleague. "He wasn't a tax specialist but sure knew a lot of tax stuff. He knew a lot about business, not only the law but a lot of the internal operations. If you said, 'Can you help me with this?' he would, and he would think of things you wouldn't think of. It just came across that he was one smart guy."

Mr. Rynkiewicz also was a director of several local companies he represented, including Price Erecting Co. in Wauwatosa, and Merit Gear Corp. in Antigo. Other clients he served were Cleaver-Brooks in Milwaukee, Heritage Mutual Insurance in Sheboygan, Stoelting in Kiel and Applied Power Inc. in Butler.

"Walter served on the board of directors of companies a lot more important than our little company," said James Ziperski, an attorney for Schwerman Trucking Co. in Milwaukee and a client of Mr. Rynkiewicz. "He was 200 percent in representing us all the time. He was everything we could ask for. When I had a question on corporate law I would turn to Walter and he always came up with the answer. If he didn't have the answer he got the answer, and it was always right. He was as good as they come."

For almost two decades Mr. Rynkiewicz was a director and officer of the Layton Art Collection and Layton School of Art trusts, which fund scholarships and lectures at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD), Milwaukee Art Museum, Marquette University, Lawrence University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Mount Mary College, Cardinal Stritch University and Alverno College. MIAD awarded him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1987.

Since 1965 Mr. Rynkiewicz has lived in Elm Grove, where he served on the Police and Fire Commission and the Building Board. At St. Mary's Visitation Parish he was a lector and cantor active in the Holy Name Society and Potawatomi Area Troop 32 of the Boy Scouts of America. He also was a director of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Sullivan Chamber Ensemble and Marquette University Alumni Association.

Mr. Rynkiewicz was born in Milwaukee July 4, 1930, and graduated from West Allis Central High School in 1948. The debate team sparked his interest in the law and music teacher Damon H. Shook cultivated an interest in the arts. A member of American Federation of Musicians Local 8, Mr. Rynkiewicz played trombone and was the longtime announcer at West Allis Concert Band summer performances.

"He won a major science award in high school and I would not have been surprised if he went in a science and mathematics direction," said classmate Claude Kordus, a business consultant in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "He's very precise and meticulous," Mr. Kordus said. "When he talks he's very measured, and that has value in the law too."

Mr. Rynkiewicz passed up scholarships at the University of Wisconsin and Carroll College to enter Marquette University, studying English and mathematics. There he met Catherine Van Hercke in an American Literature class in 1951. It was love at first sight: He said he immediately moved two rows closer. The two were married in 1954, with Mr. Kordus as best man and Prof. Joseph Schwartz, the American Lit instructor, in the wedding party.

At Marquette Mr. Rynkiewicz earned a Bachelor of Science degree cum laude in 1952 and a law degree in 1955. He was admitted to the Alpha Sigma Nu national Jesuit honor society, as well as Delta Sigma Rho, Sigma Tau Delta and Pi Mu Epsilon. The late Kenosha County Circuit Judge William Zievers was a fellow debate partner.

"Walter worked harder than I did and had a knack for mathematics," Mr. Kordus said. "At one point the question was, was he going to law school or was he going to be an actuary."

Before joining Whyte Hirschboeck & Dudek, Mr. Rynkiewicz was a litigator at Quarles, Spence & Quarles in Milwaukee and Puhr, Peters, Holden & Schlosser in Sheboygan, Wis. "Whenever I heard him speak, he was extremely good," said Alfred A. Heon of Fredonia, a fellow Marquette undergrad who joined him at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek.

In retirement he and Catherine spent winters in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Other survivors include sons Stephen (Brenda Russell) of Chicago, Robert (Heidi Boehlke) of Minneapolis and Paul (Karen Lindholm-Rynkiewicz) of Wauwatosa, daughter Lynn (Mark) Rakestraw of Rochester, N.Y., and grandchildren Evelyn (Brian Page), Jacob, Emma and Matthew.

The family appreciates the conscientious care of Dr. Paul Ritch and the Hematology/Oncology Clinic staff at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin.

Visitation is Wednesday, June 15 at St. Mary’s Visitation Church, 1260 Church St. Elm Grove, from 9:30 a.m. until the Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m. The family requests memorials to Marquette University Law School, Friends of the Elm Grove Library or St. Mary Visitation Parish.

Rynkiewicz, Walter P.

Of Elm Grove, WI and Scottsdale, AZ, died peacefully June 7 at age 80. Beloved husband of Catherine (nee Van Hercke). Loving father of Stephen (Brenda Russell), Robert (Heidi Boehlke), Paul (Karen Lindholm-Rynkiewicz) and Lynn (Mark) Rakestraw. Proud grandfather of Evelyn (Brian Page), Jacob, Emma and Matthew. Walter was an attorney for 44 years at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek in Milwaukee, long active in church and civic activities. Visitation Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at St. Mary’s Visitation Church (1260 Church St. Elm Grove) from 9:30AM until the Mass of Christian Burial at 11:00AM. Memorials to Marquette University Law School, Friends of the Elm Grove Library, St. Mary’s Visitation Parish. The family appreciates the conscientious care of Dr. Paul Ritch and the Hematology/Oncology Clinic staff at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin.

Becker Ritter Funeral Home
14075 West North Ave.
Brookfield, WI 53005
(262) 782- 5330

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Father's days: In praise of Walter Rynkiewicz

Walter & Catie Rynkiewicz, 2010

My father Walter died this morning.

I've been spending a lot more time with Dad. The whole family has been hanging out, and we're seeing a few people we haven't seen in years. Dad had a chance to recall past exploits, and indulge in frozen custard, marching-band music and other guilty pleasures. It's a shame this all came to pass because he's been dying.

He entered hospice May 5 and I visited again just yesterday. It looks a bit like a country club: Rooms trimmed in dark wood overlooking a forest preserve. Patio doors lead out to a garden where yellow finches gather around a bird feeder. A beautiful place, but all the residents would rather be someplace else, maybe Dad especially. He kept nursing home visits brief, was uncomfortable at wakes, and resisted hospital trips — even the one that landed him in intensive care. But fate has a way of making us face our fears. He had time to come to grips with his death, and for us to come to grips with his life.

Walter was named for his dad, who owned a tailor shop and helped start a savings-and-loan. Walter Sr. worked long hours and died when his son was 28. Dad found him a bit of a mystery. I was 3 when he died, and Walter's path was potentially even more time-consuming than his father's: He was a young lawyer in hard-driving surroundings. I think he found family life just as important as career, and resolved to make sure I would find him less of a mystery in 25 years.

So I remember doing a lot of things with him. He took his children to his law office to watch the Milwaukee circus parade from the 21st floor, and we went behind the scenes at the park bandshell where he moonlighted as announcer for West Allis summer concerts. (Probably this scene comes to mind because he would be smoking Parliaments and talking about quitting.)

When we joined the Boy Scouts, Dad was one of the fathers who camped with us. We did woodworking projects together using his father's tools; he also passed on his father's Polish curses. Even in my mid-20s, he and Mom were driving to Chicago to see me in church musicals. My girlfriend Brenda was not sure what to make of it at intermission when Mom and Dad were necking.

Perhaps Dad could make time for us because he wasn't as career-driven as his peers. His clients were mostly small businesses, although some like Red Star Yeast grew into big businesses (Universal Foods, then Sensient Technologies). I've been calling his clients and peers because Dad gave me an hospital-room assignment, as the reporter in the family, to prepare his obituary. Peers and clients said he was a smart guy, but also curious about everything and everyone. In the days before consulting was a big business, his clients were picking his brain for ideas on not just their legal strategy but their entire business.

And he empathized with everyone he met. Dad could talk with anyone: Eric Schumann, owner of Merit Gear Corp., recalls a business meeting where in the course of a few minutes Walter engaged in two genial conversations, strikingly similar in tone, with a shabbily dressed woman in the hotel and with Sen. Herb Kohl. Even as a young lawyer working on car insurance claims in central Wisconsin, Walter would quiz farmers about machinery and the price of milk before getting around to taking their deposition. Throughout his career he cared about his clients, and this brought a lot of steady business without a lot of political gamesmanship.

He was good at corporate law, and led the state bar's panel on corporate practice. A large law firm was the place for him, even if he lacked the sharp elbows that seem to go with the territory. Without prompting, fellow lawyers told me about his ethics, as if ethics were unusual among attorneys.

He also took on his share of nonprofit work, notably setting up the Layton art-school scholarships and lectures. And he was able to mix business with pleasure — I recall sailing in central Wisconsin with a client's family. An even keel was Dad's career course, and he could picture himself happily working as a corporate lawyer in a small town. Fortunately I think, Mom couldn't.

No environment could have been stress-free for Dad. He could obsess over not only his work, but also the crowds on the beach, or our safety running the lawnmower. In the past few years when he spent winters in Arizona, I would take him out to the ballgame, but he never really would take to the crowd. Mom told friends about an excursion to Sedona when their tour bus had a flat tire, and he spent the rest of the trip curled in his seat, concerned that the spare might not get him home.

He'd relax talking about his high school and college days, and wrote about them before his cancer was spotted four years ago: Dad presented me and my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews with three-ring binders. They held an 88 page autobiography, and an assignment: "READ THIS." I used to ask Dad questions about his father that he could never quite answer, and didn't want us in the same position. Not to worry: The stories were already familiar, particularly all the jobs he worked through high school and college.

Who could keep them straight if they weren't written down? Paper boy, messenger, window washer. Clearing catch basins for the City of West Allis, with a municipal snow shovel in my brother Paul's garage as proof. Coaching baseball two summers at Jefferson School, not bad for someone who cooled his heels in right field. Manning the counter at Mechenich's pharmacy, which on occasion filled a doctor's prescription for the drug placebo. Playing trombone in 3rd Ward Milwaukee street parades, scenes out of "Godfather III" with fireworks and dollar bills pinned to a Virgin Mary statue. Tutoring geometry, checking mortgage paperwork. Selling women's shoes and men's ties. Shooting Polaroids at the Auto Show. Cleaning up at the florist before Valentine's Day. Laborer on construction sites, for the mason who poured the patio on his dream house. A third-shift foundry job, oiling cranes and hoists, followed by a class in Elizabethan Literature alongside early rising nuns. With no time to shower.

Dad has been retelling a lot of the stories, especially how he met my mother: in American Literature class at Marquette. Dad says it was love at first sight, and he had to move up four rows for her to take notice. However, the details vary in the telling. The saying in Chicago newsrooms is, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." She did, and she does, but I'm still trying to nail down their courtship story. One version is that a few months earlier in 1951 Walter was producing a TV show for Channel 4. (I like it that my father worked in new media.) He was recruiting panelists for a game show, and someone pointed out Katie in a crowd. Dad did not follow up on that lead. Maybe it was love at second sight. In the Rynkiewicz line, good ideas take awhile to percolate. As Dad tells it, being rejected would have broken his heart, and I would have felt the same way if Brenda had spurned my advances.

It was strange to write an obit and run the results past the subject. (I should have run the obit past a spell checker first: Dad's a precise editor.) But it pleased me to learn that his good clients were still good friends in retirement. And I enjoyed how he chatted with everyone at the hospital, even knowing the banter was tiring him. A volunteer who distributed communion at the hospital told Mom he was a better person for having talked to him.

When father's days were numbered, he faced them bravely. He wasn't quite quoting Ecclesiastes, but he'd say this is just another phase of his life. Knowing it was the final phase brought the family closer. That's an outcome he wanted, in the same way he would plan for and relish family gatherings on the Fourth of July, his birthday.

I've been reading scripture to plan a memorial service, and although the family bible has no bookmarks in the Book of Wisdom I think he aspired to be a just soul. He taught his sons and daughters that service and work well done were their own reward. St. Paul says each of us shall give an account of himself. Dad left very comfortable with how his story turned out.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Encouragement from the family bible

A typewritten letter to my father is filed in the hardbound bible on his bookshelf (apparently at a random page, 2 Esdras 6). Walter P. Rynkiewicz was 28 when his father Walter V. Rynkiewicz died at 1 p.m. May 25, 1959 at St. Francis Hospital, Milwaukee. Michael J. Dunn was an attorney for whom my father had done legal work.

May 28, 1959

Dear Wally:

Mrs. Dunn and I were indeed surprised when we learned of the death of your father and she joins me in extending our sympathy to you.

You face a rather unusual experience. A few days ago you were a son with a father with whom you could discuss problems and upon whom you could call for advice. Now, however, it will seem as though a veil has lifted, you must make your own decisions and now you take over solely as a father.

You will miss your father very much but don't forget, Wally, that you are well on the road to success. You have an excellent reputation and a good future, all of which your father shared with you and, no doubt, pleased him immensely. That meant a great deal to him and should ease your grief very much.

Sincerely yours,

Michael J. Dunn

Friday, March 04, 2011

Helen Thomas on deadline: Like age, credibility is fleeting

The Chicago Reader's anniversary features have been getting nostalgic about the days when readers had attention spans. Articles sprawled across many pages of newsprint, in an era that supported many pages of newsprint. So props to Mike Miner for playing it old school and writing at length about the dénouement in the Helen Thomas saga.

Still, I'm intrigued that there's so little light shed on a hot topic, the hazy boundaries between crisp, thank-you-mister-president deadline reporting (Thomas' claim to fame) and political bloviating (her claim to infamy). Thomas' attitude was bracing in Nixon's pressroom but a WTF moment on YouTube. A lifetime of achievements can be like that.

The Society of Professional Journalists has an enlightened view of advocacy journalism: Ethics are defined by responsibility, not partiality. Here it has muffed another chance to delineate the boundary between engaging an audience and pandering to it. Reaching out to its own members on the Helen Thomas Award would have been a start.

Still, it's easy to see why the society would find it hard to deal head-on with one of its icons. Thomas does not present a simple case for debate. Her wire-service reputation was built not on how she could use her tart tongue but how she could keep it in check. Perhaps she has earned the right late in her career to let 'er rip. But trust can be long-earned and still quick to flee. A lifetime can be like that.

In classic Reader style — a long road with an obvious but unstated end — Miner's narrative sets the stage for an intervention that never happened. Helen Thomas is a matriarch whose kids won't take away the car keys. That's a hard truth.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Time out: Leisure reading for the hurried

If you bought books at the Friends of the Oak Park Public Library book fair last summer (or vinyl at Reckless Records, there's a good chance you have something from my collection. When my basement library became an exercise room, I had to revise the Zero Book Growth policy that barely kept my library confined to my bookshelves.

When I did the math, the solution was to shrink the book cave to closet size. Reading a dozen or so books a year, I wasn't going to finish what waited on the basement shelves in this lifetime. Even if I went nuclear purging the excess, I could still hit the much bigger stacks at the new West Town library branch.

What do newspaper folks make time to read between morning and evening newspapers and a few dozen websites? Not much, I suspect. The proprietor of the Trib Nation blog was asking around the newsroom what people were reading. Good luck with that.

I keep track of my CTA reading at Looking over the list reminds me of my father's reading habits at my age: mysteries, short stories and plays that could be read in short bursts of spare time.

Half my reading is non-fiction but it's just as episodic in nature. Last year, Jerome Loving's Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens, a lucky find at the Harold Washington library, has a short-chapter format like one of Twain's subscription novels, which nicely fits a subway commute. Twain's crotchety late years remind me of legendary wire-service reporter Helen Thomas in this year's YouTube dustup. God knows what I'll be ranting about at age 90, but I'm sure I wouldn't want it to define my career.

Harold Evans' They Made America, which filled out my airline reading, could have been titled "Lives of the Innovation Saints." Self-help books also fit the bill as quick reads: Judy Carter's The Comedy Bible, was an unexpected recommendation from a friend in Toastmasters: a book on the mechanics of being funny. (Yes, the man needs a book to figure out funny.)

Funny-strange how my book choices read more like biopics. Fiction included Gore Vidal's JFK potboiler "Washington, D.C.", Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon", which was kind of like an art-house buddy flick, George MacDonald Fraser's "The Reavers" (same but more PBS) and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (two scientists meet cute).

Some great recommendations came from obscure sources. Barbara Kingsolver's "Pigs in Heaven" was listed in an Arizona guidebook. Jim Lynch's "Border Songs" was blogged by one of my ex-students at Columbia College Chicago.

And a postcard from the author sent me to the hard-luck omnibus "American Salvage." Turns out my neighbors know Bonnie Jo Cambpell. So I have high hopes in starting "The Memory of Running." Ron McLarty's book was an oblique joke on HBO's "In Treatment" – recommended reading from a self-unaware shrink. Can't get much more obscure than that.