Of Birthdays, Gracie Allen, and Exiles

Baby steps at Illinois Times

Illinois Times

September 18, 1980

I wrote this on the fifth anniversary of the founding of Illinois Times. It seemed a milestone worth noting at the time, and I guess it was. As I write, the paper is nearing its forty-fourth. The achievement of publisher/owner/editor Fletcher Farrar to keep the paper that is still alive and still matters—more now than then, probably—and to do it in what is one of the smaller markets for such a paper in the U.S. cannot be over-praised.

 

We had a birthday here at the Illinois Times a couple of weeks ago, and no one remembered to send a card. On September 11, 1975, the IT first appeared on the streets of Springfield and central Illinois. Vol. 1, No. 1 was a credible effort, all things considered. It established many of the themes which the paper has elaborated on in the 254 issues that followed it. Its lead story was about the self-help effort in the town of Athens, followed by pieces on pig judging and residential energy conservation, a profile of Decatur politician Webber Borchers, a review of the Alamo restaurant, a recipe, instructions on how to make corn husk dolls and how to buy a houseplant, an elucidation of Montessori teaching, and three guest essays of opinion.

 

We made the usual first-issue boo-boos. The cover photo was too small (we enlarged it next issue), the trim color was too light (we darkened it), and we realized only later that a tongue-in-cheek letter of congratulations from New Yorker editor Roger Angell contained a not-at-all respectful inquiry about a well known Democrat U.S. senator and a certain sexually transmitted disease.

 

I am one of the only three survivors from the IT's founding staff. (The others are Florence Hardin [since deceased, sadly], who began as the bookkeeper and who now serves as librarian, and contributor-calendar coordinator Susan Mogerman.) Though I make my living selling freelance to a number of magazines, the greatest number of a year's pieces still show up in the IT. It is a relationship I maintain for sentimental as well as professional reasons. Five years ago I made my living as a paste-up artist and odd-job specialist, a trade which nearly bankrupted me both financially and morally. The IT made it possible for me to learn to be a journalist instead. Letters of complaint may be addressed to Editor, Box 3524, Springfield, IL 62708.

 

When the paper was founded, many in Springfield said it would not survive very long. IT’s immediate predecessor was the Springfield Sun, an undistinguished offset tabloid which managed to hobble along from 1964 to 1973; it specialized in wedding portraits and editorial crusades against weeds growing on downtown sidewalks. There was growing advertiser resentment against the brigandage in rates being practiced by the monopoly of Copley Press, true, but there was the example of the Sun to overcome too, plus the fact that the IT was being promoted as a regional weekly, of which there wasn't one in downstate Illinois in 1975; as a rule, small town retailers don't like to try anything that hasn't been done at least four times by somebody else.

 

There were other reasons for skepticism at the time, though they were not widely known to the public. I recall looking around the cluttered layout rooms during the birth of Vol. I, No. 1 and realizing with a shudder that the publisher had never published before, the editor had never edited a whole paper before, only one of the the staff writers had ever written journalism] before, the art director's background was in advertising rather than journalism, and the typesetter had never set type before. None of the editorial, reporting, photo, and production staffs had lived in Springfield for longer than three years (and only one had lived here even that long); in fact I was there mainly to show the out-of-towners how to get to the statehouse.

 

I worried at the time that these were defects. I was wrong. The early staff saw things with fresh eyes, and in the process reminded readers of things they'd long since overlooked. True, what was reflected in their work sometimes landed at oblique angles to reality, after having bounced off their essentially Eastern urban sensibilities. (The paper was consciously modeled after The New Yorker magazine and the weekly newspaper Maine Times.) The result was a little too much lush romanticism about central Illinois, a little too much of Paris in the '20s—inevitably, I suppose, given that we are all expatriates of one sort or another.

 

Under its new owner, the IT has regained its balance. The virtues of the people who now write and edit the paper are in many ways reverse of its founders.' They include intimate knowledge of the region based on many years' residence, a savvy, sometimes cynical appreciation of its people and institutions, and a refusal to be taken for fools. There is, in short, less gee-whizzing and more god-damning. Some faithful readers tell me they miss that early, innocent IT. So do I, once in a while. But while the early IT made for better reading, the new one makes for better journalism.

 

Indeed, the IT today is a better paper in most important' respects than the one that appeared five years ago. That should surprise no one who knows how much talent and money have been put into it. A more intriguing question is whether central Illinois is a better place than it was five years ago, and whether this paper has had anything to do with it if it is. I suspect that it is, in mostly unimportant ways, but others will disagree.

 

For example, our opinion pages (including staff columns, which debuted in January of 1977) are among the most popular features of the paper. I like to think that through them we have accustomed readers to a livelier, more complex, less timid mode of discourse. I deduce this from the fact that we don't seem to stir the fuss we used to when we were saying much less. Of course, it may be merely that those who agree with us are no longer surprised to be agreed with, while those who don't have learned to ignore us. Those people who used to tell us that they couldn't imagine Springfield with an IT in it have begun to tell us that they can't imagine a Springfield without an IT in it.

 

People usually find in a newspaper what they look for. To some readers, the IT plays Gracie Allen to the Copley Press's George Burns. But that was never a role the paper chose for itself; rather it was thrust on it by readers. Some have read in our columns a leftish programmatic bias, a sort of soft-core sixties radicalism. Others have accused us of being middle-class elitists, often in the same causes; according to them, we don't lean left or right so much as we lean upward. Both charges are true if you want them to be. Like any paper, the IT reflects the biases of the people who run it, and the people who run the IT have been young, college-educated, middle-class children of the activist sixties. The IT has no program that I am aware of, beyond the one outlined in its first issue by founding editor Alan Anderson Jr.: "We shall follow events of regional, as well as local, interest. We shall give you brief character sketches of people in whom you may see a bit of yourself. Occasionally we shall tackle issues as broad as energy or agriculture in their entirety, giving our best judgment of a new trend or an old weakness."

 

Ultimately the readers have as much a hand in defining a paper's program as its editors. Ah, the readers; it is one of the mysteries of the last half-decade that we don't know them better. I believe that the IT's voice has always fallen most melodiously on the ears of a certain class of exile. They are state workers, academics, middle class professionals, artists, dusty radicals from the '60s, eccentrics, and loudmouths. Some of them literally are outsiders to central Illinois, sentenced here from big cities or the coasts, but most of them are long-time residents who are outsiders only in a spiritual sense. The former are used to papers like the IT. But to those who had endured long exile here, the IT took on a deeply personal role. By giving them and their concerns a voice, we made them a community to some extent. Speaking as one of them, I count that among this paper's signal accomplishments.

 

Our typical reader is not very typical, a fact which gives rise to occasional complaints that the IT caters to an elite. I can't speak for the management, but it is a charge to which I plead guilty with enthusiasm. We continue to make demands on our readers. We expect them to be literate, to have the mental muscle to comprehend complex issues, to enjoy news and commentary and be sophisticated enough to tell them apart, to bring a relative disinterest to the contemplation of events, to appreciate the fact that Nothing is simple anymore. It is an elite of intelligence and concern, and the day this paper quits pandering to it is the day I quit.

 

One of our fellow weeklies, the Gazette-Times in Virginia, has been living since 1872 by the motto, "To fear God, tell the truth, and make money." Alas, things are more complicated today. God is beyond the scope of ordinary weekly journalism. Making money is harder than it used to be. So, even, is telling the truth. There is more than one truth to most stories. For five years the IT has tried to tell as many of those truths about the region as it could. It has been sometimes an uncomfortable business but seldom a dull one, and all in all not a bad way to have spent five years. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated