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Thursday, April 11, 2013 11:04 am

The right combination of sensibilities

Rich Shereikis taught in the classroom and on the printed page

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Richard Shereikis

Richard Shereikis died in Evanston on March 29. He was 75.

A spot on the staff of Illinois Times in its very early years was an entry-level position – anyone who walked up the steps and through the front door had a chance to become a contributor. One of the many people who took that chance was Rich Shereikis. IT’s editors did not turn Rich into a writer (he brought that talent with him when he came through the door), but the paper’s editors made him a journalist by giving him a place to work. Which he did, in every way that a writer can be useful to a paper like ours, turning in commentaries, features, book essays and (mainly) movie reviews for the paper for nearly 20 years.

“Write what you know” reads the first line of the Writers’ Oath, and Rich knew sports. He was a capable two-sport (baseball and basketball) varsity athlete for Harper High in the tough Chicago Public League. “Rich’s prose exhibited far more control than his fast ball,” recalls a lifelong pal of his. ”Needless to say this gained him the full respect of readers and batters alike.” His scoring average as a small basketball forward was in the double digits; I recall that his dissertation was on the zone defense as a manifestation of Victorian class structures in the novels of Dickens, but maybe I remember that wrong.

It was baseball that first took Rich to the typewriter for us, in the mid-1970s. He did a cover story about the Cubs. As even non-baseball fans know by now, following the Cubs is a test of faith. In his attitude toward the team Rich reminded me of a lapsed Catholic of a certain sort. The rituals remained comforting even though he’d long since refused to believe in the promises of salvation. He explained that being a Cubs fans was a Zen experience, his point being that being a Cubs fan was not about winning at all. (Personally he was a determined competitor but indifferent to winning for its own sake.) “Very few people, it seemed to me, had the right combination of sensibilities to pull that off,” says Harold Henderson, another of our longtime contributors.

Having tried out as a commentator, Rich soon showed he could play most of the infield positions. As the paper’s principal film reviewer for many years, Rich’s style was not art school exegesis of the sort then in vogue but reporting on movies – plain without being simple and anything but pretentious.

It was however books that brought out the best in Rich. Like most bright kids he read with more enthusiasm than program, taking up everything from Dostoevsky and Dickens to Robert Benchley. His adult reading was cosmopolitan, discriminating and constant. (The only do-it-yourself home improvement he tackled was converting a bedroom into a library.)

As a critic for IT and other publications he championed the small press, the large heart and the brave reader in pieces such as “Good Books in Bad Times” in the December 1997 Illinois Issues. “Given the barren soil of the mainstream American book business,” he observed. “the world of independent publishers may be the only place where any literary flowers can bloom.”

Books and reading were at the heart of his life as citizen and teacher as well. In the former case, that meant volunteering for each year’s used book sale of the Friends of Lincoln Library or helping people learn to read at the Lawrence Adult Center. He and Judy, his wife – in her case an utterly inadequate term – hosted a party at the conclusion of each year’s Verbal Arts Festival at UIS’s predecessor institution, Sangamon State University, which offered students opportunities to get close to famous writers and many a famous writer opportunities to get close to some free booze.

 Rich was most widely known in Springfield as a writer, but he was perhaps best known as a teacher. His day job was professing English as one of the founding faculty at SSU. Rich believed in teaching, or rather in education. He’d done it in high school and later at the University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus.

A good teacher remains a student himself. Odd to think it now, but in those days Lincoln-born writer and New Yorker editor William Maxwell was as unfamiliar to central Illinois readers as a Naguib Mahfouz or a Margeurite Duras. Reading Maxwell’s strange late work, So Long, See You Tomorrow, for an IT review in 1980, Rich became a convert. He subsequently made the book a regular part of his SSU course on the Midwestern novel; his work in making Maxwell a household name in at least our bookish households was as much an act of good citizenship as of alert pedagogy.

Rich wrote well about Maxwell; he recently confessed to me that his admiration for Maxwell occasionally got in the way of his critical judgment, but I see no evidence of it. Anyone wanting an introduction to the stories of William Maxwell will find none better than “True Midwest,” the 4,300 word critical essay that appeared in our big-city cousin in Chicago, The Reader, in 1987.

There aren’t many differences in the end between good teaching, good journalism and good criticism. Whatever their differences in form and rigor, each expresses an impulse to share, to refine thought and to enlarge understanding. I once referred to him as a journalist, and got this very Shereikisian response. “I’m not sure I was doing much but trying to pay tuition bills and getting a buzz from a byline,” he said. “But if meeting deadlines and getting checks qualifies one, I guess I can claim the label.”

Contact James Krohe Jr. akrojr@comcast.net.

From the Shereikis family
Richard Shereikis, 75, of Evanston, died peacefully on March 29. Graduate of Harper High School, class of 1955, and the Universities of Northern Illinois (B.A.), Chicago (M.A.), and Colorado (PhD). Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of Illinois-Springfield (formerly Sangamon State). Gifted writer, keen editor, dedicated teacher, and all-round athlete. Proud of his Lithuanian heritage, South Side roots, and union activism. Sorely missed by wife Judith, sons John (Sholeh) and Michael (Natasha), daughter Rebecca (Dan), and grandchildren Nicholas, Rachel and Anya, among many others. Family and friends will gather in May to celebrate Rich’s life. Email rebeccashereikis@yahoo.com to inquire.

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