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Wednesday, July 25, 2007 05:03 pm

A look back at old Times

Thirty years ago, a newcomer arrives

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Untitled Document Roland, the editor, recently told me, the senior writer, that he wouldn’t mind having an occasional piece from the Illinois Times archives as a way to mine some of the good stuff that was done way back when. I can arrange that, I said. Let’s see . . . where to begin? Oh, how about, just for starters, taking a look at the papers, say, 30 years ago this summer? The June 17, 1977, edition had a cover story headlined “Patron Saint for Sixth Street,” about the woman who was renovating the Maldaner’s and Pasfield buildings with the help of a young architect, Dick Morse. The article, by James Krohe Jr., associate editor, described its subject as “a little shorter than average, slightly built, with a cap of restless dark brown hair. She is Carolyn Oxtoby, downtown property owner, historic preservationist, school president, and the person upon whom a great many people are depending to pull off the hoped for resurrection of downtown.”
There was so much in the paper back then, in the days before we had a viable ad base or decent circulation or livable wages. Each issue had eight or nine smart news stories (like an interview with Congressman Paul Findley, an update on the construction of the new Dallman III power plant, a summary of new state laws affecting women) plus half-a-dozen features, several columns, and lots of photographs. There were clever headlines — “Growing up Baha’i (B’Who?)” and “Why nurses are feeling better” — plus a good mix of the heavy and light. Staff writers had a reader-pleasing fascination with small towns like Pittsfield, Rushville, Arcola, and Athens. Complementing the detailed calendar, written by Mizzou journalism graduate Susan Mogerman, was a feature called “Good Bets,” highlighting events not to be missed, such as a photography show in Normal on The American Farm, including work by Dorothea Lange. It wasn’t quite “The New Yorker of the Prairie,” but it wanted to be. A July issue chronicled the rise of neighborhood associations. “The people’s pressure groups” highlighted Alice Kaige, the force behind the West Side Neighborhood Association and its fight to keep the neighborhood from going commercial. Neighborhood associations, the article said, “give a chance to be heard to people who might otherwise be ignored, filling the gaps between the theory and the practice of local government.” Another person featured was Bruce Strom, president of the Westwood Forum, which successfully fought off an attempt to reopen Iles Avenue by the new White Oaks Mall when the “west belt,” now Veterans Parkway, opened to traffic. “It’s very difficult for citizens to affect the policies that affect their lives directly,” said the activist who would later become an alderman and mayoral candidate. What else can I find of interest in these old papers? Oh yes, here’s a small item, from the July 8, 1977, edition, in a box on the “Forum” page. Titled “A letter to our readers,” it begins, “The Illinois Times is under new ownership. The newspaper has been purchased by Fletcher F. Farrar of Mt. Vernon, Ill., and myself, Fletcher F. Farrar, Jr., known as Bud. I will take the title executive editor. I am 28, and for the past four years have been an editorial writer and state news reporter for Lindsay-Schaub Newspapers, headquartered in Decatur. “Our purchase of Illinois Times reflects our confidence in the newspaper’s strength after two years of existence and in its potential for continued growth and influence.” I said that we would continue to provide readers “with high quality news and commentary, with the idea of helping to make Illinois a better place to live. We will be working on expanding our circulation territory to make Illinois Times truly Downstate Illinois’ weekly newspaper.” We didn’t have many advertisers back then — The Dan Walker Law Offices, Town and Country Bank (advertising 8 percent certificates of deposit), Barker-Lubin’s Lumber City, Doings One of Virden, and The Hub Clothiers were among the early supporters — so the new owner wanted to keep them happy. “We appreciate the business of those who advertise in the paper and urge them to continue supporting this unusual journalistic effort. We will be spreading their messages farther as more people become regular readers of Illinois Times.”
I remember vividly that first week. I had to bring in my own Royal typewriter and gray metal desk, which we somehow wedged into a corner of our tiny office in an old house on Eighth Street, a few doors south of the Lincoln Home. I waited in line like the rest of the staff to use the phone, which occasionally would go flying in the middle of a call when somebody tripped over the long cord. By the next week the new executive editor managed to get out a column decrying the work of the legislature, which had just adjourned late. “The recently adjourned session of the Illinois General Assembly should be remembered as the laetrile session. When the legislature voted to legalize the unproven anti-cancer drug, that seemed appropriate and symbolic. Nobody can prove that laetrile actually helps people, but the only way it hurts is to divert attention from real solutions to the cancer problem.” A real solution would have been to control pollution, but instead the legislature relaxed sulfur dioxide standards. Another “pseudo-solution” was reinstatement of the death penalty, which Gov. James Thompson had signed into law. The columnist exhibited more anger than persuasion, but, then, he was young. “Does anybody really think capital punishment is going to solve anything? More than being mean, the worst thing about this slam-bang get-tough approach is the cruelty it inflicts on the victims of crime. The murder rate will keep climbing, deviate sexual assaults will still occur, no fireman will be any safer.”
I never quite learned to loosen up like my new colleagues at the early IT, who knew how to substitute humor for vitriol and often tempered anger with satire. The master was Krohe, our longtime columnist, who began a piece on “Lawmakers” with this: “It used to be said that when the legislators came to Springfield the townspeople would hurry to get the women and children off the streets and begin keeping a watchful eye on their wallets. It is true, of course, that polite Springfield society still won’t invite a legislator to any indoor get-together, and most would rather see one of their children marry a Ubangi tax evader than a Cook County Democrat, but on the whole the town’s made its peace with the General Assembly.”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com
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