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Thursday, July 23, 2009 02:55 am

Inquiring mind wants to go

Nosy writer has been inspired by place where the powerful sometimes trample the innocent

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This special meeting of the Springfield city council was called in reaction to a story I wrote eight weeks after moving to Illinois.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

Just about seven years ago, I moved here from Texas to find out whether I could still do journalism. I had worked for major mainstream newspapers in Dallas and in Anchorage (yes, Alaska), but I had been out of the business for nearly a decade, working as an investigator for a civil rights attorney, when I applied to a job with Illinois Times. I’ll never forget co-owners Fletcher Farrar and Sharon Whalen asking me, “Well, are you sure that you can still write?”

To some, that question might sound crazy, but it’s not. I hate writing; it’s being nosy that I enjoy. I could not promise Bud and Sharon that my writing chops hadn’t atrophied with disuse, but after many more hours of questioning, they hired me anyway.

Fortunately, central Illinois offers the two things a writer needs most: Intriguing characters and news to write about. My first cover story here was about Keith Harris, a man who spent more than 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. My article came out the week that he appeared before the Prisoner Review Board; he was eventually granted a full pardon based on innocence.

My second cover story was about a former Springfield cop named Renatta Frazier, driven off the force with the accusation that she had failed to prevent the rape of a fellow officer’s daughter. From the moment I heard that yarn, something didn’t smell right; I poked around until I discovered that the yarn was a big lie. I had been in Illinois only eight weeks when that story was published.

Perhaps you can see how, considering my introduction to this state, I never had a chance to see it as anything other than a place in which the powerful tend to trample the innocent for specious reasons. That’s not a complaint; there have been times when the thought of doing battle with mean, nasty people was the only thing that got me out of bed in the morning.

But for a variety of reasons (one of which is plain fatigue), I’m finding it more difficult to do the kind of journalism I like to do. So I’m headed for grad school at University of Illinois in Urbana. This issue will be my last as a staff writer at Illinois Times.    

When I dipped into our handy-dandy online archives the other day (you should try it sometime — it’s free and easy to use), I found a tally of 499 stories with my byline, which accounts for all but the very earliest part of my tenure at IT.

On this little trip down memory lane, I stumbled across a small news article I’d almost forgotten, about an incident that happened in April 2003, at Glenwood High School. An 11th grader named Kurosh Dejgosha had been quietly eating lunch in the commons when a crowd of kids surrounded him, threw his books on the floor, yelled racial epithets at him (“camel jockey” and “sand nigger”) and accused him of hating America. It happened the day after President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq.

The school principal didn’t discipline the kids who harassed Kurosh, but instead asked him to consider “how emotional this was” for students who might have friends or relatives deployed to Iraq. The fact that Kurosh isn’t Iraqi (his parents are Iranian) seemed to have gone over everyone’s head

“And like, Iraq and Iran — there’s no love lost between them,” Kurosh told me back then, in the understatement of the year.

His friend Hetal Bhatt witnessed the incident, and wasn’t quite as spooked. Then again, Hetal, whose parents are from India, had lived in Springfield all his life, whereas Kurosh, who grew up in Ohio, was new in town. Hetal described his classmates as a homogenous crew of “conservative white Christian people” who were just innately uncomfortable with him and Kurosh.

“The problem is, most people don’t think for themselves,” Kurosh said.

Wondering what became of these kids, I tracked them down and did what I do — asked a bunch of nosy questions.  

Kurosh is still in college, having taken a detour or two. He has a deeper, more forgiving perspective on his GHS peers, but plans to leave Illinois as soon as he graduates in December. “People in other places, they’re not like they are here,” he says.

Hetal is in California. He has a master’s degree from Stanford University, a job with a high-tech public relations firm, and hopes for a career in music. He clued me in on what happened after he appeared in IT.

“Kurosh and I got a lot of heat from the other students, like, ‘Wow, you made us look like a bunch of dumbasses.’ The kids were pissed off at what we told you,” Hetal recalls. “But the teachers all told us that what we said really needed to be said. Every single teacher told me that.”

So there’s my IT legacy, in a nutshell: I’ve met fascinating people and I’ve enjoyed telling their stories. I’ve pissed off some, and enlightened a few others. Thank you for reading.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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