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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018 12:01 am

TIM LANDIS

A gentleman journalist

TIM LANDIS Nov. 19, 1951-Jan. 2, 2018
A gentleman journalist

Tim Landis was no joke as a journalist.

Consider the lede in the first story he wrote for the State Journal-Register back in 1995: “Junk mail isn’t junk anymore.”

Just five words and seven syllables. The story about escalating paper prices had everything a just-the-facts reporter, or busy reader, could want – a first sentence that sucked you in and pretty much every question, from how much paper costs to how many newspapers are in a pound of newsprint, answered in 658 words. He avoided adjectives and eschewed fancy words.

“He was such a clean writer,” recalls his daughter, Kelsey Landis, who credits her father, and her mother, Debra, also a journalist who became a journalism teacher at University of Illinois Springfield, for helping launch her own writing career. Recently a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, Kelsey Landis has taken a job with a St. Louis-based magazine. “I really picked up his style,” she says. “Clean. Concise. Don’t embellish at all – just the facts. It was a very elegant way of writing, too, I think.”

A precise count would take nigh forever, but Landis wrote thousands of stories over his 23-year career at the SJ-R, with corrections few and far between and an engine that never seemed to slow. He was old school in all the right ways, with an accountant’s face, a voice for radio and a distaste for reporters who preened too much on television. He moved easily from typewriters to computers to social media, shooting video when required and tweeting as many as a half-dozen times a day.

His wife found him dead from a heart attack in a chair, a book about Amazon still in his hands, his glasses perched undisturbed on his nose. It was sudden and almost certainly painless – while too soon, the sort of end that anyone would want. And Landis, as much as anyone has, deserved that sort of grace.

“Over the course of your life, there are very few people who you can classify as truly nice,” texted a former SJ-R colleague who broke the sad news to me last January. “He was one of them.”

He was famous for helping young reporters and never losing his temper, except when his computer crashed – not an uncommon event in the SJ-R newsroom – and that didn’t count, really, because everyone did. He packed his own lunch, typically a turkey-on-wheat sandwich with yogurt and fruit on the side. His only hint of snobbishness came in the form of coffee. Rather than drink Folgers or Maxwell House from the newsroom pot, he brought his own.

Wise and disciplined at his craft, Landis never lost his sense of wonder and curiosity. In an industry where clocks rarely are watched until deadlines arrive, he usually was among the first in the newsroom each day.

SJ-R editor Angie Muhs recalls working the phones hard the morning that Landis died, but not with the primary goal of alerting Springfield that one of the town’s most-beloved and trusted reporters was dead. Rather, Muhs says, she didn’t want her staff to find out from the radio or internet that a mentor and colleague had died, and so she made one call after another. “It was just so unbelievable for everyone,” Muhs recalls.

That Landis succumbed to heart trouble seems implausible, given his love of bicycle riding and running, penchant for walking and devotion to proper diet. “He didn’t eat beef or pork,” his daughter recalls. “He didn’t have too much of a sweet tooth. He would drink, like, one beer on special occasions. The one time I saw him drink two full beers was during a vacation on the Outer Banks. He was so relaxed he had two beers – oh my God, calm down Dad.”

He was a self-taught drummer with a love for jazz who rarely missed a Sunday at Historic Grace Lutheran Church and always brought along donations for the food pantry. He knew right from wrong, and he helped organize a newsroom union at the SJ-R as the staff shrank and salaries stagnated.

A Midwesterner to his core and graduate of Southern Illinois University, Landis was 16 when he landed his first reporting gig at the Gazette-Democrat in Anna, Illinois, his hometown, where he worked in the sports department. He also worked at the local radio station, reporting and spinning records. From 1980 to 1982, he covered agriculture and politics for the Southeastern Missourian, then moved to the Southern Illinoisan, where he covered politics and government and also worked as an assistant metro editor. After eight years, he became Statehouse bureau chief in Springfield for Gannett News Service. He moved on to the Rockford Register Star for a year after four years in Springfield, then moved back to the capital city to take a job with the State Journal-Register in 1995 as a legal affairs reporter. One year later, he became business editor, the job he would hold for the rest of his life, covering such subjects as railroad relocation and agriculture, always with a curiosity that was impossible to fake. “He didn’t get bored,” Kelsey Landis says. “He was fascinated by life.”

As a father, Landis wasn’t strict with his daughter and son Matt, who became a social worker in the Seattle area.

“We were never disciplined that much,” Kelsey Landis recalls. “There was one thing he always told us as kids: My brother and I were not allowed to be bored. That was the one rule.”

In August 2017, Landis and his daughter found themselves together in Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, both assigned to cover a historic solar eclipse for their respective papers. Clouds threatened to block the spectacle, but Landis’ spirits remained high as he stood next to his daughter, surrounded by other reporters and photographers.

“More than anything, we were there as a father and daughter,” Kelsey Landis recalls. “When it started to happen, he laughed, like it was this joyful, awesome moment. I laughed, too. He put his arm around me, and we hugged. I’ll never forget that moment.”

In typical Landis fashion, he told others afterward that his daughter had written a better story than he did.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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