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Burt Constable, the exit interview

                              Burt Constable (Photo by Cheryl terHorst)

 I met Burt Constable at the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan in January 1988 when we were covering the wacky story of a legal dispute in which the state was seeking to seize a man’s two dogs on the grounds that they were actually wolves. As pretrial negotiations dragged on behind closed doors, Constable — then a Lake County reporter for the Daily Herald — and I — a suburban human-interest columnist for the Tribune nearly exactly his age — got chatting in the lobby.

The story fizzled when the state dropped its case rather than go to trial, but over the years I stayed in touch with Constable, who went on to get a thrice-weekly column in the Herald later that year that he kept writing for more than 34 years. We had lunch together or dinner with our wives every so often and traded emails. Last week, the Herald printed a pair of valedictory columns in which he announced that he was taking a buyout offer and retiring: “Prius, columnist are racking up miles on the way to the finish” and “This is my final column, but the thanks will continue.”

Here’s a jointly edited transcript of a conversation he and I had Monday afternoon:

EZ: First off, congratulations!

BC: Thanks. It feels pretty good not to have a Monday where I’m panicked about having deadlines for the rest of the week.

EZ: How did you make the decision to retire?

BC: Our newsroom has been closed because of the pandemic since March 2020, so the job had really changed. And since I turn 65 later this year, I started thinking that might be a good time to call it a career. Then the Herald sent out a note offering buyouts that added if they didn’t get enough people taking the buyout, there would be layoffs. So I thought, you know, I should be one of those people taking the buyout.

EZ: How many of your colleagues are leaving with you?

BC: There were eight of us. Media columnist Robert Feder, sports editor Mike Smith, assistant managing editor Renee Trappe, high school sports editor John Radtke, entertainment writer Scott Morgan and copy editors Amanda Erd and Jana Ronayne.

EZ: The story of your career begins down on the farm, right?

BC: Yes. We were a farming family in Goodland, Indiana, a small town north of Lafayette. And I was more of a math kid in high school. I was planning to go to Purdue University to study engineering, but then between my junior and senior years of high school I went to engineering camp at Purdue and that is what sold me on journalism.

There were about 60 of us at that camp, and only two of them were girls. I was into sports, and the other boys at camp were into Star Trek. I was like, “I don’t know about this.”

So on a whim, I applied to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and they accepted me.

EZ: No offense, but based on what did they admit you?

BC: I’m thinking it was a form of affirmative action for kids from small rural towns. I looked really good on paper: I was a two-way starter on the football team, I played on the basketball and baseball teams, I was in the school play, I was senior class president. That would have been incredibly impressive at a school like New Trier, but what the admission office might not have noticed was that there were only 93 students in my graduating class. I also submitted a few writing samples that were evidently good enough.

EZ: Did you take to journalism right away?

BC: Not really. I’ll tell you a story that’s somewhat humiliating. In my first reporting class, the teacher paired us off and asked us to interview one another and then write a report. I was paired with Michael Wilbon — now a huge star on ESPN but then just a shy freshman like me who also felt a little out of place. I interviewed him for half an hour, but I was too embarrassed to ask him how to spell his last name. So when I was writing it up, I figured that what I’d heard as “Wilbon” was just the way he said the name “Wilson,” and that’s how I wrote it. The teacher turned it back with the note, “This is a great story but you misspelled his name so you get an F.”

It took me a while before I felt comfortable in those classes because most everybody had been editor of their school newspaper or yearbook and had worked part time at their local papers. I’d never published anything.

EZ: Medill has a “teaching newspaper” program where they send you to a publication for a semester. Where did you go?

BC: The Lafayette Journal & Courier, which allowed me to live with my parents on the farm. I loved it. I was there for three months during school, and then they hired me on for the summer. That’s where I got my first bylines.

EZ: And after you graduated?

BC: It was 1980, and I wasn’t getting any offers at first. Then I finally landed a job as sports editor of the Washington Evening Journal, which sounds impressive but was Washington, Iowa — a town of about 8,000 an hour and half west of the Quad Cities. I got to cover everything except wrestling because that’s what the editor himself wanted to cover because it was Iowa. So I got all the other local sports and some school board meetings, plus I took my own pictures. I was making something like $8,400 a year, but I lived pretty well. Seemed like a couple of nights a week I’d get a free meal when covering something like a Pork Queen contest.

I was there for nine months. Then it happened that the Daily Herald was looking for a night police reporter. I didn’t know about the opening, but when Herald management called one of the references for one of the applicants — a Medill professor named Craig Klugman — he said, “Actually, you should hire Burt Constable.”

So the Herald called me and hired me over the phone. They also hired the other applicant, and he became a rising star at the paper while I worked the night police beat for two years.

Some of the stories I covered were really haunting, like the one about the high school girl who was out drinking with her friends one winter night. The cops pulled their car over, and she got scared and ran into a nearby forest preserve and went missing. Several weeks later, I was driving around, and I heard on the police scanner that they needed a coroner to come to the forest preserve, so I rushed over there. They’d found her frozen into the ground, looking just as natural as if she’d died earlier that day. I had nightmares for weeks from watching them chip her body free and load it into an ambulance. It was horrific, as was seeing other dead kids brought out of houses under sheets and stuff like that.

After two years, I just had to get out of it. I couldn’t take it anymore. Charlie Dickinson, the author, was on the night copy desk and talked me into joining him there where I stayed for a few more years.

Every so often, they’d ask me if I wanted to take a schools beat or something like that, but I always said no because I felt like I’d done the beat thing. Then the paper decided to expand their daily operation into Lake County — they had a weekly edition there — and they offered me a higher-profile metro staff reporting job covering criminal justice and politics out of the office in Mundelein.

Another reporter in that office was Cheryl terHorst, and we would work these long days and then, you know, go out afterward for something to eat, and things kind of blossomed from there. We were married in 1988, and I wrote my first general interest column for the paper on the day we got back from our honeymoon.

EZ: They just gave you a column? How did that work?

BC: Well, I already had a column of sorts up in Lake County — news tidbits and that kind of stuff. But my real break came when the paper decided to hire Jack Mabley. He was a legend — he’d been a star columnist at the Daily News, Chicago’s American (Chicago Today) and the Tribune — and was coming out of retirement at age 72 to join us.

He was willing to write five or six columns a week, but management was a little worried about his health and so decided to pair him with a younger columnist. They ran a tryout in which several of us wrote three columns, and they picked me.

We shared a column space for 16 years and became really good friends. I was worried that he was such a big shot that he wouldn’t give me the time of day, but he was incredibly nice and very thoughtful. I knew his family, he knew mine. It was a lot of fun.

Jack wrote for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and I wrote Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

EZ: Do you remember your very first column?

BC: Yes, I wrote that the Boy Scouts of America had become outdated and they should get rid of the scarves and the short pants, and ditch the name “Webelos,” that kind of thing. I got some hate mail on that.

EZ: Hate mail can be good!

BC: Back then, yeah. When I was cleaning out my desk last week, I found a note I’d saved from an editor congratulating me that 27 readers had cancelled their subscriptions because I’d written a column supporting the idea of gay marriage. The editors saw that as a sign that people were reading and reacting. Of course today, losing 27 subscribers would be a huge crisis.

EZ: Did you have a mandate from management? And did it change over the years?

BC: They let me write about what I was interested in at first. I did a lot of work supporting gay rights, gun control and Barack Obama. I’m proud that I got the Herald to be an early sponsor of AIDS walks.

Around the time Obama took office as president, the editors told me I should steer clear of commentary on national politics — stuff you can read anywhere — and asked me to focus strictly on suburban issues and suburban people.

I found that I still had plenty to write about.

EZ: Over the years the Tribune, in particular, has lured many journalists away from the Herald. Charlie Dickinson, Ted Gregory, Stacy St. Clair and Christy Gutowski, just to name a few. You never followed them to the Tower.

BC: Yeah. That list also includes Nancy Stone, Chuck Cherney, Jeff Carlson, Amy Carr, Tim Bannon, Margaret Holt, Alex Rodriguez, Terry Bannon, John Mullin, Lori Rackl and Gerry Kern, who went on to become the Trib’s editor-in-chief.

I did have an interview of sorts with the Tribune’s Ann Marie Lipinski at some point when she was in upper management, and she made it very clear that I wasn’t going to waltz into the Tribune and get a column next to you and Mary Schmich, so we just kind of left it at that. I don’t know if she would have hired me anyway or not, but I didn’t pursue it. I had a great job at the Herald. Lots of freedom. Didn’t want to give that up.

EZ: So what are your plans for retirement? More writing?

BC: Oh, no! Charlie Dickinson, he has to write, he’s a novelist. You have to write. Mary Schmich has to write. I’ve never felt that compulsion. It was a nice job, and I really did love the reporting and writing, but I don’t know if I’ll ever write anything again.

EZ: Maybe reread your old clips?

BC: I don’t have them! After Mabley retired in 2004, he told me was trying to figure out what to do with a collection of giant boxes he had that were filled with all his columns from over the year — like 12,000 of them. It was right around then that I stopped saving my columns.

Most of them were just of the moment, nothing worth saving.

EZ: All told, though, an amazing body of work. Again, congratulations.