Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jim Sulski, RIP

Jim Sulski and His Beautiful History of the Future

My friend and former colleague Jim Sulski passed away at the young age of 52 after a long, valiant struggle with cancer. My sympathies to his family, friends, students and colleagues. He fought bravely against cancer for years, a disease that took my mother’s life and afflicts my wife. I’m hoping that this humble remembrance will serve as a celebration of his life, one that touched so many and will continue to endure in our hearts and memories.

Jim and our little cadre of ink-stained wretches worked and hung out in the early 1980s on the South Side of Chicago. At the time, South Chicago was still home to The Daily Calumet, a down-on-it-luck 100-year-old paper that served the moribund community of acrid, hulking steel mills. Jim served as the education reporter while I had the business-labor beat.

Our world headquarters leaned precariously in one direction over the decrepit vaulted sidewalks that raised humanity above the mud flats of the Calumet River basin. The first floor was a reception area, manned by Louise, a tough yet accommodating Polish-speaking woman who also served as our walk-in circulation clerk. The second floor had long been abandoned and the third floor should have been condemned, along with the rest of the building. One day our publisher had this brilliant idea to save money on replacing the 100-year-old windows by bolting Plexiglas panels over the window wells. This effectively sealed us in; had there been a fire our choice of departing this world would have been immolation or asphyxiation. In the rear of the floor was a darkroom and morgue of unbound newspapers.

As the desks were nearly as old as the building, they barely supported paper and typewriters. In those days we hammered away on IBM selectrics. Copy was then fed into scanners at the printing plant in Lansing. There wasn’t a computer terminal in sight. Our publisher’s second flash of intellectual ecstasy was to buy desks from the defunct Wisconsin Steel. They were sturdy, gray Steelcase desks. You could’ve dropped I-beams on them and they would’ve held up. To add a little color to the rapidly composting building, he decided to have them painted in cartoon colors.

Jim’s desk was the color of the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine, which suited him fine, since he adored the Beatles and usually ended up belting out Fab Four songs in a circle with his fellow imbibers at the end of a long day of deadlines, beer and chasing the local wildlife in Cal City. I had no idea what color my desk was. Like little boys in third grade, our editor had to separate us, since we couldn’t be in close proximity due to the heavy traffic of paper airplanes, spitballs or other projectiles. We both suffered from serious cases of arrested development, yet it was the prison-like nature of the Daily Cal newsroom – a dying paper in an enfeebled community -- that compelled us to seek distractions.

With Jim, there was always this sense of the unexpected. He was constantly throwing curveballs at you and was a great prankster. Since he didn't have an unkind word about anyone, he was always a joy to be around.

One endless evening 30 years ago, when we were closing some bar in Calumet City, he introduced me to a young lady who claimed to be a belly dancer who worked in the infamous Golden Shell restaurant on the East Side (infamous for being a hang-out of the mass murderer Richard Speck). What he didn't tell me at that late hour was that he told the damsel that I had promised to write a story about her for our paper, The Daily Calumet. Come Monday morning, she was ready for the interview. Fortunately, Bob Bong, my editor at the time, didn't sense any overt compromise and thought it would be a good story, so we did it -- with pictures. After the story ran, that was the end of my relationship with supple Rita.

“She was just 17, and you knooow what I mean,” was how we bridged night and day before we headed off for breakfast or the purgative penance of The White Castle. We were like comrades in a DH Lawrence novel; there was much brotherly love.

If there was a time between the moment I left home after college and the day of my marriage when I felt most alive --pulsating with possibility and the nearly self-destructive exuberance for experience -- this was it. I didn’t seem to fear anything. None of us did. We just sallied forth into the world of decay, adventure and bottomless pitchers of beer. If the world was falling apart around us or we were really in some kind of purgatory, we were oblivious to it in a decade of dashed expectations.

While his personality seemed to be like Teflon as far as trouble was concerned, I had a knack for pissing people off (still do). I was kicked out of offices, threatened by ward bosses and labor leaders. I was constantly watching my back and looking under my car. I was genuinely concerned for my health and well being after being told many times I was "going to get my lunch."

Not so with Jim. He grew up in South Chicago and had more friends than there were sidewalks. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. I came from the South Suburbs; this was his home and he always felt good about being a Bowen High School graduate who transcended the working’s man’s dilemma. He genuinely enjoyed people who came into his circle and was always challenging those who weren’t. After he came out of the hospital following a serious car accident that left his face scarred, he grew a beard and finished his bachelor’s degree. He later picked up his master’s in communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the same place I got my two diplomas (and same master’s).

We briefly parted ways after the Daily Cal, which was acquired and shut down not too long after he left. (The last great journalist the Cal incubated was John Kass, who eventually inherited Mike Royko’s slot at the Tribune). Although I was at the Daily Cal scarcely two years, there was so much compressed into that time that it has taken me 30 years to decompress from it. I saw thousands of millworkers become unemployed, fall into despair and fight losing battles to get their jobs back. I rode in the back of a bus as they lobbied Washington. I snuck into a meeting with then-mayor Jane Byrne, who like so many other politicians, had lied to them with promises of reopening their ramshackle mill, Wisconsin Steel. I was variously accepted and rejected by local steelworker union and political bosses, sworn at, threatened and stressed out to the point of exhaustion. I seriously doubted whether I would make it to 30; my doctor told me I had an ulcer and couldn’t subsist on pizza and beer. My hair started turning gray.

Jim, of course, was affected by the economic violence around him yet didn’t look fazed by any of it. I knew he genuinely cared for people – these were his neighbors and buddies after all – yet I sensed that he would move on in a profound way. He wasn’t going to stay in South Chicago and rot. I’m not quite sure what kind of relationship he had with his estranged father, although I’m reasonably sure he didn’t want to end up like him. He never talked about him. I sensed this immense void in his life that he attempted to fill with his intense friendships, marriages and vocation -- none of which he was ever ambivalent about.

After seeing the cops shoot some unemployed guy on a commuter train who had taken a woman hostage, in 1981, I had enough. I was off to pursue a quiet career in business writing and ended up at American Metal Market, a staid trade paper covering the steel and metalworking industries. I lasted six months. It was a bad fit and I was indifferent about being a trade journalist.

Jim and I reconnected shortly thereafter and he talked me into coming to a new venture called Keycom Electronic Publishing. At the time, personal computers were the sole province of guys with pocket protectors. They were hard to find. Cellphones were the size of bricks. Fax machines still ruled and the Internet was still the captive domain of researchers and the defense department. Nobody had any inkling of what the Worldwide Web would become.

At the time, newspapers and the print media had this well-defined paranoia of AT&T. They thought the phone companies would take over the world of telecommunications and be able to deliver information to everyone’s home for practically nothing. They heard the jeremiads of the consultants and business gurus who prophesized the end of media as we knew it. TV and radio news would go away under this scenario.

Ma Bell would rule with an iron scepter! That mantra catapulted every newspaper group to enter into the online realm. Everyone from Knight-Ridder to the Chicago Sun-Times was in survival mode with this odd new technology that they hoped would deliver them from the telephonic-induced Armageddon. The punishing inflationary years of the late 1970s forced major industrial restructurings well into the next decade as recession devastated manufacturing jobs, which continued to migrate overseas or to Mexico. Nearly every large old-line business would never be the same. The media business, however, was going electronic, a transition that is still underway.

Jim was on top of this trend and riding the Malibu-like wave of electronic publishing. He beckoned me to join this pioneering company that had imported an English system called teletext that could be broadcast on television or delivered on a computer. At some point in the future, this primitive ASCII-type system could morph into videotext, a truly interactive information medium. Imagine typing in a request for information and getting exactly what you asked for! That was a big deal in the early 80s, long before the Googles and Yahoos. Seeded by a management team from The Sun-Times and Centel Telephone, we were a mutt of company. The newspaper guys were hard-drinking, carousing and people-focused while the phone guys were into suits and bureaucracy.

We had a loose newsroom consisting of young journalists led by Mort Smith, an ex-BBC and Channel 4 editor and Peter Winter, a gregarious New Zealander. The chemistry was always volatile since we were producing a product for which the market hadn’t yet been established. Almost no one at the time got their news by computer and only a relative handful even owned personal computers, which certainly weren’t the modern telecommunications appliances they are today. Keycom marketed a clunky keyboard with mint-sized keys and microwave-sized converter that hooked up to your television set. The pong-like graphics improved over time, yet they were arguably worse than the most primitive handheld video game today.

The challenge was all in those pioneering days, which typically ended at the local watering hole “El Torito” with swaggering manager Ben Smylie plunking down his corporate Amex card on the bar and the rest of the staff enjoying the company’s generosity and endless flow of margaritas.

For Jim, I and the rest of the staff, this was an extension of our rambling newspaper days. We were now producing a news product that changed almost every minute. It seems archaic now, but we would rewrite news wires – often from paper feeds – feed it through a technically demanding Atex system originally designed for newspapers – then through another computer interface to be “broadcast.” The whole process was cumbersome, labor-intensive and prone to breakdowns, such as when a string of my solicitous emails to other staffers started backing up. Sensing my immediate and profound embarrassment, Jim quickly applied his technical expertise to fix the problem before I became a laughing stock of the newsroom. Email in those days was a fairly closed system among a handful of people, but more like instant messaging than the massive network system we have today.

At least some of those emails led to more than romance. A beautiful, blue-eyed graphic artist by the name of Kathleen Rose Conlon caught my eye when she joined the company to do an online narrative cartoon entitled “Escape from Titan.” Having just come over with her family from the civil-war-torn streets of West Belfast, this was a breakthrough job for Kathleen, whose family had known Smylie (and had offered her a job at a party). I was smitten by the (then) 18-year-old and five years later we married. Both of our daughters, Sarah, 13, and Julia, 9, have Kathleen’s blue eyes and her indomitable temperament. Had Jim not talked me into joining Keycom, I doubt if I would have ever met the love of my life, whom is still the center of my universe after more than a quarter century. Jim married his first wife Sheila, just before we got married, moved to Beverly and had three great children.

Toward the end of our Keycom tenure, Jim managed to talk me into disciplining our unfettered comedic talents (more his than mine). We enrolled in the Player’s Workshop of Second City, a training camp for improvisational actors, many of whom went onto the big Second City company and beyond. For me, Jim helped me attain what I later found to be an essential life skill – talking in front of a crowd of people. I’ve always been pretty much an introvert; Jim managed to pull out of me a more creative approach to the world. I know he had this effect on others as well.
We relished our year-long training and both graduated. Our “ceremony” consisted of performing skits on the famed Second City stage in Old Town. While I’ve used my improvisational training in nearly every speech I’ve given from coast to coast, Jim took his far-more advanced skills to a different stage.

A few years after Keycom, Jim started teaching (while also doing freelance writing) at Columbia College, eventually ending up as a great newspaper advisor to the Chronicle, the award-winning student paper. I know he influenced a lot of young journalists there and was loved by his colleagues. Jim and I became estranged after his first marriage broke up and he remarried, but I kept following his career and his health crises. Without reservation, I mourned the loss of his company during his last years. He was a lighthearted fellow traveler in an insane world. I truly missed him and loved him for what he was.

I know that this all-too-brief summary fails utterly at capturing the essence of a life that covered a half century. I can only surmise that the impact he had on me was as powerful on other people. He leaves much behind, and all of it screams frenetically to live every day, shout a Beatles song at the top of your lungs, don’t ever think that your day ends when you leave work. Keep on drinking that elixir of mortality.


Unknown said...

I enjoyed your retrospective on Jim. I learned a lot from him at The Daily Cal, and will always treasure that boy.

We all wished our Steelcase desks from Wisconsin Steel had that kind of color Jim's had (mine was gray). And the Keycom job still ranks as one of the best I've ever had the fortune to have. In fact, Jim was the reason I ended up there.

I still remember the naysaying back then. "News over computers and TV? It'll never work, never in a million years ..."

Scott Buckner

CaptainGonzoWriter said...

This was a great, great piece man. I had Jim as a teacher The Chronicle of course, but your memory of working with him when he was much younger truly painted a better picture of the man than just "teacher and advisor to the Chronicle."

Touche sir.

CaptainGonzoWriter said...

This was a great, great piece man. I had Jim as a teacher The Chronicle of course, but your memory of working with him when he was much younger truly painted a better picture of the man than just "teacher and advisor to the Chronicle."

Touche sir.