Champaign-Urabana

Twenty summers ago, I lived in hell.

Technically, Champaign, Illinois isn’t hell. It’s a college town. A cool college town, home to the University of Illinois and high stalks of corn and a place that, literally, sells burritos as big as your head.

For me, however, it was the absolute worst.

I had just wrapped up my sophomore year at the University of Delaware, and—after applying to probably, oh, 150 newspapers—was hired as a summer intern by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, a daily with a circ of, oh, 65,000. Landing the gig was an incredible high—I’d be living by myself in a new town, writing for a real paper, gaining experience and bylines and contacts.

Uh … yeah.

Champaign was hell. To begin with:

• I had no friends. None. Zero.

• I broke my ankle playing basketball, was on crutches for several weeks, got off the crutches, return to the court—and immediately sprained my other ankle.

• I lived in an apartment at 405 Green Street. I’m pretty sure the guy above me was beating his girlfriend. I had a TV that received two shows—Star Trek and The 700 Club. My mom bought me two plants to hang—I’m pretty certain they both died. I was so bored I tried taking up cigarette smoking … and failed miserable. Puff, cough, puff, cough.

• I was 20, and one needed to be 21 to enter bars.

Worst of all was the newspaper. Well, worst of all was me at the newspaper. To be blunt, I was a little cocky fuckhead. I thought I was God’s gift to writing, and walked and wrote with an unwarranted strut. I took advice from no one, mocked older scribes, thought I had nothing to learn and no need to improve. In a word, I was insufferable.

The woman who hired me, a sports editor named Jean McDonnell, made my life even worse. She shredded my copy, told me what I needed to work on, demanded professionalism and (gasp!) told me I needed much improvement. With seven weeks in, I packed up and left. I was supposed to be there for eight but, fuck, I couldn’t take it any longer. I was out. Ghost. See ya.

A few weeks later, I received a two-page letter from Jean. She told me I had talent, but that I wasted a great opportunity; that a bad attitude damns many a talented writer. I read the letter, probably cursed Jean out, read it again. And again. And again. I still have it, stashed. It’s a prized possession.

And one that probably saved me career.

•••

A few months back I received a surprise e-mail from Jean, asking if I’d be willing to speak to her journalism class at the University of Illinois. Last night, at long last, I did.

I told the students about ledes and transitions and interviews and John Rocker and Roger Clemens and Walter Payton. But what I really wanted them to understand was the value of humility and listening; that just because someone has an ability to turn a quick phrase doesn’t make him a quality journalist.

Then, before it ended, I apologized to Jean for 20 summers back.

It was long overdue.

1 thought on “Champaign-Urabana”

  1. I really took away a lot from what you told us last night from your expierences and helpful tips. We all really appreciated you taking time out of your night to speak with us. You have completed so much and came a long way, I can honestly say you opened my eyes to journalism and I will be keeping up on your works.

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