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Editor's Notebook: It's Been a Privilege to Work With So Many Thoughtful Writerly Types

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues

When I began my tenure as editor of Illinois Issues a little more than 13 years ago, I sought advice from a few friends and former colleagues. What, I wanted to know, would they like to see the magazine become? What did they most want to see it accomplish?

The first person I called was Jim Krohe. Longtime readers will recognize his name, which has appeared at the top of articles, essays and reviews throughout the life of this magazine, three-plus decades and counting. But our professional paths first crossed at another publication. In the late 1970s, we shared space at a savvy little Springfield weekly called Illinois Times. I was a reporter covering state news, and he was just beginning to polish his well-suited persona as a curmudgeon with a column. 

His advice during the call was delivered, in typical style, as a cranky directive: "Make the magazine more writerly," he said. And that was pretty much all he cared to say. No matter. I knew what he meant. There's no good reason for a public policy magazine to deliver information in a monotone. Writers have different perspectives and wondrously varied "voices," as we say in this business, and editors owe readers the full range of expression. As it turned out, editing these writers has been the best part about working at the magazine. It's what I'll miss most. 

So allow me a few personal thoughts about them here at the end. It's a good time for reflection as I prepare to retire from the university and from the magazine. It's the last issue I'll edit, the last column I'll write. And what comes most to mind is just how challenging and rewarding, how much of a privilege really, it has been to work with so many thoughtful writerly types. 

It was a good bargain. I gave them the space to have their say in the way they wanted to say it, and they repaid the rest of us. Journalism prof Charlie Wheeler, for instance, is a fact-driven reporter with a seasoned grounding in the Statehouse and a deep understanding of Illinois' political players, while history scholar Bob McGregor is a lyrical essayist with a wide-ranging intellect. This magazine gladly made room for both — to the readers' benefit. 

What readers don't see, of course, are the calculated risks editors take. With McGregor, as with many of the other essayists, I adopted a wait-and-see approach on the direction of a piece, then negotiated the details. An essay is a personal creative endeavor, after all. But I'm sure McGregor will remember, as I do, the day we both realized we were no longer engaged in (mostly) good-natured but (often) noisy head butting over some of his language. We wondered about this. Perhaps he had simply given up. Perhaps I had gone soft. More likely, we had settled naturally into a comfortable routine, as though slipping into familiar old shoes that once pinched smartly.

I've been fortunate throughout. I've worked with experienced Statehouse reporters, including Dan Vock, who still writes for us from the nation's capital, and talented young reporters who came through our own Statehouse bureau, including our current bureau chief, Bethany Jaeger. 

I've been sad and proud to watch some of our chiefs move on, most recently Pat Guinane, a whip-smart journalist who still writes for us from Indiana, and Aaron Chambers, a high-wattage reporter and larger-than-life personality who still writes for us from the bureau of the Rockford newspaper.

I've been honored, too, to work with other top-tier talent, including Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, who wrote some of the magazine's finest political profiles, Bill Lambrecht of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who deftly gave our environmental reportage a sharper edge, and John Wesley Fountain, who wrote a rare-for-us, first-person essay on poverty.

I learned, mostly, to be open to chance, or willing to leverage it by playing our writers in various positions — encouraging a beat reporter to tackle a book review, say, or a scholar to do some reporting. 

Editors are trained to work mostly with ideas and words. And I don't want to minimize that. But we soon learn better. In reality, we work mostly with people. Talented, opinionated and, yes, often outright quirky people. Leeway must be given. Sometimes lots of leeway must be given. The key is to learn when to push and when to punt.

In sum, editing is a series of hard-won discoveries: Which writers will want help finding the heart of the story, and who will lose momentum with too much talk. Which writers always run past deadline, and who is worth the wait. 

I believe during my tenure here, we broadened the understanding of politics and governance. We launched an arts issue, for example, then an environmental issue. We widened the frame to encompass all regions. And we covered a greater range of issues reflecting our state's rapidly diversifying population. But mostly, I tried to follow Krohe's advice.

He might be amused to hear that the piece generating the most response in these years was his essay on the possibility of cougars moving back to Illinois. We suggested readers let us know if they've spotted one, and sure enough plenty have and do. The essay was written in 2004, and we're still getting notified by e-mail. The latest cougar sighting came in September. The big cat had made it to Carlinville.

"Nostalgia?" Krohe asked in his essay. "Not quite. But the prospect of meeting a dangerous wild animal makes us momentarily alive again in a way our pampered existence seldom requires. That alone may be reason enough to welcome them back to Illinois."

Now that's writerly. 


Three named Honors for public service

Rodger A. Heaton, Vicki Thomas and Thomas J. Wagner are the 2007 inductees into the Samuel K. Gove Illinois Legislative Internship Hall of Fame.

Illinois Issues and the University of Illinois at Springfield's Center for State Policy and Leadership sponsor the Hall, which is named for Sam Gove, one of the magazine's founders and a longtime director of the internship program. Members of the Hall were interns for one of the legislative leaders or for the Legislative Research Unit and have gone on to outstanding careers in public    service. They're honored at a ceremony in the Executive Mansion.

Rodger A. Heaton has been U.S. attorney for the central district of Illinois since 2006. He also has worked as a litigation partner in private practice in Chicago. He was an intern in the class of 1981-82.

Vicki Thomas is executive director of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules for the Illinois General Assembly and has been in that position since 1991. She was a member of the Senate Democratic staff from 1973 to 1978 and served as substantive staff director from 1978 to 1991. She was an intern in the class of 1972-73, the first to place women interns in the state Senate. 

Thomas J. Wagner is the retired senior vice president and general counsel of CIGNA Corp. In 1967, he became counsel and administrative assistant to state Treasurer Adlai Stevenson III. When Stevenson was elected to the U.S. Senate, Wagner continued as his administrative assistant. Wagner left government service for private industry in 1978. He was a legislative intern in the class of 1962-63.  

The Hall was established in 1990. It now includes 44 individuals, among them a former governor, several former and current state legislators, and legislative and executive staff members.

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, November 2007

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