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300 Lake St. explores the relationship between Elgin and its newspaper, the Daily Courier News, through a period from the early 1970s until the building closed in 2010.

For 85 years, the Daily Courier News was a reflection of Elgin, recording its successes and failures and relating the extraordinary struggles of the ordinary people who lived here. But even in the 1970s and 80s as the winds of change blew all around, both clung desperately to the past. Neither understood that resisting the future couldn’t delay its arrival, only prolong the past. The definition of community was changing. It was no longer a geographical location as much as a group of people who shared common interests.

Both struggled to find a place in the new reality with Elgin eventually reborn as a center for the arts, entertainment, recreation and education, courtesy of a new economy. But the loss of a traditional community with defined borders coupled with new methods of quickly delivering the news eliminated the need for an intensely local newspaper. While Elgin emerged from the dark decades well positioned for the new millennium, the Daily Courier News did not, its business model no longer relevant.

300 Lake St. is the story of their once intertwined relationship, exploring events during that crucial period that shaped both, as well as a behind the scenes look at what politicians once called Elgin’s “conscience,” the Daily Courier News. The book also contains several of Bailey’s columns, including the locally famous Lamont.

300 Lake Street is available for sale here: 

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Ahead of the upcoming release of 300 Lake St., we wanted to offer readers a free chapter to enjoy. What follows is the first chapter from the book, titled, “The End of the Beginning.” We hope you enjoy! If you want to read more, the full book is available on November 9.

The End of the Beginning

The boxes were heavy.

The sides bowed from the weight of award plaques, clipped news articles, framed pictures of my son, coffee cups and notebooks filled with illegible scribbling – the archeology of a career.

In a smaller box were the small stones, shells and petrified shark’s teeth we collected in the damp, packed sand of a Florida island beach. Like fevered gold miners, stooped and sunburned, we scanned the soft sand, looking for that special shell or the blackened triangle of a petrified shark’s tooth, the only remnant of a living thing now long dead. They now lay in the bottom of an old coffee mug.

Store-purchased trinkets meant to recall a special trip are submission to the collective consciousness, a kind of spiritual surrender that shapes our memory to those of others. Uniform and void of meaning, mass-produced souvenirs hold no special recollection, no energy, no link to anything other than the moment in the air conditioned store when we, like many others, made our selection.

Those stones and shells were personal and real and seeing them put me right there, where I was when I was happy. Each was easily identifiable and recalled a special memory. If I closed my eyes I could see us standing there, young and happy, the whispered promise of many pleasurable days ahead, the vitality of life swirling around us, rich and dense.

In their removal from the special place in my office, some power was lost, a significance vanished. Those storage boxes now carried a sorrowful weight. A darkness attached itself to them. As long as the individual items stayed in their place, the past was as alive as the present. Life inside that small office in an upper corner of a block building at 300 Lake St., like Einstein’s block time, existed all at once; from my first day to now, my termination. As long as they occupied their given space, they imbued a sense of a whole life, not just the separate pieces that slipped quietly into the cardboard container.

This was more than the loss of a job. This was the dismantling of a life. Separate and disassembled, these artifacts were just the accumulation of nameless energies evoking not contentment, but an apprehension vast in its scope and content. Instead of pillars supporting a life, they became longing for something irretrievably lost.

Nostalgia is the manifestation of dissatisfaction — a vague feeling that we are adrift and unsure of our place in the world. It is the beginning of a penetrating and consuming isolation, an acknowledgement that we don’t recognize the world anymore. So we anchor ourselves to a life that once existed, if nowhere else than in our memories. In that gray mid-January afternoon, when a small insistent sadness crept into the texture of things, those little stones and shells connected me one last time to those special moments that in the end, are all of life that matters.

Outside my confining office, most of the 32 newsroom employees begin to gather, peering in at me like neighbors gathering on whispered rumors of a tragedy. The room was in a state of molecular agitation. Colorful people still living rich, intensely satisfying lives peer in at me, their emotions a mix of sadness and yet, relief. I understood. I had been on the other side of that glass. We need to believe this could only happen to others, that somehow it was predictable, deserved and therefore would pass over us to darken another’s door. The sudden misfortune of other people is perversely leavening. When we see others in deep-reaching torment our own disappointments are viewed from a soothing perspective.

I cannot be in here any longer. The walls are closing in on me. I am a spectacle, my years here reduced to these last few minutes of removing any evidence I ever existed. Everyone now knows I have been terminated, the victim of economic conditions and an unrepentantly incompetent leadership that resented my dissent to the merger of the Courier News with three other distant and wholly unrelated Copley newspapers in Aurora, Joliet and Waukegan.

Prior to the combination – the harmonic convergence, as it was called – the circulation of the Courier News rose 10 straight months to 25,000. In the three years since it had fallen by nearly a third, to 18,000.  The Courier News was no longer a community newspaper. Its content was dictated by a collection of half-wits huddled in their offices in Aurora, brought in from out of state, ignorant of what made each community distinct.

Maybe it would have happened anyway. But not like this. The Cour-ier News was a good newspaper, honored by statewide news organizations and recognized as one of the best small newspapers in America during the 1990s. If it was to perish, it should have slipped quietly under the blue waves, dignified and revered. Instead, rusted and leaky, it was used for target practice and scuttled.

So, when the grand convergence failed miserably, Copley decided to sell all the Chicagoland newspapers. To do so, it needed to make the bottom line look better than the cataclysmic failure it had engineered. Many of us were terminated that day, with a generous severance and, in some cases, genuine regret. I am forever in debt to Art Wible, president of the company, for allowing me to write my final column (below) after I had been terminated.

Before it was over, several dozen people were axed to bring the financials in line prior to the sale to Conrad Black, who, before being given free room and board courtesy of the United States government, would be indirectly responsible for my return as managing editor of the Courier News. But I could not have known that on this last day, Jan. 12, 2000.

I opened the office door and a few people clapped, as though I had made an unexpected entrance in a theatrical production. Others cried. A few hugged me. Some lined up to shake my hand, like a greeting line at a funeral, manly yet heartfelt, but ultimately empty. Their grief was genuine and oddly exceeded what I felt.

And that was it. I walked down the stairs, out to the parking lot and went home to a house once swimming with vitality, now empty and dark. That night, I received a special delivery package from Copley headquarters in San Diego. It was a copy of the flagship San Diego Union-Tribune’s Millennium Edition with a special letter thanking me for all I had done over the years for the company and all the exciting new things I would be part of in this, the new millennium. It was the only time I laughed that day. A few days later, the business office called me to pick up my bonus check. In a deliciously sardonic twist, I had achieved every one of the goals set for the Courier News and me personally in 1999 by the same vice president who canned me. Irony takes many forms.

My ultimate return as managing editor less than a year later was one of them. But change is irrevocable. Once set in motion it cannot be undone. I would return as managing editor of the Courier News for another eight years before economics and the changing media industry again resulted in my termination. Although I had only been gone a year, it wasn’t the same experience nor did it seem to be the same city as when I left. No man steps in the same river twice, the saying goes.

A year away provided me with a perspective that I would have lacked had I remained, clinging desperately to my job like a reed in a fast-flowing stream. The end was no longer uncertain, but the timing was. I viewed my mandate not as growth and expansion like we did in the 1970s, but as postponing the inevitable as long as possible. We did better than I had even hoped, eventually succumbing in January 2009 to both a changing community and a changing industry.

But for four decades, it was one hell of a good ride.

 

Newsman’s Farewell to Community He Loves

Jan. 16, 2000

This will be my last column.  By the time you read it, I will no longer work for Copley Press.

I appreciate the chance to write this because it’s important that I say goodbye and thanks to all of the people who sometimes enjoyed and sometimes hated my column.  You are all very precious to me. You became a part of my life.

I hope many things came through in my writings over the past 23 years, most of all that I really love Elgin and this area, and that every conscious thought and action as a representative of this newspaper and in my own life was an effort to make this a place of which to be proud.  I always implored us as a community to seek the best and not settle for less.  We have every right to demand more of our neighbors and ourselves. I would rather have to live up to expectations than be allowed to live down to them.

If I made you angry sometimes with what I wrote, it was merely to make you think about what you believed to be true and prod you to consider alternatives or new ways to solve problems.  Challenge the established thought; explore new solutions; encourage debate and nurture independent thought.

Creativity is a casualty of unified thought. In this world, which punishes the non-conformist, it is far too easy to bark with the pack.  Security is too simple a bargain to strike with life.

I always viewed journalism as a public trust, not a product, and that did not always endear me to corporate, but they allowed me latitude, like the crazy aunt who gets locked in the attic. They knew my heart was in the right place.

I learned many things while I was here and most recently that I cannot cling to a life that does not exist anymore. Our community has changed, business has changed and competition has forced many changes that have made it difficult for me to live with my changing role at this newspaper.  And so it has come to this, a departure. But not a sad one; a mutually agreeable one.

I don’t regret a minute of these past three decades. I am not bitter. How could I be?  I spent most of my adult life doing something I loved. Can everyone else say that?

And what’s more, because of what I wrote and what I did for a living, this community is a different place than it would have been were I never here.  Not necessarily a better place in all instances, but different.  Not too many people can honestly say that they helped shape the place in which they lived.

This job taught me many things that I could not have learned any other way.  I learned that the most destructive human emotion is not greed or hate but impotent anger; that you should always whisper what you want remembered; and that, as I often reminded everyone here, no one ever died wishing they’d spent more time at work.

I watched vanity destroy careers and kindness change destinies. And I learned what Cormac McCarthy wrote was true: That in the world was hidden a secret; that the world’s heart beat at a terrible cost; and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity.  And that in this head-long deficit, the blood of multitudes may ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

I learned to love the laugh of a small child, enjoy the company of friends and appreciate the love a father can have for his son.

I hope you enjoyed your newspaper and me over the best part of the past four decades.  And I hope that your memory of me will, in the aggregate, be kind.

The last thing I removed from the bulletin board beside my desk was this quotation from E.E. Cummings, which I typed in college and which I clung to in all periods of self-doubt: “to be nobody-but-myself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”

Good-bye.