Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A love letter for Greg Gravemier

In the early 1980s, there was a recession with the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.  Families lost the farm, over a million people lost their jobs, and the government handed out surplus cheese hoping people wouldn't starve.  The divide between  rich and poor widened.  The national debt mushroomed, as did the budget deficit and oil prices. Okay, so that sounds a lot like now: SOS, different day.  But it wasn't.  It was totally different.

It wasn't the same for a lot of reasons. One was the lack of technology we take for granted now: PC's, Internet, cell phones (if anyone tweeted, sharp glances would have come their way).  Phil Donohue with his white hair and earnest manner tried, but pre-Oprah, many personal and societal issues went unrecognized and unaddressed (not a fan, but I give her that).   Most people barely understood themselves, much less anyone else, and intolerance ran pretty high:  I felt suspect just for being single and out of college.  But yes, in many ways - finding a job being one of them - it was hard then, just as it is now.  Bummer then; bummer now.

So in 1981, newly graduated, suspiciously single, I was a waitress full-time.  My days off involved sending out resumes for newspaper jobs and driving to interviews, always hearing no thanks, no, and NO (one job I knew I would not get was when, during our interview, the editor accidentally flipped over backwards in his chair).  Some of my college friends did get decent jobs, some escaped into other professions, and a few wisely took refuge in grad school.  One, I swear he made a pact with the Devil.  My dream was really to write novels, but I had a competitive streak and was a stubborn girl.  I would not give up. Waitressing actually wasn't a bad gig, but I would become a reporter, darn it ... whether I wanted to or not.

I finally had a good feeling when I got a reply from Clark County Publishing.  It was 200 miles south of 
Jack Bannon

Chicago, headquartered in Casey (pronounced KZ), population 3000.  Publisher Ron Isbell owned two papers: one a semi-weekly in the neighboring town of Marshall, the other a daily at CCP HQ.  Ron brought along a handsome, pleasant young man to interview me and tour the county.  While Ron was watchful and asked the tough questions, managing editor Greg Gravemier was friendly and chatted me up.  He looked like Jack Bannon, the actor who played asst. city editor Art Donovan on the old show "Lou Grant." I liked him right away.  I was so thrilled to be offered the job that on the other end of the phone, I jumped up and down.

Of course, being a Chicago-area girl, it didn't take long for reality to hit.  I wasn't ready for combines, persimmons, and bird dog field trials, for a town with one light and no movie theatre.  People said I had a Chicago accent and were curious why I crossed an empty street like I expected to be mowed down by a bus; I thought they talked like southerners and wondered why they called plain old plastic pens "ink pens."  Much worse a problem was my error-riddled reporting.  I barely knew the difference between Congress and the State Legislature and once reported that the Marshall School District had approved a budget with over a million dollars for sports. Ron Isbell got red in the face a lot over my reporting.  I felt like a loser, and a stupid one at that. 

But then I started working directly for Greg Gravemier, which changed everything.  Greg was all that I was not. He had a handle on things. Greg did not care about persimmons, accents, or bird dogs.  He did not care how I crossed the street, as long as I came back with a story, and he thought it was cool that I was an independent single woman.  Greg was calm about my reporting, teaching me to double check my facts and walking me through my more serious stories. He explained  how small towns operated, who was who, and who I should just roll my eyes and not worry about. Greg liked my writing and gave me a column, which was the most fun I ever had at the paper.  He was good-natured but expected quality work, so I got better and produced it for him.  I watched Greg come to work every day, do every single thing he was supposed to, then head home on a cheerful note.  He made it look easy.  But when Greg went on vacation, I did his job, and it wasn't easy at all - he started at an ungodly early hour and worked his butt off all day. That was Greg, though: a happy person, yet down to business.

Greg not only had the Casey news biz down pat; he'd somehow figured out how to live in a small town during an intolerant era and to be completely himself.  He had liberal views and stated his opinion with quiet confidence.  He understood politics at all levels and had a strong network for issues he cared personally about.  Greg kept up with trends; for example, he was very excited  about Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album, and he went on a popular but controversial new liquid diet.  "You don't need to lose weight," I'd scoff.  His reply: "You haven't seen me with my clothes off."   Greg had a funny cat named Lymon and a cool little car that I liked so much, I bought the same model a few years later.  Once he bribed me with a steak dinner if I could get an interview with a teenager who'd murdered his foster mother.  I was scared to do it, but I summoned up the courage to drop off a written request at juvy.  I didn't get the interview, but Greg appreciated the effort and took me out to the town's best restaurant anyway.  For some reason there were high school students there singing, and one girl did an appropriately mournful rendition of "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian.  Greg whispered, "What a brave choice."

Bravery.  Like work, that was something else Greg made look easy.  Behind that breezy exterior, there was true grit.  Greg was an openly gay man involved in a serious relationship with Leland Roth, with whom he'd bought a house in Casey.  Gay men living openly together was not common there then, especially not when one of them was a public figure, which as managing editor Greg surely was. Greg shared a few things about some reactions he'd encountered through the years, in a variety of places.  He was not bitter, but on the other hand, he was not going to be pushed around.  He wanted to be true to himself and he loved Leland, who would go on to be his partner for almost 40 years.  I think Greg just deeply believed that everyone deserves dignity, and there was no way he was going to live without it.

When Greg and Leland saw the movie "Tootsie," Greg took me aside and said he'd had no idea how hard it must be for me,  how much the movie opened his eyes to how women were treated.  I didn't think I had it that bad, but those words made me love Greg Gravemier all the more.  His empathy and generous spirit were deeply touching knowing the ignorance and prejudice he had faced and overcome, again and again.

After I gave notice to move on to a bigger paper (thanks to Greg, I was now a passable journalist), one day Greg snapped at me, "Stop talking about it in front of me!  You're making me very sad."  It's the only time I remember him showing irritation with me.  There must have been others, as I'm sure I gave him plenty of reasons, but whatever happened was so gentle it left no impression.  Greg worked hard at everything he did, and one of those things was treating his employees well -- or maybe that just came naturally to such a good person.

RIP Greg Gravemier - brave man and patient editor; steady, loyal, and true.  Much love.

For an article in the Chicago media about Greg's many accomplishments and honors for human rights' activism, please see: