Saturday, September 20, 2003

Leaving JCU Behind, Without Really Having Left It

A couple of weeks ago, I hit a decade anniversary. Not for my marriage, but for having left the ranks of traditional employment to become an indy contractor. In February '93, I made a decision to become a freelance writer. I had a splendid, one-of-a-kind position, at the tender age of 35, as the University Editor of my alma mater, John Carroll University. I had an impossibly indulgent boss, Paul Kantz, who as vice president of development (meaning: fundraising) would ordinarily exercise close control over a university magazine and thus over the editor--me.

But Paul was a different sort. He had been a writer himself, for the Plain Dealer, before joining JCU, where he later edited the Alumni Journal. And he was a serious reader and unstinting fan of good writing. Perhaps even more important, despite his much-remarked upon intensity of work habits and, to some at least, lack of outward hint of a sense of humor, he had an exquisite understanding of the creative impulse. He seemed to understand deep in his DNA that creative folks needed a long leash, and should be made to answer only for the result, not the process by which they achieved it. He didn't merely avoid micromanaging the publication, which would be unusual enough, but rather he left it all to me to decide what it should contain. During the interview process he said he was looking for a managing editor of the campus, a nice way of thinking about it, and I warmed to that vision. It didn't hurt matters that when I soon dug into the archives to peruse issues he had edited years earlier, I liked what I saw. So I took the job.

But in the real world, managing editors have to make some tough calls which lots of people don't like and won't understand, especially given the fact that this was not an independent magazine but a house organ for a $50-million operation. Understandably, some powerful folks thought that less rather than more exposure of controversial issues was better for the university, and would induce more and larger gifts. A moment of truth arrived when the then-president of the university, Mike Lavelle, unfortunately went into alcoholic rehab. It was common knowledge that it had happened, and while the news hadn't yet hit the general media, it certainly would before long. And so one day I got a call from a university muckety-muck named Doug, who explained to me that I would of course not be so much as mentioning this difficult topic in the university magazine. Rather than argue with him, I got off the line and called Paul Kantz. I boldly asked if he might talk to his peer Doug (they were each vice presidents) and explain why I would indeed be writing about the issue. He did, and I did, and the earth didn't end because of it. My non-confrontational but consistent argument that a Jesuit university's publication should be--must be--equally as dedicated to intellectual integrity and truth as the university and the Jesuit order are themselves got a crucial vote of confidence that day. And Paul Kantz, now semi-retired and living in Florida, became a lifelong hero to me for the first of what would be several more bracing examples of uncommon support for what just about anyone else in his position would have viewed as simple recklessness.

A couple of times I attended conferences of my peers, editors of university publications. And in private chats over coffee in between formal sessions, we of course traded experiences. It soon became apparent that several of my colleagues thought me a liar for insisting that no one at my school, not the head of development nor even the university president, saw a word of the issue before it went to the printer (I didn't rub it in by pointing out that even the president bent over backward, when calling occasionally to suggest a story, to remind me that it was merely a suggestion). It simply wasn't done that way. It of course made me all the more thankful to be in a position of such trust and autonomy, which made me only work all that much harder to produce a publication worthy of such trust.

Anyway, let me now circle back to the opening point. In February '93, I decided, with something of a heavy heart, that as wonderful as my job might be--as much as I loved covering students and profs, and traveling around the country to interview and write about such graduates as a rookie NBA referee, a Texas oil wildcatter and the father of America cable TV, Chuck Dolan--as a new parent and a freelancer who was spending perhaps 25 hours a week in outside writing, it was time that I stopped doing all three callings (parent, writer and editor) poorly and decide which two I should tackle better. One of them of course had to stay, and so I marched into Paul's office and sheepishly gave my six months' notice. That time lag would give me a chance both to recruit a solid successor for my baby (the alumni mag) and take him or her through one entire quarterly cycle of training, as well as give me some additional time to save money. And in early September, having handed the reins to a fine guy I recruited named Jerry Pockar, a sensitive and literate all-but-dissertation writer then laboring at the Catholic Universe Bulletin, I was off to other things.

I thought about all this this week because of a grand reunion I attended Thursday evening of about 20 of the most amazing colleagues I've ever had--my friends and fellow workers in the JCU Alumni office. A few--like Rosalie Massey and Pete Bernardo, two of the most spirit-filled people I will ever know--still work there. Irripressible Pete, once JCU's alumni director and now head of planned giving, is the closest thing to Mother Teresa I'll ever witness at first hand. Over the years, the former Army Colonel and his wife have taken in perhaps a dozen troubled kids to their home, many adopted. Rosalie, who has raised our spirits by battling life-threatening illness to a standstill, is perhaps even more selfless, if that's possible.

Most of the others, too many to mention them all, have gone on to marvelous successes. After leaving JCU, Claire Corrigan Woidke, daughter of legendary Cleveland judge John V. Corrigan, worked at the Cleveland Foundation, got her master's degree in nonprofit management and had three beautiful children with her Jim. She now serves on the board of the Irish-American Archives at the Western Reserve Historical Society, and does nonprofit consulting in partnership with a giant of the field, former Red Cross national president Steve Bullock. My special buddy Maryann "Beebe" Lutjen has just been lured from a position with Benjamin Rose to a grantwriting position at Ursuline College, where she rejoins our other former colleague Kevin Gladstone, a guy of uncommon wit and imagination (and a one-time hoops star at Iggy) who heads up development there. Susan Pellettiere is a high-powered bank v.p. with a baby on the way. Maureen Letsch, who lit up the office with her humor, energy and motherly wisdom, is enjoying her kids and grandchild, and helping her husband in his many entreprepreneurial projects. Elaine Mahoney, beatifically smiling grandmother to us all, was as warm and life-affirming as ever, excited to drive down to Columbus the next day to see her grandkids. And ever-avuncular wordsmith Michael Gallagher, contributor to Commonweal Magazine, translator of classic Japanese books and author of his own splendid 1992 book on Catholic activists, "Laws of Heaven," is now hard at work on a play.

And while he wasn't there in person, for me at least, Paul Kantz was very much hovering over our gathering in spirit. Back in the day, we often privately teased him for his habit of absently fishing for loose change in his pants pocket. But it was a deeper and more lasting change that I'll always remember him for, the change he helped pave the way for in thousands of readers who never even knew his role in bringing them a more truthful account of an institution they loved. And for that, I salute you Paul...


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