Bob Greene, 10 years later: ‘Trying to do the best job I can’

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Bob Greene thinks a lot these days about the colleagues he has lost — and probably about the career he lost, too.


Ten years ago this week, Greene’s public life crashed and burned on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Readers awoke that Sunday morning in mid-September to the news that he’d been fired after more than three decades as one of the best known and most widely read columnists in America.


A spectacular ride that had taken a kid from Bexley, Ohio, to a starring role at the Sun-Times by age 23, then to the Tribune and syndication in more than 200 newspapers, was suddenly and completely over.


Greene had been fired, according to the Tribune’s version of events, because he had abused his position by engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a girl he met when she came to interview him for her high school newspaper. 


"Greene's behavior was a serious violation of Tribune ethics and standards for its journalists,” Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski wrote in her note to readers that Sunday. “We deeply regret the conduct, its effects on the young woman and the impact this disclosure has on the trust our readers placed in Greene and this newspaper."


Reached this week at Harvard University, where she now heads the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Lipinski expressed no misgivings over firing Greene but said she felt “tremendously sad for everyone involved — for him, for her, for the newsroom and for the readers.”


Except for a brief statement to the Associated Press expressing sorrow and acknowledging “indiscretions in my life that I am not proud of,” Greene chose to remain silent about his dismissal. Fans and foes debated whether his punishment was justified.


In the months that followed, several prominent Chicago writers turned out long and masterful accounts of Greene’s downfall, each taking a different tone. Bill Zehme’s piece in Esquire was poignant and sympathetic, telling Greene’s story as “a heartland Greek tragedy, rife with cruel ironies and tortured plot turns from beginning to astonishing end.” Another, by Marcia Froelke Coburn and Steve Rhodes in Chicago magazine, was more straightforward and damning. A third, by Neil Steinberg on Salon.com, was gleeful and mocking. (Years earlier, before he became a famous Sun-Times columnist, Steinberg had penned BobWatch, a monthly feature in the Chicago Reader ridiculing Greene and his work, under the pseudonym of Ed Gold.)


Those who expected Greene to make a big splashy comeback — or at least submit to a tearful mea culpa on Oprah — waited in vain. Thousands of readers who’d followed the columnist for decades never saw or heard from him again after September 15, 2002. Though to many, he just seemed to disappear, Greene hasn’t been totally invisible since he was banished from Tribune Tower.


In the intervening 10 years, he’s had four books published — Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents; And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship; When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams; and Late Edition: A Love Story. (Many of his 25 books, including his collections of columns, have been New York Times bestsellers.)


He’s also a contributor to CNN, where he writes a weekly column for CNN.com and often appears on CNN Newsroom Sunday afternoons. He doesn’t write about abused children anymore (as he did to excess in his final years at the Tribune), but he often returns to other familiar themes with the confidence and grace of an old pro. Reading him again reminded me why he once was a role model for many of us who came after him at Medill.


Greene, who is 65 years old now (let that sink in), told me he often reflects on colleagues from our newspaper days who’ve died. He mentioned Irv Kupcinet, the legendary columnist, Jeff Zaslow, whom he recalled heroically in a piece for CNN, and Paul Galloway, who, by all accounts, was his closest friend in the business.


In an exchange of emails earlier this week, I told Greene I’d be writing about him 10 years after his leaving the Tribune, and asked him to comment on his experience there and his career since then. His response took a nostalgic turn back to the Sun-Times.


“I continue to enjoy looking for stories, and trying to do the best job I can reporting and writing them,” he wrote. “I treasure the 31 years of writing columns for Chicago newspapers, and miss the old friends and colleagues who are no longer with us.


“One Christmas Day a few years ago when I was in Chicago I went for a walk and passed by the statue of Kup, coated in snow; I took a picture of it and sent it to Roger Ebert, as a remembrance of the Christmas Days when we’d be in the office putting out the next day's paper, and Kup would walk in, snow on his overcoat, on the beat as ever, holiday or no.


“And I still sometimes find myself reaching for the phone to call Paul Galloway, to share some story with him . . . and then being hit anew with the thought that he's not here. I was in touch with [former Sun-Times editor and publisher] Jim Hoge recently, who hired us both. Wonderful days.”


 



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