Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Career clarity, thanks to Laurie Dann

Shield with the Face of Medusa, by Arnold Bocklin

    I'm usually pretty good about anniversaries. The Loop Flood. The Picasso sculpture. I've got them down cold. 
    And I did know that the 30th anniversary of the Laurie Dann rampage was coming up this past Sunday, May 20. I was reminded 10 days ago, when Eric Zorn wrote a compelling column about one of the students who survived.
    That took the wind out of my sails. It had been done, the subject tackled. Point to Zorn. I forgot about it, until I looked down at my Sun-Times folded on the sidewalk and saw Dann's set, schizophrenic face gazing up at me.
    I should have written something. I should have tried. I was there.
    Well, not there meaning inside Hubbard Woods School. Zorn had that. And a guest column in our paper Sunday by Phil Andrew, shot by Dann in his home that day. Another reason for me to keep my lip zipped. Their voices have been heard.
     What would I add? The lessons I learned that day have little to do with Dann in particular or shootings in general, and more to do with me. I try not to make everything about myself.
    But you know, every goddamn day, and it's Monday night and, well, why not? If you're Laurie-Danned out, and I wouldn't blame you, please stop by tomorrow. I'll have ... something.
    That day in memory was significant. Not for any horror. The overall tone was running around, chasing the story as it unfolded. It was important, because it taught me I didn't want to be a reporter. Not in the chasing-after-hard-news sense.
    Four moments stand out.
    The first, the afternoon of the shooting. Dann not only shot up a second grade classroom, killing 8-year-old Nicholas Corwin, but had left poisoned treats for a frat at Northwestern. I arrived, to some kind of barbecue. One beefy frat guy, tending a grill, had eaten some of the poisoned Rice Krispies treats, but wasn't bothering going to the hospital. At least that's what he told me. Five years out of Northwestern myself, there was something unsettling and awful in sidling up to this joker with a can of beer in his fist, har-harring the whole thing away while he turned the grilling brats.
     Second, late. The evening of the shooting. Dark out. Finding the teacher, Amy Moses, who saved the kids, by refusing to herd them together. Everybody wanted to find her. I did, not through any big sleuthing skills, I imagine. Someone at the desk probably gave me her address. So I'm at her apartment building, and I ring the buzzer with her name on it, and she answers,  and I explain what I was there for. She says, "You know, I had a really bad day," or words to that effect. She didn't want to talk to me. Oh right, I thought, and said something along the lines of, "Yeah, I can't blame you there" and went away.
     Not exactly Jimmy Olsen. But I wasn't going to badger this poor woman. My job was to find her, not wring some words out of her.
     And third, the next day. Every journalist in the world was at the school—some kind of meeting with the parents. French television was there. One TV reporter stuck a microphone in the face of an 8-year-old, bending over, the child looking up. She asked something like, "And how do you feel when your classmate is killed like that?"
    It was revolting. I fled, striding away, to the back of the school, where no one was, and saw bikes on a bike rack—all unlocked. And I thought, "That's why we're here, because this is a place where kids don't lock their bikes." A moment that impressed upon me the value of sometimes walking away from where things are supposedly "happening."
     The final moment in the Laurie Dann quartet of memories came a year or two later. Winnetka was debating whether to name a park "Nicholas Corwin Park" after the boy who had been killed. The meeting was a stomach-turning essay in the pettiness of people. One woman actually said something like, "My kid died of cancer, where's his park." Several said that naming the park after the boy would mean they'd be constantly reminded of the tragedy.
    That got me up to the podium. Reporters are really not supposed to speak at meetings they're covering. It's not done, but I did it. I walked up to the podium and said, in essence, "I'm a member of the media. And let me tell you, you are going to be reminded of this whether you like it or not. On the first anniversary and the fifth and the 10th and any time something similar happens somewhere else. You might as well name the park after the kid and take some control over the being reminded process." 
Despite the objections of some,
Winnetka named the park for the murdered boy
    Then I sat back down, immediately worrying about my job. Because all I had to do was have my little rant end up on the evening news and I'd be out of a job. I hope that now, after 30 years, the statute of limitations has run out on that kind of thing. We'll find out.
    So that's what I have. Realizing that I didn't want to chase the news, I wanted to comment on it. I'll hurry past the other, obvious stuff, which everybody has been saying aplenty. That now, 30 years later, school shootings are routine. That the toll--an 8-year-old boy killed and six wounded—would hardly mention a notice nowadays. A shooting where only one child dies is practically a good thing, because we've had so many worse. In 2012, 20 small children were slaughtered in Newtown, Connecticut. We were shocked, but not so shocked as to actually do anything about the problem. Now we're beginning to feel silly saying we're shocked. We've come to expect it.


  1. That woman was an object lesson as to why "sane enough not to get involuntarily committed" and "sane enough to own firearms" should not be the same thing.

  2. When will you comment on the situation in the Middle East? You have never been shy about expressing your opinion on anything. It seems you have fallen silent. We'd like to hear you perspective, Neil!

    1. When I have something new to say that I haven't already been saying for years. Assuming by "the Middle East" you mean the Israeli/Palestinian deadlock and not, oh, the situation with Qatar. My perspective is always available here, and if I haven't updated it, that means it's still the same. You can look at last week's lead editorial in The Economist—I thought it captured this moment perfectly. Or, for my voice, this, from four years ago, sadly current right now:


    2. Yes, I meant the Israel. Usually when the conflict flairs up you write a column. But I've noticed a kind of indifference in the last 2 years that's been a bit disappointing. You used to fiercely defend Israel from a mainstream point of view. It's almost as if you went from Right of center Pro-Israel to a few ticks left of Center.

    3. "Indifference" is a projection. I see it as declining the opportunity to leap into a quagmire. Toward what end? The mainstream point of view is an intellectual lazy half-support of the Palestinians, 'cause they're the underdog. I've always been against that. Perhaps as Israel becomes less liberal and more religiously fanatic, I just don't care as much. I don't think I've changed so much as Israel has drifted ever rightward. If that disappoints you, well, we all have our woes.

  3. Nothing was done pursuant to the Laurie Dann case, but it did spark a public debate about how and when mentally ill people can be committed for their own and societies' good. She was clearly round the bend and the cops knew she had a couple of guns, but the ACLU and others argued, correctly, that most mentally ill people are harmless. And there's no evidence she took Ritalin when young.


  4. Zorn: "It wasn’t the first school shooting in America, but at the time it was the most disturbing — a nightmare visited upon a wealthy suburban enclave that dominated the national news for several days."

    One has to wonder whether the national news coverage would have been the same had this "disturbing" event occurred somewhere other than the North Shore...let's say, somewhere in the vastness of the South Side...or in the sprawling southern suburbs. At the time, I was a former Evanston resident, and I remember thinking "Is this such a major deal because it happened in Winnetka? Probably." I still think so.

    Your description of "striding away, to the back of the school, where no one was, and seeing bikes on a bike rack—-all unlocked" reminds me of how a famous photograph came to be, by someone who ended up "walking away from where things are supposedly 'happening'." In the late Forties, a three year old California girl fell into a well. For two days and nights, the world was focused on her rescue. It was the first such tragedy ever shown on live television. The L.A. Times sent a teen-age darkroom technician to the scene with a camera. He ignored the lights and the pounding machinery and the hushed crowds and the anguished parents. He went into the backyard of the child's house, and took one photograph...of the swing that little Kathy Fiscus had used, and would never enjoy again (unlike the Texas kid in 1987, she didn't survive. The photo won a Pulitzer and started the tech on a long career).

    In the middle of J-school, and after doing some reporting, I also realized that I didn't want to chase the news. Unfortunately, I wanted to help MAKE it. I didn't "drop out" until after graduation, and I still kick myself for not at least attempting feature writing. Your years on nightside (and freelancing) were eventually rewarded with the best of all worlds...commentary via your own column. O, lucky man!

    P.S. That ridiculously censored South Carolina cake made Fox News tonight. Not some local yokel, either...a large supermarket chain. Still shaking my head in disbelief.


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