RAMBLINGS • Politics Explained By Steppenwolf


One of my bosses at The Journal-News, John Galer, and I were discussing elections last fall. Truthfully, John is more my friend than my boss, but happily that’s been true of most of my employee/employer relationships at the paper.

Most often John and I talk about local high school football unless he can steer the discussion to the Lombardi era of Green Bay Packer professional football. I think that’s a genetic trait as John’s grandfather (whom I remember as the linotype operator when I first worked for the paper–that ages me) brought the clan to Hillsboro from Wisconsin. Last fall, though, with no high school football to cover, I used John and Mike Plunkett as resources when I was vague about political activity in the area. 

While I was teaching, I was too busy to worry much about who the mayor or city council members were. After I retired as an educator, though, and because of an illness of a Journal-News reporter, I was asked if I’d cover city council meetings. That coverage in turn opened a new world for involvement. In a way it was intellectually stimulating to delve into that part of journalism, but it was also unnerving to do that with so little background. That’s where John and Mike’s past experience came in–to fill the gap that I sensed but didn’t want to show.

Both have been readily available to answer questions that seem to arise with regularity–questions about the Open Meeting Act threaten to be constant, as does a question about the role of a reporter for “the newspaper of record” for the county. That is the designation of The Journal-News.

Past President Trump muddied those waters, though I find it hard to believe the influence a national leader has locally. I at first paid little attention when he talked of fake news. Obviously, at least to me, his definition of fake news was reporting that which wasn’t presented as he wished it to be. A man given to hyperbole (exaggeration –“It was the largest inauguration crowd ever”) didn’t want his assertions fact-checked and at times seemed to belittle those who disagreed with him. His press secretaries, especially Kelly Ann Conway, consistently presented his side; that was her job–not a job I’d ever seek, no matter who the President is nor which party he or she represents.

Office holders will often confuse me with Ms. Conway, though, saying things like, “Mr. D, please emphasize this,” or, “Highlight this, media people.” As a reporter, it is my job to decide what the article’s lead will be; my bosses, Mike and John, have the responsibility of correcting the copy if it’s misleading. Only in a dictatorship does a government entity assume control over the news, and that won’t happen on my watch. I’ve had enough journalistic training to know that news should be presented with as little bias as possible; opinions (like this one) appear on the Editorial (Opinion) Page.

I’d like to think Mr. Trump’s attacks on media outlets that criticize him would have had little effect locally, but after a discussion with Mike, I no longer carry a Press Card with me. It was handy when I first began covering Topper sports for The Journal in 1970; John had that task until he graduated from high school and headed to Eastern Illinois University. It was long before the Journal and the Montgomery County News merged, and I suspect Phil hoped to gain an edge in the competition for subscriptions and advertising by having a coach with journalistic training do the stories. As a third-year teacher who needed a job that would eventually qualify me for Medicare, I jumped at the chance. I consider the time I’ve sold to the paper well spent, though there was one interruption and some internal (in the staff and with my spouse) strife as to how much I should do. The press pass I was issued then allowed entrance to away games; with my stat keeping duties, it was a guarantee I’d make it through the gate and into the press box if I so wanted. As the years passed, I needed that little card less and less as the gatekeepers recognized me; still, to have it was to have a security blanket.

However, Mike pointed out there had been instances in this area of the state (south of I-80) when members of the media had been treated rudely, as enemies, after Mr. Trump started treating them as personal enemies. It didn’t happen to me (at least not yet), but I don’t carry a press card now either. Mike also said there were incidents of vehicles with the word Press in the window that had been vandalized. I certainly don’t need that, and I find it sad that it’s happened to anyone. I see the Open Meeting Act and the media in general as defenders of democracy, not as enemies of our process. 

To counter my efforts for the Journal, the News hired a learned colleague of mine, Steve Oliver. A graduate of Oblong High School and MacMurray College who played basketball for each, he was hired to teach English and be sophomore basketball coach here. He was well-read, a good teacher, with a good sense of humor; we were good friends soon after the school year started, so our reporting rivalry was always of good nature. During his stay here, he did three things for me that I’ll never forget. 

One was to provide a learning experience for the journalism class that had just formed at the high school and which I had agreed to teach; The Preface, about which I’ve written before, became the product of that class. Early in the semester Steve agreed to appear at the classroom door and, with an angry appearance, ask me to join him in the hall. Once there, we began to yell at each other, probably about our downtown paper jobs; then we banged each other off lockers, yelled some more, and he left. I ripped a button or two off my shirt, stumbled back in the room, and told the 20 selected-by-the-counselor members of the class to write about what they had seen as a news story. Those who wrote anything were given an F because no one had seen anything. That was the definition of fake news. 

In January of 1973 (a few years before Title IX), the Girls’ Athletic Association (GAA) needed a fundraiser as the second semester was beginning. Someone suggested people might pay to see the senior members of the GAA play basketball against a team of faculty ladies, so a date (Jan. 22) was set. Probably because I was one of the more vocal chauvinists on staff, I was asked to coach the more elder (of the two groups) ladies; because I couldn’t refuse a challenge, I accepted. Mr. Ward was to coach the younger ladies; I owed him a thumping from past handball encounters. 

My group practiced two or three times; Dorothy Cairns and June Strahl were the eldest; “Buckets” Bellaver could shoot; the other nine were short. One of the more dignified (nameless here because I don’t want to be haunted for however many years I have left) lost her wig during a practice. Till then I didn’t know she wore a wig, and everyone in the small gym that night was sworn to secrecy before we were allowed to leave. I assume the statute of limitations on my promise has expired, but I still won’t reveal her name nor the look of horror on her face when her deep black hair went scuttling across the tile floor with her in quick pursuit.

Unbeknownst to anyone but myself and my two co-conspirators, I recruited Paul Hubbard and Oliver to join the faculty team at halftime. I didn’t know the lengths to which they would go until they appeared on the floor in drag of sorts. Janine Johnson (now Sherer) was the tallest opposing player; Hubbs and Oliver were in the 6’3”-6’5” range, so Janine was dwarfed. 

The two drag queens had basketballs for bosoms, and occasionally one would fall onto the floor during the action–I believe Greg Lipe was one of the officials, and he called a basket good that Hubbard made while the game ball was on the other end of the court. The faculty had been far enough ahead at halftime (we used a zone defense) that the outcome wasn’t in doubt before showtime began; it became a raucous, not-to-be-forgotten night. Dave Ball, Ward’s close friend, was in the stands with a megaphone, most likely to be used to heckle players; the caption under the yearbook picture (Hiltop, ‘73) said it all - “Mr. Ball, you don’t need a megaphone.” (Page 128)

Steve taught me one more lesson about my small world view by taking me to East St. Louis to see Collinsville play one of the bigger Belleville Schools. I had mentioned how good I thought a couple local players were; he said, “You’ve never seen good.” In the game we watched Kevin Stallings (who went on to star at Purdue) lead Collinsville, while Bryon Leonard (who had a good career at U of I) starred for Belleville. Steve didn’t have to say, “I told you so,” on the way home.

I lost both Steve and Paul (Judy and I often joined him and Charlotte to play pinochle, and he and I were union activists here when we had to be) to coaching ambitions. Steve (and his family Linda and two sons) left to be head coach at Highland; he then left there to be athletic director at O’Fallon. Paul left here for a stint as girls’ coach at Bunker Hill before moving on to White Hall North Greene. I last visited with Charlotte and him at the girls’ state tournament in Bloomington when Matoush, Meier, Scroggins, Ruppert, and Company played there; I’d see them also when the Topper boys played in Jacksonville’s one day showcase at Illinois College. They now live in Jacksonville. When one’s friends coach and teach, those friends tend to be transient; that doesn’t mean I haven’t missed them as they move on.

It also makes me appreciate those friends I have whose roots run deep. John is one of those; and after our election discussion, he gifted me with the lyrics of Steppenwolf’s “Monster,” written by Jerry Edmonton and John Kay in 1969. For many, 1969 was a year of turmoil , but for relatively newly-employed me, the turmoil was viewed from afar; I was in central Illinois, learning to teach, about to father children, still holding to my American Dream. I’m still idealistic in a way, but I can recognize the despair in the lyrics of Steppenwolf and other either angry or bewildered voices.

“Monster” traces the development of the American spirit from our country’s infancy through the period of expansion; even though our manifest destiny too often, perhaps always, exploited helpless groups, the song says that until industrialization became the norm after the Civil War, the American spirit was still kind.

Then, according to the lyrics, the leaders no longer served the country “Cause the people grew fat and got lazy. Now their vote is a meaningless joke.”

That sentiment was rampant among the war protestors in the late 1960s; after November’s 2020 national election, it’s the feeling expounded by the far right. What was radical left 60 years ago is now radically right (politically speaking).

I know where I stand on political policy, and I haven’t changed much over the past 60 years. I don’t like big government telling me what I have to do, but I recognize its necessity sometimes. Big government built the interstate system, for example, and we have all benefitted from that.

I admit to voting for self-interest often. I recognize that most people do that.

What befuddles me is how many people vote contrary to self-interest without knowing it. More than ever, I need a little help from my friends to understand the ways of the world, to know how the monster Steppenwolf described tricks us.

That’s a plea.


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