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Monday, November 20

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Detour

Since 1958 when it was dedicated, the Chicago Sun-Times building at 401 N. Wabash had hosted generations of school children on field trips. Chicago natives inevitably tell me that when they were in the fourth grade, they went on field trips to the landmark building.

They remember the roar of the three-story-high presses, which they viewed through glass windows in the marble hall. The presses roared as loud as El trains at full screech around the corner of Lake and Wabash. Visitors could see pressmen wearing paper hats scurrying around to keep the presses running.

Sun-Times

Back when the Sun-Times building was new, in 1958, the public could get even more intimate with the city's tabloid presses. There was a gallery on the third-floor. It was an open affair, and the people were spattered were ink. That gallery soon was walled off.

September 11th ended easy public access to our lobby. Besides, the presses have been silenced for years as a new modern plant was built on the Southwest Side. Two years ago, the old presses were sold for scrap.

I have been a reporter at the Sun-Times for 23 years, or more than 5,001 afternoons in Ben Hecht's time scheme. I covered health care for 14 years and technology for the past nine.

Ben Hecht was one of my heroes. Back in J-school at the University of Illinois in Champaign, I read and was inspired by his Front Page and One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago. These are classics about the wild, wacky and wonderful days of Chicago journalism when Hecht and his cronies went to the old courthouse to cover the Leopold and Loeb trial, the real Trial of the Century. Hecht once dug a hole in Lincoln Park and had his family members pose around it, claiming that an earthquake had hit Chicago. Despite the occasional scandal, things are much more staid, sterile and professional these days.

The touchstone of that era for people these days would be the reporters portrayed in the hit movie and play, Chicago.

My brothers and sister think my newspaper career has Freudian roots. We were born and grew up in Chicago. And one of our common memories was my late father Sid spending his evening buried behind the Chicago Sun-Times. He read the paper cover to cover, from major news stories down to the smallest classified ad. He spent more time with that paper than he did with us. When he moved to California in the 1970s, he asked me to clip out and mail him Kup's columns.

It's impossible for young people to realize what a major player and pioneer Kup was in his day as he interviewed presidents and celebrities. Kup called me "Doc" because I covered the medical beat. Even until the end, the man had an iron grip as I discovered when I helped him out of a cab onto his walker.

I was talking on our first day in the new building at 350 N. Orleans with John White, our eagle-eyed, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. He noticed that near the end, especially after the orange moving crates arrived, staffers started recording memories of our doomed office. Soon, Donald Trump and his "Apprentice" would be out with the wrecking ball to take down the Sun-Times and replace it with high-priced condos. John observed me chronicling the end of our days in the Sun-Times building. In fact, I had been shooting pictures for the past year.

I mentioned to him that I happened to be there when the building staff discovered the long-lost time capsule.

Sun-Times capsule

As I entered the building, I heard a banging behind the wall in the lobby. It wasn't the ghosts of Mike Royko, Kup, or Ann Landers, or any of the other legends who worked at the paper.

I walked into the dispatch area and found two engineers and the building manager, who said they thought had they found a time capsule. There had been rumors that there was one, though no one knew where it was. Old-timers narrowed the location down to a place behind the "1958" engraved in marble near the entrance of the building.

A ragged opening was cut in a wall to expose some bricks. Jeremiah Scannel, staff carpenter, stepped in and cut away a bit of mortar, shined a flashlight in and got a glimmer of some metal. Scannel has been the Sun-Times own Mr. Fix-it, the Scottie aboard our Enterprise in distress. He kept this doomed building running even as the disgraced owner Conrad Black and his crony, publisher David Radler, ran her into the ground as they plotted to sell the building to line their pockets. These guys cried poor for years and only gave us raises of 2 percent for the past four years, even as they skimmed off $400 million -- 95 percent of profits. We're in the midst of negotiating a new contract now.

I called the photo department so an official record could be made, even as I photographed the entire process.

Scannel worked up a sweat as he exposed a copper box that had been soldered shut. The time capsule was designed to last 18,000 years. I don't have a clue how they determined that. Meanwhile, they called John Cruikshank, the current publisher, for the capsule to be opened.

I had a meeting elsewhere and had to leave. Jeremiah later opened the box, and the publisher removed some old papers, a book by founder Marshall Field and other memorabilia. It was considered a disappointing yield. Michael Cooke, our editor-in-chief, suggested that Field should have left behind a fine scotch.

For me, the building was filled with a lifetime of memories, time capsules that would always be with me.

My first day at the Sun-Times was March 30th 1981. That was the day Reagan was shot. I was the new medical reporter. I got a page in the paper to cover the medical aspects of Reagan's care.

I also got a lead on a story that never was published, probably because my bosses thought I was "hot-dogging it." I discovered that many surgeons questioned the necessity of the surgery on Reagan. They noted that many people were walking around with shrapnel. They also cited research at the very hospital at which Reagan was treated indicating that the risks of surgery were greater than the benefits. I spoke with Bill Hines, our Washington bureau chief and a medical writer, to give him some questions to ask in the press conferences at the hospital. The great Hines barked at me: "What were they supposed to do, get a second opinion?" Meanwhile, the White House began issuing denials before we printed the story. By the end of the week, the metro editor told me to give it up. "It's time to start covering Chicago."

And so I did. I have written more than 4,000 articles, probably a million words for the paper.

My highest profile stories had to do with shenanigans at the Chicago-based American Medical Association, which I covered like City Hall aces Harry Golden and Fran Spielman covered City Hall. The AMA was a school for scandal. I reported on how the world's largest doctor's group owned tobacco stock (they sold it after the story) and how an AMA president and board member owned a tobacco farm in south George (the president sold off his share and his partner was booted off the board). With Sun-Times colleagues, Tom Brune (now at Newsday) and Bob Manor (now at the Tribune), I exposed questionable financial dealings at the AMA, leading to the resignation of two AMA CEOs and seven other executives.

The Sun-Times nominated me and Brune twice for the Pulitzer Prize. No cigar. And Harvard Business School based a case study on the work Manor and I did on the Sunbeam scandal. I've spoken to Harvard business students the past three years, who in the aftermath of Enron and maybe even our own Hollinger scandals have become increasingly attuned to business ethics.

I covered AIDS in the early days with Brune. We had a major impact, including getting the state to pay for AZT, then the only AIDS drug, for poor patients. Tom and I were named as "heroes to the community" by Gay Chicago magazine.

In 1995, tired from the years of covering the AMA and having published a book with Brune, The Serpent on the Staff: The Unhealthy Politics of the American Medical Association, I decided to move in new directions. I started covering the early days of the Internet. I was on the beat before the Internet boom and was there for the bust. I'm still there.

Marshall Field's sons sold us out back in the early 1980s to Rupert Murdoch. Freddie Field wanted to go into the move business. He took his share of the proceeds from the sale, which went for $85 million, and made Revenge of the Nerds. The rest, as they say, is show biz history.

Those of us who stayed on at the Sun-Times have had one of the wildest and rockiest rides in American journalism history as the company changed hands several times from Marshall Field to Rupert Murdoch to Conrad Black (I am leaving out some); and editors came and went like the seasons.

Hollinger brought in the news presses and also pursued the sale of the building to The Donald, who came to the property yesterday to knock down a wall or something to symbolize his takeover.

Friday, October 8th, was our last day in 401. We had a party in the business section. Someone put a small cardboard coffin along with part of the spread on my desk. We were leaving behind a building that in its day was considered the latest in newspaper technology, but had fallen into disrepair and had come to be considered the ugliest building on the riverfront.

Sun-Times ink smear

We left behind dirty walls, sooty vents, rugs stained with who knows what, 1950s metal desks and the escalators abandoned, a symbol of the Hollinger Corp.'s malign neglect.

Our departure was bittersweet. She was an ugly old gal, but loveable in her own right. Some of us spent the bulk of our careers in 401. We wouldn't be spending as much time in our new quarters with big desks, new chairs, clean rugs and the ambience of an insurance office or call center.

We moved into 350 N. Orleans on October 11th. We take up the 9th and 10th floors. It's the Apparel Mart now, but soon will be redubbed the Sun-Times Building. But the air is cleaner -- though the windows don't open so we can't snarf up the aroma of the nearby Blommer Chocolate factory. We still have river views and sweeping views of The Loop and downtown, and the escalator works. There is a sense of renewal.

I'll still have my photos of the Sun-Times building in all seasons, the old pressroom with smudgy petroglyphs of printer's hands and of the newsroom in its final days. And a brick I got from the time capsule discovery.

Trump

We have moved on. Just one-and-a-half weeks into the new building, the Guild held a job action that forced a tentative contract settlement. There may be new owners in our future. This Thursday, I watched as Donald Trump and his entourage, including his Apprentice Bill, emerged from the cold fog and began the symbolic demolition. He gave the hi sign and a crew with an excavator and claw began to tear away at the canopy that sheltered us from the rain. The building groaned and began to give way and the crowd cheered.

The head of the demolition project was standing near me. He said it would take months to complete the job as asbestos is removed. Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed told him she came from the Trib and never cared much for the building. But some old-timers said the claw hit them in the gut.

Sun-Times

Trump didn't say a word about had once gone on in this building. I shot some photos after the crowd cleared, and had a quiet moment. Then, a guy in a hard hat said it was time to go.

New memories for a new time capsule.

 

About the Author(s)

Howard Wolinsky reports on technology and the Internet for the Chicago Sun-Times. He shares his personal website, Wolinksyweb, with his wife, Judi.

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