Isaac’s Journey

Isaac’s Journey

BY: Emily Siner

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, January 13, 2013)

Author’s Note:

When I first started talking to Rabbi Neuman, I noticed his way of speaking: philosophical, well thought-out, and at times very grand. I could tell he was used to giving sermons. I didn’t use a recorder – I had decided I didn’t want to use many direct quotes – but I would write down certain words or phrases he used that really resonated with me. Then, when writing the story, I incorporated his own words into my writing, even if I didn’t put direct quotes around it. That way, it was his voice telling the story, as if he was sitting down with the reader just as he sat down with me.

-Emily Siner

Some things he wants to remember; some things he tries to forget.

Isaac Neuman remembers a pretty woman who prepared the meals for the supervisors at St. Martin’s cemetery, an early Nazi camp in Poland. She took a liking to Isaac. “Stomarek,” she called him, a reference to the “one hundred marks” he had tried to hide from his captors. When they found the money, he had received a vicious beating. “Hey, Stomarek, come here,” she said and handed the 18-year-old leftovers from the supervisors’ meal. She would do this for him over the next year and a half. When he talks about her today, his eyes light up and his face breaks into a smile.

He laughs when he recalls a man named Joel Zolna, who sat next to him on a train to one of the last camps where he was imprisoned. The train slowed down as it curved around a mountain. Isaac was too weak to jump and run, and Joel couldn’t flee with his identification numbers painted on his coat. Isaac’s coat had the numbers sewn on, so he ripped them off and switched coats with Joel, who jumped off the slowing train and escaped. After the war, Joel would take Isaac out to nightclubs and concerts.

These are things Isaac, who is 90 now, wants to remember. He wants to remember every person who did something to lessen his pain.

“Sparks of holiness,” he calls them.

They lit the world in its darkest days.

Yet some things he can’t forget. He can’t forget the death and ugliness he saw as he was shipped from camp to camp, nine times. He can’t forget the boxcars or the beatings, the stifling heat, the burning cold. He can’t forget the cruelty that people showed. He can’t forget that they killed his brother, parents, six sisters, grandmother, mentor, aunts, uncles, and countless cousins and friends. The world was full of brutality and misery and stench. But despite it all, those sparks of holiness—they never died.

“Ani ma’amin,” he says in Hebrew.

“I believe.”

***

At the back of his house in Champaign, with a corner window overlooking a pleasant pond, is the study where Isaac spends most of his days. It is the study of a scholar: glossy leather armchairs, a wide desk in disarray, ten columns of built-in shelves holding books with titles such as “Sermons for the Seventies” and “The Rescue of Danish Jewry.” His rabbinic diplomas line one wall. He sits on a leather couch facing a TV and a picture of his son, David, shaking President Ronald Reagan’s hand. Piers Morgan is on CNN talking about taxes and gay marriage.

Isaac, who moved to Champaign in 1974 to be the rabbi of Sinai Temple, used to have more visitors. He has stopped encouraging them to come. It’s so hard to entertain anymore, and he has enough in his house to keep busy. He has his wife, who stops in his study for short conversations and a kiss on the cheek, and a caretaker who answers the phone when he’s busy (“Neuman residence”) and pours him mineral water or wine.

But most of all, he has his books. He takes them off the shelf as if they are old friends and stacks them on a side table. Reading takes his mind off the aches of his body, more so than whatever the doctor prescribes.

Yes, his body aches. His hands shake. It’s funny, when he was 60, he thought he was going to die in his 70s. He figured a human could only endure so much trauma and pain without skimming off a few years. But even after his second coronary bypass surgery at 73, he kept going. Always another birthday. Always another reason to keep living.

He moves to the kitchen for dinner – salad, chicken, peas, rice. He pushes up his sleeves before the meal and says a short prayer over bread. There, on his left forearm, are six numbers in dark ink: 143945. A souvenir from Auschwitz.

***

He was born in 1922 in Zduńska Wola, a Polish town of about 8,000 Jews living alongside 12,000 Poles and ethnic Germans. For the first 17 years of his life, Itsekel, as he was called, grew up as a pious boy studying Torah, Talmud, Midrash and any other Jewish text he could get his hands on. His teacher and mentor was Rabbi Mendel, a former soldier in the German army in World War I, legendary in Zduńska Wola for his wisdom.

The rabbi taught Itsekel about Judaism and life. He once told a Talmudic story, one of a second-century rabbi who stopped in the ruins of Jerusalem to pray. Elijah, the mystical Jewish prophet, met him outside and reprimanded him for praying in ruins. The story was supposed to warn readers to stay away from ruins because they might be unsafe. But Rabbi Mendel taught Itsekel his own interpretation. If you stand at the ruins of your civilization, he said, do not dwell. Your prayer should be short. Be careful, for it is hallowed ground.

Itsekel’s family fled Zduńska Wola when the German army invaded in 1939. They were less than 35 miles away when they turned back — escaping to Russia would be too difficult with eight children, they decided. They returned to a shattered world: broken windows, burned factories, ruined homes. Rabbi Mendel had been arrested and executed for studying Torah under the new Nazi rule.

***

Isaac was sent to his ninth and final concentration camp of the war in Ebensee, Austria, in April 1945, one month before the Americans came. He doesn’t remember much about the liberation. He was dying from starvation and tuberculosis. He weighed about 80 pounds.

He remembers the Americans setting up hospitals for the former prisoners and putting the new prisoners – the Nazi soldiers – in charge of caring for them. Isaac was brought back to health by doctors and nurses who had worn swastikas just a few weeks earlier. It was weird. At one point, the doctors sent him to the hospital psychiatrist, a former German officer, because Isaac’s hands wouldn’t stop shaking. The officer boasted that he had been trained in psychology by a disciple of Sigmund Freud. The Nazi officer, trained by an Austrian Jew. Isaac wasn’t sure if the officer realized the irony.

Some of the nurses assured him they had never hurt a Jew during the war. Someone asked: Did you ever care for Jewish patients? Well, no, they said, the Jewish patients never were brought to them. They only did what they were told.

Twenty years later, as a rabbi in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Isaac wanted to attend Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The board members of his synagogue tried to convince him not to go. They didn’t understand why he should risk his life for black people in the Deep South. Isaac reflected on his Biblical knowledge, his companion since the age of 3. There, in Exodus 12:49, he found words that rang deep inside him, clear as the Ten Commandments: “One law shall be given to you and the stranger who lives among you.”

Didn’t he know what it was like to be treated like a stranger in his own land? Didn’t he know what happened when fear stopped good people from speaking out? He didn’t want to be like the nurses at Ebensee, like the silent, good Germans.

He went to Selma.

***

Sometimes, people ask him: “Where was God?” Where was Isaac’s God between 1941 and 1945, in Junikowo, St. Martin’s, Fuerstenfelde, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Fuenfteichen, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Wels, and Ebensee? What God would give Isaac dreams almost 70 years later about frantically trying to escape from guards and killers? What God would extinguish entire families, generations of memories?

People ask: “Where was God?”

Isaac believes God was in the sparks of holiness that radiated through the darkness, in the people who maintained their humanity in the brutality and misery and stench. There is good and there is evil in the world; that cannot be changed. He believes it is our job–not His–to seek the good and stop the evil.

People ask: “Where was God?”

Isaac asks: “Where was man?”

***

It is said that during the Holocaust, some Jewish prisoners sang this Hebrew text on the way to death camps: “Ani ma’amin, ani ma’amin b’emunah sh’leimah” — “I believe, I believe, with perfect faith.” Sitting on his leather couch, Isaac sings this song in the traditional melody, the one that his congregation at Sinai Temple sings every year on Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance for the Holocaust.

Isaac knows it is hard for those who were not there to remember it well. He knows that the best way to remember is to listen to the stories of witnesses. Yet so often people only remember the cruelty. Yes, the cruelty must be present in every story, but Isaac wants to warn people: Be careful not to dwell on it. The Holocaust is hallowed ground. It is the ruins of a civilization.

He wants the world to remember it the way he does: Despite the hunger and thirst, brutality and death, ani ma’amin — “I believe.”

In the sparks of holiness.

They light the world even in its darkest days.

Genetic disorder means daily battle with calculated risks

Genetic disorder means daily battle with calculated risks

By: Megan Graham

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, August 1, 2012)

Author’s Note:

I tried not to make this a story of “disabled young man lives every day to the fullest even though he may die soon.” Because the story is not about how he looks to a tragic future. The story is about how he looks to the present moment, how he wills himself to wake up in the morning when has no idea how many moments will be left. The story is about a loneliness that he can’t fill because people are afraid of making him sick and maybe afraid of getting close to him. Mostly, it’s about permanently living in that space between childhood and adulthood—a space he may never truly be out of. Going forward, I know I have a lot more to learn. I need to ask the questions I want the answers to, not the answers that a subject gives me. I’m glad Chike and I had the opportunity to spend so much time together, even though I think his story was exhausting for both of us. It was hard for him to tell, and it was hard for me to hear. But it was worth it for me. I hope it was equally worth it for him.

- Megan Graham

In his old room in his parents’ home, a pretty house in the Cherry Hills subdivision of Champaign, Chike Coleman is poking through his shelves. He wants to find a Blu-ray disc, one of the beloved movies he bought in a half-off online sale from a site that sells independent films.

He moves aside tens of his prized jazz CDs, the Soapbox Derby trophies and the Hardy Boys books. The shelves are filled with 25 years of memories: books he has loved, model cars done in candy-colored lacquer, his University of Illinois diploma.

His high school and college friends — most 25-year-olds, for that matter — no longer live in the dust of their boyhood belongings. But after his fleeting years of collegiate freedom, Chike moved right back into this room, with its boxes of waterproof dressing and nonstick pads and bandages, bottles of hydrogen peroxide, soap-free cleanser and Clindamycin gel.

“It’s just kind of waiting,” he says. “Just like everybody else. Except your wait feels a lot shorter than everybody else’s.”

Chike glances at a photograph of him leaning back casually in his wheelchair, royal blue graduation gown draping his chest as he smiles broadly. He looks normal. He looks healthy.

Yet these are two things Chike will never be.

***

Chike — pronounced Chee-kay — was born with a rare genetic disorder: chronic granulomatous disease, an immune deficiency that hinders his body from fighting off fungal and bacterial infections.

The condition was once called “fatal granulomatosus of childhood.” But with medical progress — vaccines, surgical abscess drainage and better medicines — it is no longer necessarily fatal. One victim lived to be 63. Four out of five sufferers, of which there are only about 1,200 in the country, are boys. Many never live to become men.

Life with the chronic granulomatous is difficult, but Chike’s cerebral palsy makes it even harder. He cannot walk without a walker. He can suffer from multiple infections at once that come from any of the millions of invasives most people breathe in and fight off. They come without warning, and he often doesn’t know he has them until a doctor points them out.

“There’s absolutely no way to know,” he says. “It could get worse for me. It could get better right now. It’s kind of in the worse column, but…”

When he commented to a blogger with similar health problems, “My body is constantly fighting WWIII,” he wasn’t exaggerating.

Every day is filled with calculated risks:

— Does he balance on the legs of his chair to reach up and get a plate so he can make a meal for himself?

— Does he hoist himself up into the newly remodeled bath that is utterly dangerous when slippery?

— Does he climb out of his manual wheelchair in his room and down the stairs to his electric chair yet another time that day to get the one small thing he forgot downstairs, knowing full well he could slip and get a cut or bruise that could take forever to heal?

The answer is usually, “Yes.”

“I could be a germaphobe and still get hit with something.”

***

Chike has two very different kinds of days: neverending days at home and days out in the dangerous, dirty world. On the dangerous days, he catches the 8:25 a.m. bus. Some days he goes to film his three weekly TV shows at Urbana Public Television, two about film and one about sports. Some days he goes for physical therapy to keep his leg muscles loose.

Being out and about so much may not be wise. The Chronic Granulomatous Association says, “Remember, you cannot be too cautious with your health.”

People with Chike’s disease are not supposed to work with hay or grass clippings, go barefoot, play at a park with wood chips, go into barns, repot house plants, go inside newly renovated buildings or go near construction sites. People like Chike need to tell the doctor immediately if they have a fever. They are supposed to be vigilant, supposed to live in fear.

“You do end up playing that head game with yourself, worried that you’re not doing enough to keep yourself going,” he says. “I just can’t do that.”

As a boy, the wheelchair made Chike feel special, like a pint-sized celebrity. Girls couldn’t get enough of the boy with the wheels. In high school, though, he got looks, ones he viewed as saying, “What the hell are you doing invading the space of us normal people?”

The cerebral palsy, though certainly something he has struggled with, he at least understood. He was slower to grasp that he could die at any time. That realization came in pieces.

He remembers overhearing his parents talking about it with other adults and slowly understanding that something was terribly wrong with his body. As children his own age grew stronger, he began to realize all the things he couldn’t do.

He wondered in high school if he’d live to see his graduation day. The fears resurfaced in college, when he began to worry that he could die without saying goodbye to his parents, sister and friends. His deepest fear is that he’ll die tonight without time to tell them.

***

Chike spends much of his time in his bedroom on the Internet, often going downstairs only for meals.

“Even hermits gotta eat!” he says.

He blogs about movies and chats with friends he meets online. The Internet provides a mobility he doesn’t have in life. It even allows for a little bit of romance now and then.

“Ninety-five percent of the time I feel like I don’t have a chance with any girl.”

Online, that can be a different story.

One night, after perusing his OKCupid matches, he started up a conversation with a young woman whose virtual compatibility with his profile was too much to ignore.

As they chatted another night, she asked him his real name.

“Chike,” he typed.

“How is that pronounced?” she asked. “Does it rhyme with Mike?”

“No it does not. Chee-kay.”

And they quickly delved into his conditions.

“Frankly, I’m surprised my disability doesn’t frighten you.”

“I’m a bit concerned, I guess,” she typed. “But writing someone off completely because of that — well, that’s just plain mean.”

They chatted through the night, for nearly six hours. She took his phone number and said she would think about text messaging him. He really hoped she would.

Most of his free time, Chike listens to jazz — a favorite recording of Chicago jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and his trio is playing just now. He knows every inflection, scat and purr of this particular recording from 2006. He sings in his room, his left hand — his good hand — gripping the computer mouse, his right hand in its permanent position with thumb and finger forming an askew U, the three remaining fingers curled into his palm. As he sways his small frame in his chair, the pointer finger of his right hand hits the tempo up and down as if he is conducting.

He does the Louis Armstrong voice, deep and scratchy and round, with his eyes squeezed shut, his head bowed and a smile on his face. He does the Nat King Cole voice, smooth and silken and weightless, leaning back and tilting his face skyward. He pretends to smoke a cigarette, something he would never do in real life. His health is bad enough.

***

Every night before sleep, Chike allows himself five minutes for tears. “Five minutes a night,” he says. “That’s all I get.”

It’s never because of any particular difficult moment of his day or because of his terrible genetic luck. It’s because of the collection of millions of hardships and fears and uncertainties he feels at every moment, the awareness that at any second, during sleep or waking hours, some Aspergillus fumigatus or Blastomyces dermatitidis or Cryptococcus could creep into his body.

He wonders: Will I die in my sleep from something the doctors haven’t found? Or will medicine progress so that I might live long and healthy?

“I just keep going the best I can.”

The past few weeks have brought hope to Chike. The girl from OKCupid finally texted him back. She wrote, “Boo.” They’ve been chatting every day since, and he can’t stop smiling.

He also was accepted into the journalism graduate program at the University of Illinois. He’s expecting at least one new friend, some difficult classes and the rekindled independence of apartment life back on campus.

Of course, the apartment search isn’t going smoothly — nothing ever does. In the first one he toured, his wheelchair got stuck on a rainbow knotted rug and the chair wouldn’t fit in the bathroom. The second wasn’t much better.

“You know, I’m going into it with some trepidation,” he says. “Am I going to get through this without an incident?”

Yet Chike’s determined to stay optimistic, hoping graduate school will lead to a life beyond the walls of his boyhood room and the confines of his disease.

After all of it, he says simply, “I’m just grateful.”

The longings of … a beautiful boy

The longings of … a beautiful boy

By: Christian Gollayan

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, June 10, 2012)

Author’s Note:

I learned that intimate journalism could be more than just reporting the facts or gathering sensory details. When I was able to sift through my subject’s facade and get to the heart of who he is – his goals, longings and fears – and put that down on the page, I think that’s a part of intimate journalism, too.

- Christian Gollayan

He’s 6 feet tall barefoot, 6-feet-5 in his Jeffrey Campbell heels. He loves Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol and beautiful women who don’t care about what other people think.

He loves vodka. He takes it straight up, pursing his lips, keeping a composed face. It makes him feel as if he’s made of plastic; it’s reassuring. If he can keep a strong face after a shot, he can keep a strong face after anything.

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Charlie High: Life among the laundry

Charlie High: Life among the laundry

By: Marisa Gwidt

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, May 28, 2012)

Author’s Note:

While reporting and writing this piece, I learned that stories are everywhere. A lack of story ideas is due only to a lack of observation.

- Marisa Gwidt

“Oh, boy,” Charlie High sighs as he watches a college student drag in four
heaping bags of laundry. “She won’t finish in time.”

It’s 9:50 on a Monday night at Starcrest Cleaners in Champaign. Charlie’s
supposed to lock the doors at 11. Yet here is this young woman, opening a
silver front-loader and preparing to toss in a load of darks. Charlie, 67
years old, hobbles over in cuffed, faded jeans and intervenes.

“Uh-uh,” he mutters to the student, shaking his head as though she were
about to make a grave mistake. “I recommend that one,” he says, pointing
to another washer outwardly identical.

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Why Theresa Lalanos Became a Nun

Why Theresa Lalanos Became a Nun

By: Erin (Walsh) Gibbons

(Originally published in The Catholic Digest, October 2002)

Author’s Note:

When I interviewed Sister Miriam and the other nuns in her convent, what surprised me most was their candor. I didn’t think Sister Hannah would admit to having a hard time walking by a good-looking man, or Sister Miriam would open up about her strained relationship with her father. But I’ve since found that most people will be remarkably honest if you get outside of your own comfort zone and just ask the question.

Writing this story also taught me the power of detail. Some of it’s simply doing the legwork – being there at 4:30 a.m. for morning prayers so you can make note of the flickering candle and one of the nuns blowing her nose. But it’s also gathering enough anecdotes and color through the interview process so that – even when you can’t observe something firsthand, or it happened in the past – you have the authority to tell your subject’s story as if you were there, without having to attribute every sentence. I think that makes the difference between a straightforward newspaper article and a piece of literary journalism.

- Erin Gibbons

The houses on Robert Drive are still asleep. It’s 4:58 on a Friday morning, and the sun won’t start rising for another hour. For now, the neighborhood is dark and silent. Only a single window on the street glows with dim light. Behind the thin curtains, inside the old, plain brick house, a different kind of morning routine is already beginning.

Sister Miriam Palanos, cheeks still flushed with sleep, is the first to enter the small room that is a chapel. She takes her place on the kneeler in the back left corner and, eyes turned downward, awaits the others. Sister M. Jacinta Fecteau and Sister M. Veronica McDermott file in a few minutes after 5 a.m. and kneel quietly. Sister M. Hannah Minor, blowing her nose, is the last to arrive. Everything in the room is simple, including the women themselves. They are all dressed alike, with long gray habits and black veils hiding their hair. As the clock ticks methodically, the women face an altar covered with white cloth. On it sits a small candle, flickering wildly and sending spirals of smoke dancing toward the ceiling. Suddenly, Sister M. Jacinta speaks.

“In-the-name-of-the-Fath-er,” she says, a rhythm in her high-pitched voice that pierces the silence. “And-of-the-Son, and-of-the-Ho-ly-Spir-it,” the other three women answer in unison.

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Vice Verser

Vice Verser

By: Courtney Greve

(Winner of the 1996-97 Department of Journalism’s Brody Creative Feature Article Writing Award)

Author’s Note:

Writing this piece taught me the importance of observation. Scribble down every detail, no matter how silly or small; you never know what will be crucial to the narrative later. Since the subject was a poet, it was crucial to capture not only his passion, but the rhythmic pace of his art. Finally, I learned to list questions to ask the subject later — a lesson that stuck with me.

-  Courtney Greve

People listen when he speaks.  They might not always agree with him, but they listen.  A platform to spread the good Word can be found in any room.  At least that’s what 19-year-old Kynshasa Ward believes as he prepares to take center stage at The Red Herring’s Thursday night open mic, where the odd assortment of people in the crowd tend to be more accepting of his churchy topics than your average Joe’s.  From his table for one in the back of the room, the University of Illinois sophomore can see everybody as they weave between cliques, lighting clove cigarettes and sipping cappuccino.  Body-pierced freaks and long-haired neo-hippies dominate the scene.

Kynshasa Ward knows he doesn’t really fit in with this rag-tag gang and that he will be one of the only people performing poetry.  He doesn’t think it matters.  He waits more than an hour for his chance to speak and during this time he wonders if God will speak through him tonight and if people will hear His message.

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A 4,000-mile house call

A 4,000-mile house call: Bringing Midwestern medicine to the Mayans

By: Carey (Checca) Sullivan

(Winner of the 1996-97 Department of Journalism’s Brody Creative Feature Article Writing Award, also published in the C-U Octopus)

Author’s Note:

Professor Harrington showed his students not only the art of literary journalism, but how to sort through details to find those that would pull readers further into the story.

For this story, I spent a week in a rural Mayan village volunteering and reporting. I shot photos of the clinics, volunteers and locals. I took copious notes. Many of the details, scenes and interactions were edited out because they were, ultimately, unnecessary. With Prof. Harrington’s help, I learned good writing comes from choosing the right details and words, and then rewriting until it works.

This piece was recognized with the Marian Boruck-Brody Award.

- Carey Sullivan

FOG HANGS LOW in the branches of the orange trees in Othon P. Blanco, a Mayan village far into the rainforest of the Yucatán Peninsula. The morning’s cool breeze carries the conflicting scents of ripe oranges and rotting vegetables across the village’s dirt streets and into its plaza. A 5-foot-long brown sow waddles slowly down the road, sniffing garbage strewn across it. I walk in the opposite direction on my way to breakfast. A skinny brown dog sleeping in the middle of the street looks up as I pass then goes back to sleep.

Buenos dias,” a few of the men gathered outside the corner store say.

Buenos dias.”

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Good for the Head

Good for the Head

By: Kavitha Cardoza

(Originally published in the C-U Cityview, August 2-8, 2002)

 

Author’s Note:

There were many lessons I learned but the main one was the power of asking questions. Even if you know nothing about a subject, you can learn about it by asking the right questions. It also taught me not to be nervous about going into a situation that was out of my comfort zone/I knew nothing about because that’s what journalists do! And I use those lessons every single day.

- Kavitha Cardoza

 

Genetic disorder means daily battle with calculated risks

Genetic disorder means daily battle with calculated risks

By: Megan Graham

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, August 1, 2012)

Author’s Note:

I tried not to make this a story of “disabled young man lives every day to the fullest even though he may die soon.” Because the story is not about how he looks to a tragic future. The story is about how he looks to the present moment, how he wills himself to wake up in the morning when has no idea how many moments will be left. The story is about a loneliness that he can’t fill because people are afraid of making him sick and maybe afraid of getting close to him. Mostly, it’s about permanently living in that space between childhood and adulthood—a space he may never truly be out of. Going forward, I know I have a lot more to learn. I need to ask the questions I want the answers to, not the answers that a subject gives me. I’m glad Chike and I had the opportunity to spend so much time together, even though I think his story was exhausting for both of us. It was hard for him to tell, and it was hard for me to hear. But it was worth it for me. I hope it was equally worth it for him.

- Megan Graham

In his old room in his parents’ home, a pretty house in the Cherry Hills subdivision of Champaign, Chike Coleman is poking through his shelves. He wants to find a Blu-ray disc, one of the beloved movies he bought in a half-off online sale from a site that sells independent films.

He moves aside tens of his prized jazz CDs, the Soapbox Derby trophies and the Hardy Boys books. The shelves are filled with 25 years of memories: books he has loved, model cars done in candy-colored lacquer, his University of Illinois diploma.

His high school and college friends — most 25-year-olds, for that matter — no longer live in the dust of their boyhood belongings. But after his fleeting years of collegiate freedom, Chike moved right back into this room, with its boxes of waterproof dressing and nonstick pads and bandages, bottles of hydrogen peroxide, soap-free cleanser and Clindamycin gel.

“It’s just kind of waiting,” he says. “Just like everybody else. Except your wait feels a lot shorter than everybody else’s.”

Chike glances at a photograph of him leaning back casually in his wheelchair, royal blue graduation gown draping his chest as he smiles broadly. He looks normal. He looks healthy.

Yet these are two things Chike will never be.

***

Chike — pronounced Chee-kay — was born with a rare genetic disorder: chronic granulomatous disease, an immune deficiency that hinders his body from fighting off fungal and bacterial infections.

The condition was once called “fatal granulomatosus of childhood.” But with medical progress — vaccines, surgical abscess drainage and better medicines — it is no longer necessarily fatal. One victim lived to be 63. Four out of five sufferers, of which there are only about 1,200 in the country, are boys. Many never live to become men.

Life with the chronic granulomatous is difficult, but Chike’s cerebral palsy makes it even harder. He cannot walk without a walker. He can suffer from multiple infections at once that come from any of the millions of invasives most people breathe in and fight off. They come without warning, and he often doesn’t know he has them until a doctor points them out.

“There’s absolutely no way to know,” he says. “It could get worse for me. It could get better right now. It’s kind of in the worse column, but…”

When he commented to a blogger with similar health problems, “My body is constantly fighting WWIII,” he wasn’t exaggerating.

Every day is filled with calculated risks:

— Does he balance on the legs of his chair to reach up and get a plate so he can make a meal for himself?

— Does he hoist himself up into the newly remodeled bath that is utterly dangerous when slippery?

— Does he climb out of his manual wheelchair in his room and down the stairs to his electric chair yet another time that day to get the one small thing he forgot downstairs, knowing full well he could slip and get a cut or bruise that could take forever to heal?

The answer is usually, “Yes.”

“I could be a germaphobe and still get hit with something.”

***

Chike has two very different kinds of days: neverending days at home and days out in the dangerous, dirty world. On the dangerous days, he catches the 8:25 a.m. bus. Some days he goes to film his three weekly TV shows at Urbana Public Television, two about film and one about sports. Some days he goes for physical therapy to keep his leg muscles loose.

Being out and about so much may not be wise. The Chronic Granulomatous Association says, “Remember, you cannot be too cautious with your health.”

People with Chike’s disease are not supposed to work with hay or grass clippings, go barefoot, play at a park with wood chips, go into barns, repot house plants, go inside newly renovated buildings or go near construction sites. People like Chike need to tell the doctor immediately if they have a fever. They are supposed to be vigilant, supposed to live in fear.

“You do end up playing that head game with yourself, worried that you’re not doing enough to keep yourself going,” he says. “I just can’t do that.”

As a boy, the wheelchair made Chike feel special, like a pint-sized celebrity. Girls couldn’t get enough of the boy with the wheels. In high school, though, he got looks, ones he viewed as saying, “What the hell are you doing invading the space of us normal people?”

The cerebral palsy, though certainly something he has struggled with, he at least understood. He was slower to grasp that he could die at any time. That realization came in pieces.

He remembers overhearing his parents talking about it with other adults and slowly understanding that something was terribly wrong with his body. As children his own age grew stronger, he began to realize all the things he couldn’t do.

He wondered in high school if he’d live to see his graduation day. The fears resurfaced in college, when he began to worry that he could die without saying goodbye to his parents, sister and friends. His deepest fear is that he’ll die tonight without time to tell them.

***

Chike spends much of his time in his bedroom on the Internet, often going downstairs only for meals.

“Even hermits gotta eat!” he says.

He blogs about movies and chats with friends he meets online. The Internet provides a mobility he doesn’t have in life. It even allows for a little bit of romance now and then.

“Ninety-five percent of the time I feel like I don’t have a chance with any girl.”

Online, that can be a different story.

One night, after perusing his OKCupid matches, he started up a conversation with a young woman whose virtual compatibility with his profile was too much to ignore.

As they chatted another night, she asked him his real name.

“Chike,” he typed.

“How is that pronounced?” she asked. “Does it rhyme with Mike?”

“No it does not. Chee-kay.”

And they quickly delved into his conditions.

“Frankly, I’m surprised my disability doesn’t frighten you.”

“I’m a bit concerned, I guess,” she typed. “But writing someone off completely because of that — well, that’s just plain mean.”

They chatted through the night, for nearly six hours. She took his phone number and said she would think about text messaging him. He really hoped she would.

Most of his free time, Chike listens to jazz — a favorite recording of Chicago jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and his trio is playing just now. He knows every inflection, scat and purr of this particular recording from 2006. He sings in his room, his left hand — his good hand — gripping the computer mouse, his right hand in its permanent position with thumb and finger forming an askew U, the three remaining fingers curled into his palm. As he sways his small frame in his chair, the pointer finger of his right hand hits the tempo up and down as if he is conducting.

He does the Louis Armstrong voice, deep and scratchy and round, with his eyes squeezed shut, his head bowed and a smile on his face. He does the Nat King Cole voice, smooth and silken and weightless, leaning back and tilting his face skyward. He pretends to smoke a cigarette, something he would never do in real life. His health is bad enough.

***

Every night before sleep, Chike allows himself five minutes for tears. “Five minutes a night,” he says. “That’s all I get.”

It’s never because of any particular difficult moment of his day or because of his terrible genetic luck. It’s because of the collection of millions of hardships and fears and uncertainties he feels at every moment, the awareness that at any second, during sleep or waking hours, some Aspergillus fumigatus or Blastomyces dermatitidis or Cryptococcus could creep into his body.

He wonders: Will I die in my sleep from something the doctors haven’t found? Or will medicine progress so that I might live long and healthy?

“I just keep going the best I can.”

The past few weeks have brought hope to Chike. The girl from OKCupid finally texted him back. She wrote, “Boo.” They’ve been chatting every day since, and he can’t stop smiling.

He also was accepted into the journalism graduate program at the University of Illinois. He’s expecting at least one new friend, some difficult classes and the rekindled independence of apartment life back on campus.

Of course, the apartment search isn’t going smoothly — nothing ever does. In the first one he toured, his wheelchair got stuck on a rainbow knotted rug and the chair wouldn’t fit in the bathroom. The second wasn’t much better.

“You know, I’m going into it with some trepidation,” he says. “Am I going to get through this without an incident?”

Yet Chike’s determined to stay optimistic, hoping graduate school will lead to a life beyond the walls of his boyhood room and the confines of his disease.

After all of it, he says simply, “I’m just grateful.”

A Lost Vet Finds the Church

A Lost Vet Finds the Church

By: Dan Petrella

(Originally published in The St. Anthony Messenger, April 2011)

Author’s Note:

The most important lesson I learned from doing the story was not to give up too soon. I originally started interviewing a different subject. He was a younger student who ended up pulling out because he was concerned about the time commitment. I was about to move on to a different topic altogether when the folks at the Newman Center put me in touch with Marcus Slavenas. His life experiences ended up making the story so much richer than I ever could have imagined.

- Dan Petrella

ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2003, Marcus Slavenas got the phone call that changed everything. He had just finished work and saw that he had a voice mail from his dad: “Please call me back, Marcus.”

From the sound of his father’s voice, he knew someone in the family was dead.

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On call and a-callin’

On call and a-callin’

By: Brian Stauffer

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, February 28, 1999)

Author’s Note:

Working on this story, I gained an appreciation for just how incredible the work that those writers who do this professionally — especially in book form, such as Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, and John McPhee — is. Their attention to detail, and their ability to weave that detail into cohesive stories amazed [me then] and continues to amaze me. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to take Prof. Harrington’s class and experience on a very small scale the challenges and rewards these writers must face daily

- Brian Stauffer

Jim Meyer slips his black rubber boots over his brown street shoes
and zips up his blue coveralls, which have a DVM … Doctor of Veterinary
Medicine … insignia stitched in white over the left breast pocket. Small
snowflakes zip in front of his face, propelled by a bitter northwest wind.
He grimaces against the zero-degree wind chill. It’s 8:30 Friday morning,
and “Doc” Meyer is making his first farm call of the day.

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The personal touch

The personal touch – Always there for his patrons, driver has earned loyal regular following

By: Melanie Zanona

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, May 23, 2010)

 

Author’s Note:

When I sat down to write this article, I remember being surprised by how different the story was from what I expected it to be. Once I got over my own notions of what the story “should be” and let the details guide me, the story quickly began to unfold before my eyes. In the end, I realized it’s not always about writing the story- it’s about finding the story. And that’s a lesson I use in my writing every day.

My story was a semi-finalist in the Hearst Award’s creative feature writing category.

- Melanie Zanona

 

The shamrock-embroidered button on Steve Robinette’s taxi van dashboard reads “Kiss Me, I’m the Designated Driver.” It’s from Unofficial St. Patrick’s day last year, when a group of his regular customers asked him to pull over and grab one from a vendor on the street. Small, plastic handcuff keys are dangling overhead on the mirror, from when Robinette picked up some girls at a Halloween party this October. Just below that, slung around his cup holder, is a faded glow-in-the-dark necklace that a customer gave him from a “hippy concert” at the Canopy Club last month. For Robinette, a Yellow Cab taxi driver, his van’s dashboard is just as colorful as his character.

“I try to form regulars and really get to know them,” Robinette says of his cab clientele. “My role is more like driving nieces and nephews around.”

The night starts out like most other nights. A group of sorority girls, their stiletto heels clicking on the pavement, scurries out of Mas Amigos restaurant and piles into Robinette’s elongated taxi van.

A ringing chorus of “Steve!” echoes through the cab as they scrunch up next to one another and get situated.

“Take us to Kams!” one of the girls shouts.

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The Long Road

The Long Road

By: Karen Mellen

(Originally published in The Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1997)

Author’s Note:

The most important learning [experience] was that of getting organized to complete a big feature story. This was the first time that I had completed such a long feature story, which has a different narrative arc than a news story or an in-depth piece focused on straight news. There were two challenges: to come up with a an organizing structure for the story and organize my notes during the interview process.

In this case, in working with Prof. Harrington, I was able to come up with a process to complete the necessary interviews and research for the piece, while also determining the organizing structure for the story. In the end, I determined that a traditional chronological structure made the most sense to tell the story of how Kelly lives, and put her experience into context.

- Karen Mellen

Kelly O’Brien awakens at 7:15 in the morning, lying on her back in the same position in which she fell asleep eight hours before.

Her 5-foot-10-inch frame is stretched out, fingers pointing toward the foot of her bed, her head propped up on two firm pillows. In her field of vision is the ceiling, painted white, a glowing digital clock to her right, a Michael Jordan poster on the wall by her feet.

If she lifts her head just two inches, straining her neck and shoulder muscles, she will touch a plastic buzzer she can grasp with her lips and blow into to signal for help. She doesn’t need to do this on this morning because Jinny Cho, her PA (personal assistant), arrives on time at 7:30.

O’Brien, paralyzed from the neck down in an alcohol-related car accident 5 1/2 years ago, can begin her day.

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End of the Line

End of the line

By: Ted Kemp

(Winner of the 1996-97 Department of Journalism’s Brody Creative Feature Article Writing Award, also published in The Illinois Times, July 4, 1997)

Author’s Note:

End of the Line was the story that made me a believer, convinced me that I could pull off that type of journalism. It taught me to keep my eyes open for details. I guess you could say that what I leaned from that story was self-confidence. The story was co-winner of the first Marian Boruck-Brody award.

- Ted Kemp

STEVE EICHELBERGER gazes at the bright gold numbers scrolling across his FarmDayta computer screen as the cool of morning seeps through his office window. A typewritten message taped to his monitor reads, “Conclusion: Dear Lord, let my light shine brightly for You today. Amen.” The monitor shows that hog futures are selling at 48½ cents a pound. Steve thinks he can probably get a little better than that. It’s almost 7 a.m. The day’s cycle is about to begin.

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The Right Answer

The Right Answer

By: Sarah (Schiltz) Muthler 

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, Jan. 13, 2002)

Author’s Note:

The most valuable thing I learned from writing “The Right Answer” is that it takes a long time to establish trust with a source. When I began interviewing Liz, she gave very brief answers to my questions, and I didn’t see how I could get the level of detail I needed. As the weeks passed, Liz opened up more and more about her life. Also, it’s important to choose a subject who is committed to taking the time to tell his or her story.
“The Right Answer” won the university’s Marian Boruck-Brody award for feature writing.

- Sarah Muthler

Liz Bell sits next to Johnnie Dorris in the classroom as they practice adding and reducing fractions on a worksheet. Johnnie is adding 105/16 with 43/16 and 34/16. She has determined the sum is 1712/16 but needs to reduce the fraction.

“What would go into 12 and 16?” Johnnie mumbles to herself. “Four times four is 16, that I can remember. And three times four is 12, I know that.”

Liz jumps in. “So it would be?”

“Four!” Johnnie exclaims and then carefully copies the number onto the page. “I think I’m about to catch on.”

Liz nods, smiles and says, “You’re getting it, sweetie.”

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Sister Sarah

Sister Sarah

By: Allison Copenbarger

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, Feb. 20, 2011)

Author’s Note:

Writing my Sister Sarah story for Professor Harrington’s class
taught me how deep feature writing can be. One of our readings talked
about narrative stories being “deep and not wide”, meaning you really
focus in on a particular subject and mine for intimate details. The
class helped me to conduct more personal interviews, ask better
detail-specific questions and, most importantly, see where the real
story was among all the interesting details.

My story won 3rd place for Personality/Profile writing in the
2011 Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program ($1500) & 1st place
in the 2011 Marian and Barney Brody Creative Writing Award ($2500).

- Allison Copenbarger

As Sarah Roy walks down Sixth Street, her pale blue eyes squint slightly at the sun and her black veil gently whips behind her head. She’s among a sea of North Face jackets, Ugg boots and orange and blue sweatpants. She herself is donning her normal garb – black jumper, black tights, black veil and black mary-jane flats. It’s the same uniform she has worn nearly every day for the nine years since she became a Roman Catholic nun. Today she has added a navy hooded sweatshirt over her jumper – it’s a little chilly.

The University of Illinois campus is always busy just before noon students hurrying to class. Sarah is instead hurrying to noon mass at St. John’s Catholic Chapel at Sixth and Armory streets. She hops up the familiar concrete steps to the chapel, opens the heavy glass door above which is carved: “Teach ye all nations all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”

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Something that matters

Something that matters

By: Luiza Ilie

(Originally published in Illinois Times, June 9, 2005)

 

Author’s Note:

“Something that matters” was my first attempt at an in-depth story and was my chance to practice this wonder called narrative journalism that I had just discovered at the University of Illinois in Prof. Harrington’s class. The idea that journalists can use their craft to write these real life stories that dig deeper and tell readers something about the way we live was a revelation, and has since become a lifelong aim.

“Something that matters” taught me how to stick with a story for months, how to shadow my subject, ask uncomfortable questions, take detailed notes, agonize over organizing the material and understand the importance of rewriting over and over. It made me aware of my limitations, and how important it is to have an editor that truly cares, one that doesn’t give up on me or the story.

The story won the Marian Boruck Brody Award for Creative Feature Writing in 2005 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It became a cover story for alternative news weekly The Illinois Times, and won an honorable mention for feature writing at the 2005 AltWeeklies Awards.

- Luiza Ilie

 

Eric Anglada wakes up at 6:30 a.m., before the noise of the day starts. At this early hour, he is the only one awake.

His small room is furnished with a desk, a small dresser, a bed with navy-blue covers, and bookshelves. The only flashy thing here is the color scheme: Soon after he moved in, Eric painted each wall a different color — blue, mauve, orange, green.

Everything here is quiet; outside, the street is deserted. Eric enjoys the solitude — it won’t be long before the phones will start ringing, people will start arriving, and he’ll be hard at work.

This day, Eric will help Johnnie move out. The 60-year-old woman has lived here for the past year, and, when she needed help getting into public housing, she turned to Eric.

Around here, everybody turns to him.

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A Mother’s Letters

A Mother’s Letters

By: Stephanie Gomes

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, Friday, June 6, 2008)

 

Author’s Note:

Writing from the first person point of view was much more difficult than any other journalism piece I have ever written, especially when it was family subject close to my heart. Also, along those lines, interviewing family members was more challenging than interviewing a stranger. Where do you begin when you have known someone your whole life?  But, I learned that with proper editing and patience, a great piece can develop. To this day, I’m still very proud of this article.

[For this story,] I received 8th Place in the 49th annual William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program.

- Stephanie Gomes

 

My brother is waiting for me when I walk in the door. He usually is. We stand there for a moment and exchange our usual punches and loving insults.

“So, I see you’ve been working out a lot,” I say sarcastically, punching his skinny arm.

“Shut up,” he says, laughing.

I can’t help but look at the left side of Mason’s face, which is still very swollen from his last surgery. The skin on that side of his face juts out slightly, and his left ear, which is closed shut, lies almost flat against his head and droops about an inch lower than his “good ear,” as he calls it. When looking straight on, you can hardly see that ear. His head of coarse, dusty-blonde hair hides the massive scar from his first surgery 14 years ago.

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Heart & Coal

Heart & Coal

By: John Lock

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, March 20, 2011)

Author’s Note:

Anything can be a character. Coal isn’t just a dog, man’s best friend. To her, he’s closer than a best friend. Your best friend isn’t always there, always helping, always listening. She shelters him from the verbal abuse he sometimes gets, just because someone doesn’t think a dog belongs in a Subway. He shelters her on dark night trips across campus. That kind of bond isn’t easy to get across on paper.

- John Lock

“Watch this,” Bridget Evans says. “Sit. Stay.”

Bridget wheels away around the corner, down the aisle at the Halloween store. Bridget is smiling; she knows what her dog Coal is thinking.

Where is she going? What if she needs me? Coal’s eyes are smiling as they follow her.

When the 21-year-old University of Illinois student disappears around the corner, he stares intently at the spot. After a couple seconds, his tongue hides in his mouth and he looks quizzically at the empty space.

Maybe I should go find her. But she said to stay. But what if she needs me? His eyes, mouth and head droop together below his shoulders, and he starts to whimper, softly at first, then progressively louder.

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Vision, Quest

Vision, Quest

By: Tom Bryant

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, June 22, 2008)

Author’s Note:

The biggest thing I learned in writing this story is that you find some of the greatest stories in the most unlikely places. I first met Pastor Winfrey, almost by accident, at a small “graduation” ceremony from a financial seminar, in his church basement, that I was writing an “event” story on for an introductory journalism class. He and I hit it off immediately and, as I listened to him, knew he had a great story to tell. I ended up writing a short profile piece on him for the introductory class and came back to him a year and a half later for the story in in Professor Harrington’s class. The rest, as they say, is history.

- Tom Bryant

Moses had his burning bush.

Saul had his light on the road to Damascus.

Ray Winfrey had his riding lawn mower.

Cutting grass can be a mindless, butt-numbing chore for a homeowner. For Ray Winfrey, who mowed for the Champaign Parks Department, it was job security. That is, until one late spring day in 1979, when his mowing went from mindless to mind-blowing.

“It was about 2 in the afternoon on a beautiful day,” he remembers. “Suddenly the mower had stopped, and I was on the ground. It was like I was in a daze, paralyzed. Out of nowhere, the Lord gave me this vision of what he wanted out of my life. He wanted me to start a church for the outcasts, those who’d been turned away everywhere else.”

Ray, age 41 then, got back on his mower, returned to his office, quit his job and set about building a church. Neither Moses nor Saul had an easy time of it after his call from God. The same was true for Ray Winfrey.

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Wonderful Waltz

Wonderful Waltz

By: Richard Anderson

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, June 8, 2008)

 

Author’s Note:

While reporting for this piece I learned to be patient and allow the story to reveal itself, rather than allowing my own ideas to guide the process. I initially thought this would be a story about the egalitarian, communitarian principles of contra dance and how they represented a left-over bit of 1960s idealism. But my reporting showed me that this wasn’t the story. The story was about two people in love whose whole relationship played out through contra dance. I never would have set out to write a piece about a married couple and their hobbies, but that’s the story I found–all I had to do was stay out of the way.

- Richard Anderson

 

Frances and Mitch Harris treasure these five minutes. They have plodded through the evening, trading partners and sharing laughs, surrendering to the spirit of community dance. Now they get to dance alone, together.

Frances and Mitch follow this routine every other Friday at the contra dances they have attended together for 11 years. This is where and how they met – at a contra dance in the Phillips Recreation Center in Urbana – same building, same room. He was a bachelor. She was divorced. A decade later, they are married – and still in love.

“I always really liked dancing with him,” Frances says. “And I still do.”

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The Human Cost

The Human Cost

By: Jonathan Jacobson

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, May 27, 2008)

Author’s Note:

Prior to writing this story, I had almost never spent more than a week putting together a single journalistic piece. With the help of Professor Harrington, I learned just how crucial researching, compiling, drafting and editing are in putting together a serious work of journalism. The personal element in each of the story’s mini-vignettes made that work incredibly challenging for me, but also very gratifying. The story came in second place in the Brody Creative Feature Article Writing Awards in 2008.

- Jonathan Jacobson

Connie Bickers gave me simple directions to her house in St. Joseph, but the country roads in central Illinois all look the same and in the pitch black of a winter evening I get lost. I find her house when I see a memorial road sign labeled “Cory Hubbell Way.” The sign was dedicated last October by Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn in honor of Bickers’ son, who died while serving in Kuwait in 2003. He is the reason I’m here.

“Can I show you Cory’s room?” Connie asks, leading me into a space filled floor to ceiling with memorabilia from her son’s life. Awards and recognitions, his Army boots and his uniforms, an old football he tossed around in the desert signed by members of his unit, memorial quilts knitted by military mothers to honor his service, and Connie’s collection of at least 30 angels that she began assembling after Cory’s death at 20 years old.

“He was my angel,” she says, fighting back tears.

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Welcome to Intimate Journalism!

Welcome to the archive of published student work done over the years in my Literary Feature Writing class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I began teaching the class in 1996, after arriving as a journalism professor from a career writing for The Washington Post Magazine. The concept of the class was embodied in my book, Intimate Journalism: The Art & Craft of Reporting Everyday Life, which I have used, along with other books and readings, as a staple in the class. The simple idea was to have students complete an in-depth human interest story utilizing the concepts and reporting and writing techniques commonly described as “literary journalism.”

This collection includes only a handful of the scores of published stories done in the class, but they give you an idea of what even beginners can accomplish when their eyes have been opened to the possibilities of journalistic storytelling beyond the news and gossip of the day. The intelligence and commitment of my students amazed me from the start and still does. Their boundless curiosity has kept me feeling young.

I hope you enjoy them.

- Walt Harrington