A Writer at Work

BY: Chelsey B. Coombs

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, June 21, 2014)

Amy Hassinger sits at her built-in desk, completely straight in her chair, between two floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves that hold titles such as The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference, Stephen King’s On Writing, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and many years of The Best American Short Stories anthologies. Early morning light streams through the window that overlooks her Urbana neighborhood and bathes her freckled face and short brown hair. Her chocolate-brown dog, Hachi, nudges her hand, but she ignores him and furrows her brow. Her husband is at work and her kids are off to school, and the only sound in the room is Amy’s pen scratching on a legal pad.

She is a writer at work.

“Writing, for me, was always really hard,” she says. “I wasn’t one of these star writers who just right out of the gate was winning all the prizes and, to me, it was — and still continues to be — a real effort. But it was one of the only things I did that I felt fully, completely engaged in.”

At age 41, Amy is the author of two novels, “Nina: Adolescence,” which was called “truly penetrating” by Salon.com, and “The Priest’s Madonna,” which Library Journal said was “marvelously written and researched.” She has finished the “umpteenth set of revisions” on her newest novel, a three-year project, and is “letting it sit for a couple weeks” before sending it to her agent. She teaches in the University of Nebraska’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program and the University of Illinois’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and is raising two kids. She’s busy.

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Turning a Pipe Dream Into Reality

BY: Ryan Weber

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, July 6, 2014)

John-Paul Buzard builds what was for centuries the most complex machine civilization had ever introduced to the world. The modern world would issue in bigger, louder, taller and faster machines: steam ships, cars and telephones, and, later, airplanes and computers, including the black 4-inch touchscreen that constantly chirps in John-Paul’s pocket. Yet for all that these machines can do, they still can’t achieve what John-Paul’s can.

His machines speak the voice of God.

“The sound of a pipe organ,” he says, “is just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”

John-Paul builds church pipe organs. He has spent most of his life carrying on a centuries-old tradition that has seen its prominence fade. Organs are expensive and few churches can afford them today. But he carries on, believing that nothing else can affect people like his machines.

“The organ,” he says in his soft, thoughtful voice, “has a way of touching people’s souls.”

John-Paul, 59, was 5 years old when his dad told him there was no money in building organs. He was 6 when he knew he wanted to do it anyway, 13 when he assembled one from scrap wood and old spare pipes for a science fair, 16 when he played one at a recital, 21 when he met his wife, who today plays organs for a living, and 25 when he received his master’s degree in organ performance. At age 30, he opened John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders in a then-desolate and crime-ridden downtown Champaign.

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A Stronger Bond

BY: Stephanie Kim

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, July 12, 2015)

Darrell Price was especially tired one night after a long day at work, and his wife, Peggy, noticed. She knew it was hard for him to juggle two jobs, one as a DeWitt County assistant state’s attorney and the other caring for her. Many a husband would leave his wife, she remembers thinking that night, because of that burden.

“Do you hate me because this happened?” she recalls asking him.

“No,” he quickly responded.

“How? Isn’t this a tortuous life for you? I mean, wouldn’t you rather just leave?”

“Well, if I didn’t love you, I probably would.”

Despite her fears, Peggy knows Darrell’s love is complete. Most days, she sees beyond her suffering. Yet today has been one of those days when she feels sorry for the way their lives turned out. Since she fell down the steps in front of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on the University of Illinois campus in 2005, her body has never been the same. She has had three knee replacements and two spinal surgeries, which have left her body full of metal and rods. After she fell again in their Urbana home in 2009, doctors discovered a connective-tissue disorder that now confines her to a wheelchair.

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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.

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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.

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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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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

 

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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