The Sad Saga of Bob Greene

When a woman from his past resurfaced, the columnist’s 33-year career crashed; then a family tragedy hit home.

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The saga of Bob Greene, now 55, is a complex tale of success, failure, mystery, and tragedy. As a young graduate of Northwestern University, he quickly made a name as a pioneering journalist-finding fresh angles, exploring pop culture, injecting himself into a story. His early work was celebrated by masters such as Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe. Over the years, though, the gaze of the wunderkind went from forward to backward, and the middle-aged writer dwelt in nostalgia and sentimentality, concentrating on the glories of an America-or an imagined America-several generations removed. Throughout, he had a talent for tapping his own life and musings, even the most mundane daily experiences, and shaping them into pointed observations and lessons. Critics found much of this to be bunk, but readers responded warmly.

“What was Bob Greene’s talent?” says Jim Squires, the Tribune’s editor from 1981 to 1989. “He arrived at a point of view on common, everyday issues, and he expressed it in a way that obviously a huge bunch of readers in the country would look at and say, ‘I agree with that. That’s exactly the way I feel.’ And that is a talent. That is a great talent.”

The trouble was, in public comments Greene made it clear that sometimes he did not believe what he wrote. He was just finding an angle that would make a good column-draw attention, promote his career. He mixed candor and calculation so shrewdly that, looking back over his work, it is impossible to tell when he is being honest and when he is just reaching for effect. But the devastating events that have unfolded are beyond questions about his work.

The tragedy for the Greene family was compounded in late January when Susan, Bob’s wife, died of a lingering illness. “As Susan lay dying during the most painful months of our family’s life,” said Greene in a Tribune obituary, “she defined, in the eyes of our children and me, the true meaning of strength and love.” Clearly, this is a moment when Greene will need to find that kind of strength within himself.

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The mixture of sentimentality and commerce that characterizes Greene’s later work seems to have roots in his family. His father, Robert Sr., was the president and chief executive officer of a baby shoe bronzing company; his mother, Phyllis, was a housewife who was “the most sentimental person in the world,” Bob’s sister, Debbie, once wrote. Later in life, Phyllis published a book about her first year as a widow; Bob and Debbie, who became a newspaper writer with the byline D. G. Fulford, collaborated on books about preserving family memories. Bob’s younger brother, Tim, who climbed mountains in Peru and sold real estate in Aspen, was considered the adventurous one in the family.

Greene has often written about his hometown of Bexley, Ohio (population 13,203), as if it were Smallville, U.S.A. But in fact Bexley is an affluent, virtually all-white suburb of Columbus. “It was the kind of suburb where teenagers generally didn’t have to worry about where their allowance money was coming from,” Greene acknowledged in Be True to Your School, published in 1987.

By junior high, he was compiling college basketball statistics for local radio shows and doing sports interviews for his school paper. His first ambition was to be a tennis star, but if that did not work out, he wanted to be a reporter. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Greene said in an interview that appeared in the Reader in 1977, he typed up a report on his high school’s reaction and took it to the Columbus Citizen-Journal. The paper did not publish it, but there was something about writing that article that revved Greene up; for years afterward, he would “warm up” by typing the first sentence of that piece: “The class sits in stunned silence.” A year later, he tweaked the story for the anniversary of the assassination, and this time it made the cut at the Citizen-Journal. Even when he was 17, what would become his professional voice was recognizable: “It has been a year now, and being young, we tend to forget.”

 

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