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.

(page 3 of 15)

 

The summer between his junior and senior years in high school, Greene got a job as a copy boy at the Citizen-Journal. By his senior year, he was working on the student newspaper and the yearbook. Later, he wrote about trading jokes with a classmate on the yearbook staff, Susan Koebel, who eventually would become his wife.

In 1965, at age 18, Greene enrolled at Northwestern University. Although he was a journalism major, for his first three years he did not contribute to the student paper, the Daily Northwestern; later, he admitted that he had been too “intimidated” to pursue it. Still, Northwestern was the beginning of what he would call his “James Bond” period. He started wearing a star sapphire pinky ring because Sean Connery had appeared on the cover of Esquire sporting one (Greene was still wearing his a decade later).

During his junior year, he became a stringer for the Chicago Tribune. (The newspaper’s parent company also owns Chicago magazine.) At the beginning of his senior year, he won a job as a columnist for the Daily Northwestern, chosen by faculty and outside journalists. It was an amazing coup. He called his column “Greene,” and it captured the attention of a number of newspaper editors who were looking for fresh voices.

The Chicago Sun-Times hired Greene right out of Northwestern in 1969. At first, it was to be a summer job as a general assignment reporter. But when the conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven-the people accused of instigating the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention here-started in mid-September, Greene followed his hunch that the action would be outside, in the street. He got the assignment, and when a riot broke out, he was positioned to write about it. That led to a full-time job as a reporter.

The conspiracy trial was a national story, and most newspapers had their legal correspondents covering it. From the beginning, Greene approached the story as a feature writer. In the spring of 1970, just as the trial was about to end, he followed two defendants, Jerry Rubin and John Froines, to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where they were making speeches. Greene’s story ran in the Sun-Times’s Sunday magazine and won a national competition for best Sunday magazine story of the year.

In 1971, Greene married Susan Koebel, who the year before had graduated from the University of Wisconsin. Those who knew her say that she was “sweet” and “shy of the limelight.” Also that year, the Sun-Times made Greene a columnist, at age 23. At the time, the tabloid was the youngest, hippest major paper in town. Roger Ebert had just won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism, and editor James Hoge was encouraging his writers to follow their voices. “Bob was full of energy and focus,” recalls Michael Miner, a senior editor and the media critic for the Chicago Reader, who was then a Sun-Times reporter. “Certainly, lots of writers in their 20s have that, but Bob did stand out.” Not that he was a particularly friendly guy. “Most people’s image of Bob would be of Bob alone,” says the Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander, who has known Greene since the early seventies. “Alone by choice, a classic man alone in a crowd.”

Greene wrote columns that were fresh and exciting. He broke a common rule of journalism by putting himself into stories, and he did not refrain from portraying some subjects in unflattering yet funny ways. He traveled with the rock band Alice Cooper (which led to a book, Billion Dollar Baby); he persuaded jingle writers to pen a song about him; and he created the “Ms. Greene’s World Pageant,” a column spoof on beauty pageants inviting female readers to send in their photos for the competition. At the Sun-Times (and later at the Tribune, where Greene continued the pageant), the contest was referred to in-house as “Bob’s Dating Service.”
Greene did become friends with his colleague Paul Galloway, and together they wrote a fictional series for the paper called “Bagtime,” about the adventures of a bag boy at a Treasure Island grocery store. The series became a hit play locally and then a book for the two writers. Overall, Greene had created a persona for himself that both played on newspaper tradition and parodied it: He was Johnny Deadline, Reporter, which also became the title of his first collection of columns.

 

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