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Last June, Bob Greene, the nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, traveled the roads of Nebraska promoting his 21st book, Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. The book tells the story of a railroad depot in a small Nebraska town; every train carrying troops to either coast, on their way to the Pacific or the European theatre of World War II, stopped for ten minutes in North Platte.
The townspeople there, and in many nearby towns, took it upon themselves to feed and entertain the six million GIs who passed through on the Union Pacific. The residents’ selfless contributions meant the world to the soldiers, many of whom had never left home before.
And last summer, Greene was one more beneficiary of that Great Plains hospitality. He loved the fact that people waved to him from their cars-and he loved that it was not a big, done-for-display wave, but a wave that was understated yet friendly, much like Nebraska itself. He loved the crowds who gathered to hear him speak and then lined up afterward to have their books signed.
He was driving-something he had given up in Chicago-and he had planned his book tour to follow the old railroad route as closely as possible. On June 7th he reached the Lincoln County Historical Museum in North Platte. He moved on the next day to the town’s Wal-Mart, and then to Kearney, Grand Island, Hastings, Lincoln, and Omaha. His appearances were big news; The Omaha World-Herald had printed a schedule of his signings. He made a brief foray west, into Colorado, and then circled back again to Nebraska. With the highway threading out into such unencumbered spaces, and the big sky meeting the horizon, the world must have felt open and free, part of a softer, easier era-the sort of era that Greene wrote about with yearning.
But on June 20th Greene took time off from his book tour to phone an FBI agent he knew. He contacted the bureau because he had received two calls from a young woman, an acquaintance from his past. She had called Greene to congratulate him on the publication of Once Upon a Town, but, according to one account, she also mentioned that she was writing a book-one that would touch on their relationship. She implied that Greene would not be pleased by her revelations. Greene told the FBI that he felt threatened by her calls. When contacted by the bureau, the young woman denied that she had made any threats. On June 28th, the FBI closed its inquiry, saying there was insufficient evidence to pursue an investigation. (Neither Greene nor the woman would comment for this article. Due to privacy considerations, Chicago will not publish her name.)
Greene returned to his tour, buoyed by the strong reviews earned by Once Upon a Town. It must have felt like a new career pinnacle for Greene, whom Time magazine had recently called a chronicler “for people hungry for moral clarity.”
But moral clarity is hard to achieve, let alone sustain, as the world discovered a few months later when the young woman, now 32, re-entered Greene’s life in a way that cost him his column. He was back in Nebraska last September when he was summoned to Chicago to face his fate. The young woman, apparently angered by the way he had rebuffed her when she had called earlier, had sent the Tribune an e-mail outlining the circumstances of her relationship with the columnist. As a 17-year-old high school senior in 1988, she had arranged an interview with Greene for a school project. Her parents had driven her downtown and waited while she completed her assignment. A few months later, after she had graduated from high school, Greene and she saw each other several times over dinner and at least once they went to a hotel, where they had a sexual liaison. (Her lawyer is now said to be trying to negotiate a financial settlement from Greene.)
Last September, after the Tribune investigated the matter, it took five days for Greene’s career of 33 years to come crashing down.
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