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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On Sunday, a cryptic four-paragraph note from Lipinski appeared at the bottom left corner of the paper’s front page: Greene would no longer write for the Tribune. He had engaged in “inappropriate sexual conduct” with a girl in her “late teens” whom he had met “in connection with his newspaper column.” The note expressed regret for “the effect on the young woman,” and said that Greene’s behavior was “a serious violation of Tribune ethics and standards for its journalists.”

In part because Lipinski’s note was not specific, people inside and outside the Tribune were full of questions: What, exactly, was the ethical violation? If the girl, who was not named, was of legal age, as the note said, what was the problem? Was it simply that she had been the subject of a column? Was Greene’s summoning of the FBI an issue? Was there more to the story?

“He used his position at the newspaper for personal gain,” Lipinski told Chicago magazine. “It’s that simple.”

In an unusual and awkward scenario, Tribune reporters set out to write about the matter, even though their bosses were apparently not providing information. Stories that appeared over the next few days added only a handful of new details about the sequence of events. On Tuesday, an editorial summed up the paper’s official position: It admitted that the “terse wording” of Lipinski’s note “didn’t begin to resolve many readers’ questions.” Then the editorial continued, “But in this case the journalistic urge to fully disclose the facts collides with two other imperatives: the privacy of the individuals involved, and this newspaper’s guidelines on when it is appropriate to discuss sexual misconduct related to young people.”

In the media frenzy after the announcement of Greene’s departure, a number of people said they thought he had been treated unfairly. “The Tribune did not handle this situation with much sympathy for a loyal employee,” says Roger Ebert, the Sun-Times’s film critic. “What Bob did was wrong, but not illegal and not the occasion for a public hanging.”

Meanwhile, Greene virtually vanished from sight, although he sent a statement to the Associated Press saying there were “indiscretions in my life that I am not proud of. I don’t have the words to express the sadness I feel. I am very sorry for anyone I have let down, including the readers who have for so long meant so much to me.”

He also sent a letter to the North Platte Chamber of Commerce, whose banquet he had failed to attend because he had cut his trip short. The letter was read aloud at the event. “You are the town that never let anyone down,” Greene wrote. “And tonight, by not being in North Platte with you, I know that I am letting you down. If I could be anywhere tonight other than where I am, it would be in North Platte with you. But I hope you can understand that the place for me to be is at home.”

The Tribune’s public editor, Don Wycliff, stated that 60 percent of the people who called or wrote the paper sided with Greene and against the decision to let him go, a figure that shifted later as more people wrote in supporting the paper. But overall, only 50 readers canceled their subscriptions.

The young woman has retained the lawyer Kathleen Zellner, best known for presenting DNA evidence that led a judge to overturn the murder convictions of four men last year. (In January 2003, one of those men was arrested for trying to extort money from her.) Zellner has contacted Bruce Sperling, a lawyer representing Greene, in an effort to negotiate a settlement for her client.

Although in most regards the legal age of consent in Illinois is 17, the age can shift according to circumstances. The young woman was 17 the summer she and Greene started seeing each other; she turned 18 that August. One chapter of the state code defines criminal sexual assault to be “sexual penetration with a victim who is . . . under 18 years of age when the act was committed, and the accused . . . held a position of trust, authority or supervision relative to the victim.” In other words, if Greene held a “position of trust” with the young woman, he arguably committed a crime, although the statute of limitations has long since passed. A source close to the parties says that Zellner thinks Greene’s position when he and her client met is the basis of her bargaining power in obtaining a settlement.

Four months after losing his job, Greene continued to stay out of sight. Two people who spoke with him late last year told Chicago that he sounded “devastated” and “despairing about the way this has affected him, the young woman, his family, and her family.” Then in December, another tragedy occurred: His wife, Susan, entered the intensive care unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. On January 25th, according to an obituary in the Tribune, she died after being treated for a respiratory illness. “In a world that is so often cold-eyed and mean-spirited and unforgiving,” Greene said in the obituary, “Susan was a person of never-ending good-heartedness, charity and mercy.”

That Greene would describe the world as he did is hardly surprising. This has been a horrible, crisis-driven time for him. It is understandable that he would continue, as a friend says, to turn his attention to the needs of his family. But one day, he will probably begin to write again; he has always seemed to live more on the page than anywhere else.

Research assistance for this article was provided by Drew Adamek and Brittney Blair.

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