About 12 years ago, I was working as an administrative assistant at a pathology-journal company, cataloging manuscripts of all the different ways to die and trying to break into journalism. Figuring out how to do it meant reading a lot, and I’d recently discovered the work of Robert Kurson, a former Chicago magazine writer and Harvard Law grad who’d quit his job as a lawyer and moved up from the bottom rung on the Sun-Times sports page.
Then as now, Kurson was one of the best non-fiction writers in the industry, and I’d come across a reference to a piece he’d written about Robert Earl Hughes, for a long time famous as the Guinness Book of World Records’s heaviest man to ever live. That’s how Kurson knew him, too—he recognized a picture from the book while working on a different assignment, got curious, and dove into Hughes’s story.
I emailed Chicago hoping to obtain a copy of the piece; Cassie Walker Burke, a longtime Chicago editor who’s now the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago, was kind enough to fax it to me. It’s an amazing piece, one of many amazing pieces Kurson wrote for the magazine.
Pieces like Kurson’s 2001 piece “Heavy” are why I wanted to work here—the remarkable stories hiding in plain sight in the city and state, around us and in the past. For my last post after more than seven years at Chicago, I wanted to highlight a few as a way of saying thank you.
“Heavy,” Robert Kurson, June 2001.
“Three Years of Nights,” Peter Nickeas, August 2016.
Peter is a brilliant writer on the crime beat in Chicago, who’s able to sustain a remarkable level of emotion and empathy on the most difficult beat in the city and within the conventions of news reporting. He opened up for us at considerable length about the job.
“A Mugging on Lake Street,” John Conroy, September 2009
I worked with John at the Reader, one of the best investigative reporters the city has produced, who almost single-handedly broke the Jon Burge story and went on to write a significant book about torture. Here he writes about what happened when he was the victim of crime, and what happened when he tried to seek the form of justice he felt was right.
“Welcome to Refugee High,” Elly Fishman, June 2017
Sullivan High School is one of Chicago’s most remarkable stories, and Elly spent a long time there to present a deep portrait of it. And my colleagues on the web team gave it a beautiful presentation to match, the culmination of years of work here to be able to do that.
“The Voices in Josh Marks’s Head,” Bryan Smith, June 2014
It’s an outstanding piece, but I didn’t know when it ran that it would be such a persistent piece—it’s got 47,000 likes on Facebook, and periodically it will get a bump from somewhere and a new round of readers. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to be working online; people don’t have to write us to get articles faxed to them.
“The Bully of Toulon,” Robert Kurson, September 2002
Another Kurson piece about a story from small-town Illinois that might have passed through your peripheral attention and that he expanded into a compelling and moving read; another piece that’s had a deservedly long life online.
“Charlie Trotter Is Alive and Well,” Carrie Schedler, August 2017
A few years back I found a couple Charlie Trotter cookbooks in a thrift store. I never went to Charlie Trotter’s (and am so far too intimidated to actually cook from them), but just reading through these books from the mid-late ’90s, the food hasn’t dated a day. This piece is about why.
“Biography of a Gun,” David Bernstein, June 2004
I remember when this came out and thinking, this guy is good. I’m lucky I got to see it in person.
“On the Life and Death of My Brother, Dickie,” Carol Felsenthal, June 2018.
Like I said, one of the reasons I wanted to work here is that writers uncover stories about amazing people. One of those people, whom I’d never heard of until her pitch came in, was Carol’s brother—one of the great movie-title artists of all time, at the level of (and praised by) the great Saul Bass. You’ve seen his work; she got to see how it came to be.
“The Man With His Head In the Clouds,” Tom Chiarella, June 2016
One of my favorite things to write about is architecture, so, I have to admit, I was a bit envious that he got to write this and I didn’t. But he’s Tom Chiarella, and how it’s done is why. I’ve got time, I suppose.