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Bob's Little Town

What are they saying about Bob Greene back in Bexley, Ohio? How do they like his new book?



In 1964, the year Bobby Greene turned 17, he was hopelessly in love with a pretty 13-year-old named Lindy Lemmon. Day by day in his diary, he chronicled his obsession for her.

As girls will do, Lindy had dumped him after a three-month courtship, leaving Bobby to perform daily biopsies on his broken heart. "I've lived a whole year for nothing but her," he wrote on June 18. On July 10, after losing a tiepin Lindy once gave him, he wrote: "Lord, can't I even have my memories?"

Life went on. Lindy married an Ohio State quarterback and became Mrs. Maciejowski, a housewife with four children. Bobby married someone else and became Bob Greene, a syndicated columnist and pop-culture pundit based at the Chicago Tribune.

But now, Greene has come crashing back into Lindy's life -- and into the lives of a host of people he grew up with in Bexley, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.

He has decided to publish his 1964 diary. Titled Be True to Your School, the book comes out this month and has already been excerpted in the Trib, Esquire, and Family Circle.

After 23 years, Greene's old friends in Bexley aren't sure how to react. They are private people, but soon their adolescent hurts and sophomoric antics will be marketed in bookstores for national titillation. In certain ways, this is all very exciting. But some people are nervous and embarrassed. "I didn't rob banks or beat up old women. I was a typical, naive 17-year-old," says Chuck Shenk, now a millionaire Columbus businessman. "But these are my personal memories. I'd just as soon not have them show up in a book." (On June 6, 1964, Shenk, wearing two condoms, lost his virginity in a friend's bedroom, an event Greene and his pals witnessed from an adjoining bathroom.)

Greene offers all 366 days of 1964, in telling detail: his first beer; his brief romp with a 27-year-old married woman; his father's incurable squareness; the time he secretly urinated into a classmate's cologne; and, through it all, his desperate "daze" over Lindy.

His is a tale "of universal heartaches, exuberances and yearnings," Greene says. "You never forget the first girl you fell in love with."

Lindy's memories of him, however, are hardly as vivid. She recalls little. "I guess it was a more intense feeling for him than it was for me," she says politely.

Still, she can't forget him -- he won't let her. He has written about her before, talked about her on the radio, and regaled David Letterman's millions of viewers with his memories of her. It makes Lindy a bit uncomfortable.

She now lives in a large house in Worthington, a suburb north of Columbus. Her husband, whom she married when she was 19 and he was 21, is a steel company executive. Her four children range in age from 16 down to 1 year old. "I'm not used to this kind of attention," she says after agreeing to speak to me. "I'm used to going to my kids' sporting events and taking care of the baby."

She is reminded of another interview that took her by surprise eight years ago. Greene was 32 then. Lindy was 29. He had called her to say he was writing a piece for Esquire about returning to find his childhood sweetheart. He recalled the conversation as awkward: One of the first things she said to him was that she had just seen him on Phil Donahue. He nervously asked her if he could come visit her -- to learn more about the boy he was and the man he became. Her husband found the request odd, but didn't see a problem with it -- "He's real secure," Lindy says -- so Lindy agreed to meet Bob at the airport.

Greene found her in the baggage area with her kids in tow. "She had been beautiful when she was 13 and had the same face now," Greene wrote in his Esquire piece, "but she was undeniably an Ohio housewife waiting in an airport." Greene wrote of driving to her house, of seeing kids' bikes in her garage, a Sears food processor in her kitchen, and an album of Elton John's greatest hits in her living room. "I had seen these things in so many other places," he wrote, "but this was Lindy's house and I looked at the album cover and thought about Elton John's having arrived on the scene and flourished and started to fade away, all in the time since I had seen her."

As Greene told the story in Esquire, he and Lindy went to dinner, just the two of them, and he self-consciously "pretended it was a newspaper interview and asked questions by rote." He learned that she taught a Sunday school class, took aerobic dance lessons, and had grown up to live in a very different world than he lived in. "I realized that I had no right to be doing this," he wrote. "I was so used to intruding into people's lives for my professional purposes that I had blithely intruded into Lindy's for my own personal ones. But I wasn't going to find that boy from 1963 -- at least not here: all I was going to do was confuse Lindy and make her wonder what it was I wanted."

The Esquire story was in some ways unsettling to Lindy. "When I read it, I got the feeling that he was big-time Chicago and I was a small-time Ohio housewife," she says. "It was as if I hadn't grown -- like he had come so far from Bexley and I hadn't. But then I thought about it, and the truth is, he's right. I am a housewife, but that's what I want to be."

After that Esquire piece came out, some friends and relatives called Lindy to say Greene had been unfair to her. Now, with the excerpts from his new book in national magazines, people are calling again. Some say Lindy comes off in the diary as "a vixen," "a vamp," "a sultry 13-year-old." The attention is disconcerting, Lindy says. "I have mixed feelings." Very few moments of 1964 are clear in her mind, but now people are asking her to recall specific events and remarks -- to verbalize her memories of Greene and to analyze his infatuation. "I have the worst memory," she says. "I don't remember any teacher before seventh grade."

She pauses before answering most questions. She doesn't want to hurt Greene's feelings, yet she would like to cast a realistic light on their past together. Their relationship "didn't last long enough to carry over into adulthood as the great romance of my life," she says. "I met him in the summer. We were real good friends. We talked a lot. I don't remember it ever being -- I mean, it wasn't heavy-duty. By the time school started, I had another boyfriend."

She wishes him well with his new book. "A lot of people are really into nostalgia," she says. "He's hitting that crowd. That could be his gimmick. Maybe he doesn't really feel that nostalgic." Another pause. "No. I think he does feel that way."

Her husband, Ron, finds Greene's intrusion into Lindy's life -- and his fixation on her -- weird but amusing. "I'm not certain what to make of the whole thing," he says. "How can someone be so obsessed with things that happened 23 years ago?"

Ron Maciejowski was one of Ohio State's quarterbacks in the late 60s. He made it briefly to the pros, for the Chicago Bears, but never got in a game. He doesn't feel threatened by Greene's successes, his wealth, his celebrity status, or the scores of famous people the columnist has interviewed. So what if Richard Nixon has called Greene on the phone? "Nixon called me, too," Maciejowski says, "right after an Ohio State game. He'd been watching the game, so he called and talked to me and the placekicker. That's when I knew the country was in trouble." He grins. "If it's one-upmanship [with Greene], I'm right in there."

Greene is now playing the talk-show circuit promoting his book, and Ron says he might tune in. But his curiosity has its limits. If a Cleveland Indians game is on TV he says, "I'll watch that instead of Greene."

Ron also wonders about Greene's motivations. Are his feelings genuine or are Lindy and others from his past just good material? "Maybe she's just a character he's using to make a point to readers," he says. "Who remembers what happened? Are these facts? Exaggerations of facts? To Lindy, he was just some guy who was infatuated with her. To him, I guess, she really was a big deal. I don't know. It's kind of pathetic, but maybe that's his way of making a living."

From his base at the Tribune, Greene has made a fine living by capitalizing on such nostalgia. Ever since his early days as a Sun-Times columnist, most everyone he knows and loves has been column fodder. His daughter turned into a book the moment she was born. Good Morning, Merry Sunshine: A Father's Journal of His Child's First Year kept Mr. Greene on the New York Times best-seller list for 17 weeks in 1984.

The writer's critics, however, say he is too prone to gimmicks and self-promotion. Enough already, they say, of his incessant pining for yesteryear, when the music was better or the sex symbols were sexier or the times were sweeter. Even his boosters say he's an incorrigible sentimentalist. "He's definitely stuck in high school," says his younger sister, Debby Fulford, a feature writer at a small newspapaper in Pasadena, California.

Yet she understands why some people enjoy reading of his nostalgic yearnings, even if they aren't obsessed with their own glory days. "He has a way of touching that moment that everyone is interested in," she says. "And he has a way with sentiment. Reading sentimental and talking sentimental are two different things. A lot of people have to be drunk to talk about the past. But they always like to read about it. Reading is a private thing."

Debby also kept a diary in 1964, though she has no urge to publish it. "It will remain in my drawer for my daughter to read. I think one Greene diary out in the world is enough."

Her brother has long cherished his 1964 diary. He once wrote that it would be the first item he'd rescue if his house were burning. He says he never expected anyone to read itthough his sister now reveals that she perused it frequently in 1964, and even showed it to her friends. "On dull days, when nothing much was going on, I'd read it," she says. "I never thought it was a bad thing to be doing. I had a very humanitarian outlook. It gave me more insight into him."

Greene's original diary is written mostly in disjointed fragments -- "quick observations, bits of dialogue, pithy descriptions," he says. To make the entries publishable, he had to totally rewrite them, a process he likens to "restoring a cracked and faded old photograph." Some names, mostly women's, were changed to protect reputations. (But in Bexley, of course, early readers have already figured out who's who.)

The finished work is sensitively written, often amusing, and surprisingly enthralling. There is a voyeuristic charge to eavesdropping on this boy's life in 1964. It's as if you've stolen his diary, just as his sister did 23 years ago.

The book is now very readable, but it is also suspect. Many observations are so astute that you have to wonder who is responsible for them, 17-year-old Bobby or 39-year-old Bob. Too many entries seem to benefit from 20/20 hindsight; the diary is full of Greene hearing new songs by the Beach Boys or the Dave Clark Five and predicting they'll be surefire hits. And what a coincidence that on December 28, 1964, Greene paid homage in his diary to Esquire magazine, his future employer, saying of the Dubious Achievement Awards, "It must be great to be that witty."

Greene insists such remarks were in his original diary and maintains that when he edited or rewrote parts of 1964, he retained "the voice of the boy." (Some of his friends, of course, say he still is that boy.)

He certainly captures the boy's self-doubt, self-absorption, and fumbling innocence. In 1964, the diary reports, he wrote a list of potential discussion topics before phoning a girl for a date. He prayed to God, unsuccessfully, to help him win a varsity letter in tennis. And he was so impressed by his own writing, an article he had written about a handicapped child made him cry. "I realized I was laying myself open," he says now. "But if the diary was to succeed, it had to be uncensored."

Greene was as driven in 1964 as he is today. He was desperate to make National Honor Society during his junior year, but he didn't. He counted up the pictures of himself in the school yearbook -- there were seven -- and wrote: "I wonder if Lindy's looking at them right now." And he was as taken with the idea of celebrityhood then as he seems to be these days. On November 30, 1964, he was in a drugstore looking at the cover of Time magazine. "Every time I see an issue," he wrote in his diary, "I think of what it must feel like to be the person on the cover. Think of that -- your picture staring off the rack in every drug store in America. I wonder what you do during the week you're on the cover of Time? If it was me, I'd be tempted to just walk around letting people recognize me all week."

Greene took more than a year to rethink and rewrite his diary. Most every night after work in 1985 and 1986, he would rewrite one day from 1964. "I treasure the book," he says. "No matter what was going on in my 1980s life, there was a time each day when I could step back into 1964. It was like going into a time machine. That was a gift to me. I treasure the boy I used to be."

Chuck Shenk, one of Greene's best friends in 1964, recalls how it was that they started palling around together.

In 1963, Greene and Shenk were acquaintances, classmates. They didn't hang around together. They had separate circles of friends. But then one night, Shenk's phone rang and it was Greene, asking if he could sleep over. Shenk was surprised, as were his parents. The two boys had never even spoken on the phone before. Why would Greene be so eager, so suddenly, to sleep at the Shenks?

"It turned out, he wanted to come over because Lindy was across the street from my house at a slumber party," Shenk now says. "So he slept over, and after that, we became friends."

Shenk remembers well Greene's obsession with Lindy. "Greene would say, 'Hey Shenk, I just heard "Lemon Tree" on the radio.' I found it all difficult to understand. It was strange. But it was a known thing that she was in his head."

Chuck, you'll remember, is the guy who wore two condoms the night he lost his virginity. Now he is president of his family's business, Consolidated Stores Corporation. It's a powerhouse company that buys merchandise at liquidation prices and sells it across the country at its Big Lots and Odd Lots stores. After the Rubik's cube phenomenon died, for example, Shenk's company bought six million of the puzzles for 8 cents each and sold almost all of them at 49 cents apiece. When Consolidated went public in 1985, the Shenk family became multimillionaires.

Perhaps that's why Chuck says he has mixed feelings about the book. "I don't need the publicity," he says. "I'm worried about what negatives might come out of it."

Still, he's eager to read it. "It's my life," he says. And like any good businessman, he wonders about the dollars involved in nostalgia. "How much do you think Greene will make on this book?" he asks, smiling broadly.

Shenk finds it amusing that so many pieces of the book are still with him in some way today. He and Jack Roth, another character in the book, grew up to marry twin sisters. And a running joke in the diary -- the fact that Greene and his friends were always reading Cliffs Notes instead of novels -- has returned in 1987. Shenk says his company is considering buying up a shipment of Cliffs Notes on cassette. It's the ultimate aid for lazy students. Shenk figures he ought to make some money off it -- proof that kids who read Moby Dick by Cliffs, not Melville, can still grow up to be rich.

Bexley, Ohio, today is little changed from Bexley of 1964. It is still a small, upper-middle-class town where families raise their children and their children raise hell, then simmer down and raise their own families. Many of the kids mentioned in Greene's diary are still here, though they're now 40-year-olds with thinning hair and children of their own at Bexley High School.

There are sort of three sides of town. The rich part, where Ohio's governor lives; the central part, where the Greenes lived; and the less affluent side, where the houses are still nice, but kids in town know pretty early that there's a difference. There are many Jewish families in town, which explains why earlier this year, at a Bexley High. School basketball game, fans of the opposing team threw bagels and pennies on the court. Many in Bexley were hurt and outraged. Usually, though, there aren't many controversies here.

Greene's younger brother Tim, 33, is driving around Bexley. Ten minutes is all it takes. He points out where Lindy Lemmon used to live -- the house is lemon-colored -- and then drives by the house that he and Bob grew up in. Their parents sold it a while back. The last time he was in his old house was a few years ago, he says, and a TV crew was with him. Predictably, his brother was writing a column and filming a segment as a correspondent for Nightline about returning to the home he grew up in. So Tim tagged along.

Tim was just ten years old in 1964, and rarely pops up in his brother's diary. His most memorable appearance occurs in the November 8 entry. Bob had come home drunk and sick, and Timmy, being a good kid brother, took it upon himself to clean the dried vomit off Bobby's shoes before their parents found out. Timmy, now in the real estate business, hasn't yet read the book, but says with a smile: "I'd rather be known for something other than cleaning puke off shoes."

Greene's mother, Phyllis, has read the book. Some of the antics surprised her, but they haven't changed her recollections. "My memories of Bobby are that he was a very good boy," she says. "He made us proud and happy in so many ways." She stresses that some of 1964's traumas led to triumphs in 1965: "He ended up making the National Honor Society his senior year," she says.

On March 10, her son turned 40, and Mrs. Greene made him a special family-style dinner. "It's 1964 revisited," she said. "I called it 'La Menu Nostalgic.' Lots of coleslaw. Bobby is a great coleslaw eater."

Bob's father, Robert Greene Sr., a former executive at a company that bronzes baby shoes, comes across as a disciplinarian in the book, always reprimanding his son for such offenses as eating cheeseburgers for breakfast. He doesn't mind how he is portrayed. "I wasn't such a bastard," he says. "I'm not embarrassed. I'll be embarrassed if the book doesn't sell."

Bob Greene Sr. doesn't think his son dwells too much on the past. "If he was a Walter Mitty type and never achieved what he wanted to achieve, then he might look back at high school as the greatest time of his life. But of all the people I've ever known, he's the one guy who is doing exactly what he wanted to do since he was a kid. He doesn't have to look back at high school."

Bob Greene has written columns about how hard it is for him to tell his parents how much he loves them. He says he expresses himself best with his writing, that he has trouble talking to people, even his loved ones. He's the sort who stammers out his affections, his eyes to the ground. Yet, in his own odd way, he is quite a doting son.

"Since I retired seven years ago, Bobby has called us every day -- sometimes four or five times a day," his father says. "He says, 'Hi. What's going on?' I say, 'Nothing, what's going on with you?' He says, 'Nothing.' We say, 'OK, bye.' I think he has spent $160,000 saying, 'Hi, what's going on?'"

Somewhere, Lindy Lemmon still has the record Bobby gave her, Johnny Tillotson's "You Can Never Stop Me Loving You." But she doesn't dwell on the past and says she is happier now than ever. She hasn't seen Greene much in the past 23 years. "When he's on a talk show or on Nightline, he seems so together, she says. "But with me, he's tongue-tied and nervous. It's like he's 17 again."

Allen Schulman, a friend of Greene's, thinks the writer is still obsessed with Lindy. Maybe it's the lost era that she represents, maybe it's more. "She's something to him," Schulman says, "and it's not just good copy."

Greene says his wife, also a Bexley classmate but mentioned only once in the diary, understands his fascination with Lindy. "My wife knows that Lindy Lemmon was a great influence on my life," he says, "and that I'm in love with 1964."

For many in Bexley, 1964 is a long-ago blur, so they are wrinkling their brows trying to remember the specifics. Some talk fondly and openly. Others take the Fifth. C.W. Jones, the former school principal, is in no mood to discuss pranks mentioned in the diary. "I can't confirm or deny," he says. "I have no comment."

Hollywood is interested in turning the diary into a movie, so naturally, Greene's old pals, now 39 and 40, wonder who will portray them. So far, most of those surveyed have a preference for Matt Dillon.

At Bexley High School, many students have read excerpts from the book. Recognizing parents and neighbors, they are surprised by their elders' hell-raising -- how they drank, made love, and disobeyed authority. "The book kind of worries me," says Sarah Arnett, a junior at Bexley. "It shows that our parents probably do understand us and know the things we're doing."

Everyone in town is anxious for the full diary to come out. They know that the book is designed to appeal to anyone who was ever 17 -- and that could make it a best-seller. But what is universal to others, of course, is very personal here. "In Bexley," says Greene's sister, "they'll read it with their hands over their eyes."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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