News & Politics » Michael Miner on Media

The most important story of my life

And the column that was never written



When I told a friend at work that John Kass's legman had called, she said indignantly, "It's not John Kass's story to tell!" I shook my head. It was. It should have been. That's what I'm writing to try to explain. Richard Coco deserved the straightforward, touching account Kass would have written about my daughter's wedding.

A week or more went by after Joanna got married last month in a Michigan vineyard before I finally got back to Chicago and checked my voice mail. One of the calls, made three days before the wedding, was from Angie Leventis Lourgos, Kass's legman. She'd heard about the coming wedding and wanted to pitch it to her boss. It sounded to her like a pretty good story.

A news story? It was like the last-reel revelation that makes us reinterpret the whole movie. Well, of course it was. It was poignant and dramatic and it had an ending that would bring you to tears—I'd seen the tears. And there was a hero who deserved all the attention Kass would give him.

It wasn't that I'd misjudged the story. I hadn't thought along those lines at all! I was the father of the bride, for God's sake. And halfway-normal people simply don't look at their own lives the way disinterested journalists look at them—as discrete units of narrative. John Kass, had he taken this assignment, would have told the tale of Joanna and Richard Coco with all of the considerable craft at his command. Sure, he'd then have forgotten it. But his column, his work product, would exist, and it would have meant the world to Coco and Joanna.

It would have meant the world to me.

One reason my friend at work bristled on my behalf was that she knows how I generally write about Kass. Grumpily is as good a word as any. Every so often Kass writes a column that makes me roll my eyes. And when he does, off I go! I'm always looking for product too.

For instance, there was the column that's on my desk as I write this. On September 16 Kass reacted to the week of Doonesbury strips that the Tribune didn't run, the ones repeating nasty bits of Joe McGinniss's new book on Sarah Palin, The Rogue.

Kass wasn't amused by the cartoons. Where, he wondered, was Trudeau's strip on the Clinton blow job? Where was the strip on Obama and how "his personal real estate fairy, the convicted Chicago political fixer Tony Rezko, helped him buy his dream house"?

Kass thought he had Trudeau dead to rights. "It astounds me that he didn't think Obama-Rezko was worthy of a comic strip," Kass went on. "A president bowing and scraping to the Chicago machine, pushing those federal pinky-ring road and bridge contracts . . . "

Joanna's wedding was a pretty big affair, and a lot of the people there were the type that Kass, in the same column, disparaged as "hopium addicts," which is to say folks who voted for Obama three years ago not as the lesser of two evils—Kass would forgive them that—but enthusiastically. Kass disparaged the type a second time as "easily manipulated guilty white liberals," and many guests were guilty east-coast liberals to boot.

I'm afraid their minds run on a different track. If Kass had shown up and let them know that what's wrong with their president is that he's the obedient servant of the machine bosses in Chicago, they'd have thought him mad. And if he'd riposted, "But what about Tony Rezko!" they'd have marveled that anyone on earth still gives a damn about Tony Rezko.

Yet none of this would have mattered. "I can't wait to read your story!" he'd have been told by the overwrought liberals pounding his back and wringing his hand as he tried to escape back to Chicago. For in the magic of the evening he'd have been honored as the ultimate magician, the one who could transmute the inexpressible emotions charging the air into enduring words on paper.

It was a magical day for Richard Coco. On their way to the wedding, he and his wife Alana drove through Berrien County countryside so rich with life that Alana stopped the car, and he took pictures of her against the stalks of ripe sweet corn that towered over her head. Coco's emotions were close to a boil as we all sat down to dinner and I began my prepared remarks.

During the long, windy toast I offered as the father of the bride, I mentioned that Joanna had had some tough times in her life, and in fact when she was very young we almost lost her. Later I returned to the microphone and said what I'd meant by that. On May 26, 1982, when Joanna was ten months old, there was a fire in our house; a neighbor called me at work, and I got home just as a fireman was bringing her out a second-story window. Is she dead? I said. She's alive, he told me.

If her life had ended then, I told the guests, so would ours. But here we are tonight. For this we have one man to thank, the fireman, Richard Coco. Coco rose, and came forward, and we embraced, and there was a burst of violent applause, and I could see later from the photographs how many of the people at their tables were stunned and crying.

Coco had been a fireman for five years in 1982. Now he's retired. Someone at the wedding asked him how many people he'd brought out. No one else who survived, he said.

Our house was black with smoke but he felt carefully along the walls and found Joanna in her crib. The other day he told me a story about a similar fire. "It was on Belmont and Seminary, roughly the 3200 block of Seminary, we had a four-and-a-half-story apartment building and it was rolling. There was thick black smoke like at your place, and I'll tell you what happened. Me and my partner put the ladder up and we busted the window out and we went in. It was blacker than hell. They'd said a lady in her upper age was in there, and we took a beating and searched that apartment and I'd stepped right over her at the front window. And we lost her. Not intentionally, but I did step over her. To this day I'd say, 'I fucked up.' I always have it in the back of my mind that when I first crawled in there I could have done CPR and maybe she did have breath in her and she could have lived several more years. She was in her 70s."

"Better her than Joanna," I said to Coco.

Without dignifying that outburst with a response, he tried to make me understand how much Joanna's wedding meant to him. "I was so happy," he said, "I got tears in my eyes right now."

He told me a buddy of his had tipped the Tribune to the wedding and then Leventis called and asked a few questions. "I told her the account and I was hoping she'd show up," says Coco. But because I didn't get back to her she didn't, Kass didn't, no one did.

It turned out that Kass wouldn't have come regardless. There was a second voice mail from Leventis, and in this one she allowed that she didn't realize I wrote for the Reader but now she knew and Kass didn't think it was an appropriate story for him to do. But she believed in the story and she wanted to give it to the city desk.

By the time we connected the wedding was long past and the story was dead.

A few weeks after the fire in 1982 I wrote a story for the Reader about what it was like to find myself the object of the media's attention. "Other than hovering at my daughter's bed, I had no function," I wrote, "and questions gave me a function. I could answer them."

Rereading this story, I see how much more vividly I described what happened than I can today. "As I ran up to my house a fireman appeared on the roof of the front porch," I wrote then. "Immense in his black slicker, especially measured against what he carried, he was bringing down the ladder my ten-month-old daughter, Joanna, her eyes rolled up and her body covered with soot. 'She's alive,' he said, and the door of a red fire ambulance slammed shut behind her. 'What about the woman who was in there?' I asked the nearest policeman. 'She's dead,' he said. 'How?' I said. 'We think she's been murdered.'"

They found the body of our babysitter, Nina Gray, in the bathtub, and that explains the two days of heavy coverage. But the murder was nothing our wedding guests needed to hear about; nor did I tell them that no one was ever convicted of the crime and it haunts us still. Sharing these details even here feels almost like grandstanding.

The kind of story I wanted to write I did write. Before coming back to Chicago I wrote up the wedding for the local weekly in Michigan, the New Buffalo Times. I offered my nominee for the "important role of most uninhibited wedding guest," a bridesmaid's husband who "set the bar for heedless gaiety" by promptly stripping to his skivvy shirt on the dance floor. I fretted over the drinking game, very late in the evening, that found the bride and groom "being lowered upside down onto a keg of beer." I briefly mentioned Coco's role in my daughter's life so I could report he "stayed late and danced up a storm."

Happy news of a happy night. That isn't what Angie Leventis had in mind and it isn't what Coco deserved. So I've tried again. But I wish we could all just paste John Kass's story in a scrapbook.

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