Soon after he was appointed program director of Maryville Academy on July 10, Dr. James Guidi had a meeting with Mary Laney. She remembers it as a casual lunch; he says it took place in a conference room and lasted 30 to 45 minutes. She remembers talking to him about the kids in Maryville's hospital; he remembers her prepping him on how to handle the press.
"She talked to me about various reporters and what they were all about. What to expect. Things like that," he says. "Basically telling me they're pretty sneaky. She tried to be like a Dutch uncle."
And that, Guidi says, was his relationship with Laney for the brief time it lasted: she the guide through the wilds of the media, he the naive wayfarer.
She denies it. "I certainly didn't tell him what to do, who to talk to and who not to talk to, what words to use, how to sit, how to talk, how to show confidence, how to relate to people, how to get your point across," she says. "No, I didn't do that with him. Nor would I. I wouldn't do that with anyone out there. The only ones I've talked to on that level were the kids. They need to stand up tall and understand they're individuals who have great merit."
Whichever version of Guidi and Laney's brief relationship is true, Laney found herself in a peculiar position. Not because she's been a friend and supporter of Maryville for two decades, attending mass there often and speaking to its students. Nor because she's in the business of teaching communications skills. But because in addition to being both these things, Laney--in earlier days a prominent reporter and commentator for TV channels Two and Five--has for the last two years been an occasional op-ed columnist for the Sun-Times. And in September 2002 the Sun-Times began giving Maryville grief.
On August 21 of that year Laney published a column singing Maryville's praises. She told the stories of a couple of former wards of the state who'd gone on from Maryville to great things. One, the son of a pimp and a prostitute, was working on his PhD; the other was a UCLA junior with his own production company. Sixteen days later Sun-Times investigative reporters Tim Novak and Chris Fusco launched a series on Maryville with a page-one story headlined, "Maryville Is Losing Control: After suicide attempts, sexual assaults and a riot, reports say academy is a 'dangerous' environment for kids."
Laney says she heard "innuendos" suggesting she'd had "inside information" about what Fusco and Novak were up to and wrote her column preemptively. Not true, she says. "I had no idea that was coming." Nevertheless she hasn't touched the subject since, though the past year has been a nightmare for her friend, the Reverend John Smyth, Maryville's executive director. The Sun-Times has stayed on the attack, the Tribune has joined in, and three weeks ago the Department of Children and Family Services announced that it would remove all 130 of its kids living at the main campus in Des Plaines, effectively closing it. (That plan was soon modified to turn the campus into an "academic enrichment center.")
"It's been killing me not to write about it," says Laney, "because I just think the lives I've seen change through the years and the dedication out there are so different from what I read."
But Laney's restraint hasn't put a stop to the innuendo.
"I don't do public relations," Laney says. "I train people in how to make speeches. I train people in how to communicate." But she's based in the offices of a PR firm, Serafin & Associates, and frequently works with its clients. Thirteen months ago Maryville Academy became a Serafin & Associates client.
Finding the academy back on its heels, CEO Thomas Serafin decided that Maryville should turn the tables. In July Serafin & Associates produced a draft of a proactive strategy it called Project Sunshine--a campaign to get the word out about all the good Maryville and Smyth were doing. It advised, "Utilize the vast community of Maryville supporters, including alumni, who have been a fabric of Chicago's business, political and civic base for decades to help tell the Maryville story."
The message that needed to be spread was "Maryville Saves Children's Lives." The academy's leaders were shown what to say. For Father Smyth: "Sure, challenges have occurred throughout our 120-year history, and they will continue. Maryville has historically taken all children and we will continue to do so. We turn no one away." For Guidi: "My responsibility is to lead the programs, clinical approaches and vision at all of Maryville's sites. We will continue strengthening these programs and protocols with emphasis on psychological and clinical support along with the family model."
The idea of having words put in their mouths didn't sit well with Maryville's powers that be. But the piece of Project Sunshine that brought Serafin grief when the press found out about it was a brief passage in the "Tactics" section: "Utilize third party organization to question unnamed insiders and sources and their motives in questioning Maryville's leadership....Conduct opposition research."
Serafin insists that "there's nothing in there about smearing the opposition. We talk about telling the truth." But opposition research is generally understood to mean getting the dirt on the enemy. Project Sunshine triggered a storm. The Sun-Times and Tribune both called it a "smear campaign." "After I read it I felt like taking a bath," said public guardian Patrick Murphy in an AP story. Father Smyth said in the Tribune, "I refused it, and I don't want to discuss it. I outright rejected the whole thing. Period."
Cardinal George said in the Sun-Times, "The important thing is to fix Maryville, not to attack the critics."
In far-off Ottawa a blog devoted to "the life and rantings of a humble public relations guy in the frozen wastes of Canada's capital city" rose to Serafin's defense. "I can understand all the hoohah," wrote Bob the blogger, "but you know what? They're playin' in the big leagues. That's why they brought Serafin in, and he's playing like the savvy, politically-experienced guy they probably wanted....Set Serafin loose, I say. Let him fight it out with their opponents, and the winner take all."
But Serafin wasn't set loose, and it's not certain that his contract with Maryville will survive the next board meeting.
Guidi thinks Laney wrote Project Sunshine. "That's her style," he says. "It smacks of her." Laney and Serafin both deny this.
If any piece of the working paper can be said to correlate with what's happened since it surfaced, it would be the advice to "utilize third party organization." A third-party champion has emerged--Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed. She's far more influential than Laney, and last month Maryville became a fixture in her column.
September 14: "A Father John Smyth update: The Notre Dame class of 1956 will be honoring Maryville Academy's patron 'saint' at a dinner at Maryville Academy Oct. 30."
September 21: "Update: Due to the slings and arrows aimed at it by Gov. Blago and Maryville's critics, Harry [Caray]'s eatery will begin circulating petitions Monday urging customers to support Maryville to keep it open."
September 23: "Sneed is told Cardinal Francis George privately told Gov. Blagojevich he wants to bump Maryville Academy's Father John P. Smyth.
"Hmmm. Wouldn't that enable George to close the campus and sell the property for big bucks?
"Hmmm. Could that cash be used to pay off the sexual abuse victim settlement? (A classic case of sending abused kids away from Maryville in order to pay off victims abused by priests?)
"Sneedless to say, let's hope this scenario isn't true...or this Catholic will go after the cardinal with my own crozier.
"It's called the pen."
The same innuendoists who observe that Laney and Serafin are linked by business also point out that Laney and Sneed are linked by a long friendship. They note that George Ryan, the former governor who fared better in Sneed's column than he did anywhere else in the Chicago press, paid Laney six figures as a consultant.
These correlations don't prove anything and don't even go far as evidence. Sneed and Laney both know and admire Father Smyth and discuss him with each other. "But she sure didn't engineer anything," Sneed says. "I don't need Mary Laney walking me through anything."
Did Laney walk someone else?
She walked me, says Guidi. Laney was his "main individual contact" at Serafin & Associates, he says, and before Thomas Serafin took a group of Maryville leaders to see the Sun-Times editorial board on July 21, "she was there [at Serafin & Associates] to help prepare us for the meeting."
After that meeting Tim Novak, who'd sat in, called Ron Davidson, the director of the mental health policy program at the University of Illinois at Chicago's department of psychiatry. Davidson spends most of his time consulting with DCFS, he thinks of Guidi as a protege, and he despises Father Smyth.
Davidson says Guidi told him that Laney had prepped him. "I told Novak to have Steve Huntley [the editorial page editor] call me," Davidson says. "A few days later he did. He said, 'I understand you think we have a Jayson Blair problem.'" Not Jayson Blair, said Davidson, but a problem.
Huntley talked to Guidi and to Laney. "She denied it," says Guidi. "She said I was a liar. Why would I lie about that?"
Huntley told me by e-mail that he also talked to Serafin and to someone at Maryville he can't name without breaking a confidence. "I couldn't substantiate the allegation that Mary was doing something improper," he wrote. "I've known her for years and always found her to be a truthful, ethical, and trustworthy person."
He went on to say that the position Laney allegedly was in wasn't unique. "When Dennis Byrne was writing for us as a freelancer, he was doing p.r. consulting with the anti-O'Hare crowd in the northwest suburbs and, if my memory serves me, even brought them by on one occasion for an editorial board meeting."
So Laney apparently survived at the Sun-Times, though she hasn't been in the paper for a month. Guidi says she promptly disappeared from the Maryville account and he suddenly found himself dealing with someone else at Serafin & Associates.
Laney insists she didn't "media-train" Guidi and didn't prep anybody for the editorial board meeting. Serafin backs her up. Maryville board chairman George Rourke remembers only that Laney talked to Guidi, himself, and other members of the Maryville delegation who straggled into Serafin's offices early about "who some of the participants would be."
Should a media consultant be writing an op-ed column at all? Editor in chief Michael Cooke mentions Jesse Jackson and Juan Andrade as other Sun-Times contributors with manifest interests beyond their columns. (Andrade is president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute.) But they're different, especially Jackson, whose public role gives his columns whatever appeal they have. Laney's other interests are her clients.
"I believe that she's the only person working for a PR company who writes for us," Cooke allows. "But it's an honorable profession. At least it's not an illegal profession. Providing she doesn't violate the trust, she's welcome."
By writing the best column she knows how, Laney keeps faith with the Sun-Times. By giving the best advice she has, she keeps faith with her clients. If her advice helps a client deal with Sun-Times investigative reporters--well, faith has merely been kept all around.
It's up to the Sun-Times to say something if it disagrees. Tim Novak and Chris Fusco had no comment.
Ted Shen, 1950-2003
Accounts vary as to the scope of Ted Shen's ambitions. His friend Gale Kappe says, "More than anything, he wanted to be a millionaire." His roommate Fred Swanson clarifies that. "He thought the only way to become comfortable in retirement was to have at least a million dollars. I think his greatest ambition was to have a comfortable old age."
In the light of that ambition, Shen's chosen work--covering the arts for the Reader and other local publications--can be questioned. But Shen was also an investor whom other investors came to for advice. He knew the names of fund managers and actually advised one friend to buy a railroad stock that soon went gangbusters. Swanson doesn't think Shen had a lot of money, but isn't sure. In some ways his roommate remained a mystery.
Shen's friend Judy Saslow, a gallery owner, says he "was very anxious to make a movie. He had even--I don't want to get his memory into trouble with the Reader--but he had broached the subject with me regarding a possible move to California to pursue that career." Saslow was surprised when the move Shen and Swanson made a couple of weeks ago was simply to another north-side apartment.
The effort seemed to exhaust him. "He mentioned something to me about he thought he was having a heart attack," says Saslow. "Ted was never given to exaggerating his physical complaints to me, but it sounded so far-fetched. I knew he was young, active, and working hard. I was totally skeptical. But then the other day, when we touched base again, he said that he still wasn't feeling well. He had called his doctor, but because of the Jewish holiday the doctor wasn't available except in case of emergency. I said, 'Ted, this is an emergency,' but evidently he didn't follow through."
Last Thursday, October 9, Swanson was unable to raise his roommate by phone back at their apartment. A projectionist at Facets, Swanson finished the first screening of God Has a Rap Sheet and raced home. He found Shen's shoes by the door and Shen slumped over dead in front of his computer.
Shen was a boy when he came to the U.S. with his family from China, and citizenship papers Swanson happened on while going through Shen's effects revealed that he was born in January 1950. That made him about three years older than his friends had thought, and was in keeping with Shen's way of being vague about himself.
He began contributing to the Reader in 1979, and most of his work for the paper, as well as for the Tribune and Chicago magazine, was criticism. Recondite subjects attracted him--Asian films, chamber musicians, new music. He saw himself as both advocate and critic. Ben Kim, a founder of the annual Chicago Asian American Showcase, a film and arts festival, recalls how Shen dealt with Jade Monkey King, a 1995 musical by Keith Uchima brimming with local Asian-American talent. "Profiling Uchima and the production in the Reader on Friday, Ted was encouraging," Kim remembered in an e-mail to a friend. "Reviewing the show in the Tribune on Sunday, he was unforgiving."
Shen wrote long articles too, but he began more for us than he finished. Perhaps the process--the interviewing that justifies schmoozing--mattered more to him than the results.
Shen's friend Andrew Patner, a comparable journalist/boulevardier/aesthete-about-town, recalled their first meeting, when Shen "sort of bounded" into the Maroon offices at the University of Chicago in 1978 and asked to review film and classical music. Shen had already graduated from the U. of C. by then, but still ahead were master's degrees in social sciences and public policy. He was then exactly as he'd always be, Patner said in e-mail. "Ted's 'uniform,' for example, never changed--a black or gray jacket worn over a sweater or button-down blue Oxford shirt or a pullover sweater over the shirt, blue Levi's jeans. A shoulder bag, brimming with books and newspapers and, in later years, CDs and videotapes. The occasional Greek fisherman's cap in cooler months. And always the yellow scarf thrown around his neck in the manner of an 'artiste.'"
"He was strongly political in a cultural sense," Patner went on. "He absolutely boiled at the way that women and minority composers, performers, artists, and filmmakers were marginalized or simply ignored by the cultural establishment and the press and media."
Patner also observed that Shen was constantly surrounded by women. "Women found him fascinating."
Women, it is said, are suckers for genuine kindness and sensitivity. New Year's was a tough time for Saslow. Her three children and their families typically spent the holiday out of the country with their father, leaving her alone and depressed in a big Streeterville apartment.
Shen noticed this, and about five years ago they decided that on New Year's Day they'd throw a party and invite 100 people. There's been such a party every New Year's Day since, and New Year's Eve has been fine for Saslow because she's spent it getting ready. "He would refer to it as his party, except it was at my house," she says. "But to be fair, most of our invited guests were invited by him. He introduced me to very wonderful people in the world of film and theater and music."
Saslow met Shen through a mutual friend, Nancy Tom, founder of the Center for Asian Arts at Columbia College, with which Shen was involved. Saslow is a regular at the Lyric, the Chicago Symphony, the Goodman, and Steppenwolf, and Shen escorted her. "Not that he needed my tickets, but it was wonderful to go with him," she says. "He knew so very much about all those fields of expression. It enriched my enjoyment megafold."
He came to her home; she was never at his. "He didn't live like a man of high means," she says, "but he didn't ever complain about it, other than to refer to a lot of our mutual friends as very rich." She felt there were things she couldn't find out about him unless she pried. "Somebody said that when you drive with somebody, it becomes confessional," she reflects. "But no. Even though he'd pick me up and we'd drive to cultural events, it was not used as a time to really expose himself."
Shen knew an incredible number of creative people. A good way to deal with artistic isolation was to hang out with him, and in 1989 he helped organize a group of aspiring screenwriters. One script that emerged from this alliance got made. Tangled was a mid-90s fiasco that no one held against Shen, even though he produced it and the investors he rounded up, including Saslow, all lost their money. Susan Crawford, a freelance writer who specializes in horticulture, and Terry Wilson, then a Tribune courts reporter, had produced a script inspired by a news story of Wilson's about a waitress who sets out to recover the child her ex-con ex-husband kidnapped. By Crawford's account, the director Shen hired promptly rewrote the script and turned it into a biker flick. Kappe, another investor who lost every penny she put up, believes a climactic scene was transposed to New Orleans because the director was from there and wanted to show the folks back home she'd made it. Kappe's husband drove the cast to New Orleans just as that city was undergoing a terrible storm. "The actors got out of the car into thigh-high water," Kappe says. Some of Shen's friends believe Tangled might have played in a few theaters somewhere in Asia. Others say eastern Europe.
"Hope springs eternal," says Crawford. "I've written about six or seven screenplays, and I'm still trying to peddle them, though it won't be the same without Ted. He didn't have any illusions about what it took to get things done in the great world, but he had this sort of wonderful innocence and openness about the fact wonderful things can happen, and people really took to that. If you were working on something with him, he was always hopeful that the tide would turn. Every time he found somebody who was looking for something, he'd pass my screenplays along to them. He was wonderful that way. He'd call and say, 'Do you have an extra copy of something or other? Somebody wants to read it.'"
Nothing came of these readings. Shen's Hollywood contacts provided him with amazing gossip, Crawford says, but none of them could get a project off the ground. It didn't matter. "I believed in him," she says. "I thought, one of these days Ted's going to hit the right combination and make things happen."
Radio personality Mark Ruffin was another member of the group. His guess is that 14 years of screenwriting didn't gain Shen a penny. But, he says, "We had great parties, man."
A screenplay Ruffin wrote is now a finalist in a Sundance Institute competition. "It's the closest thing I've had to any kind of success as a writer--the closest by a long shot," he says. "And it would never have happened without Ted. He was quite the muse for a lot of us."
Clarification: Ted Shen was born in Taipei and came here from Taiwan. Both his 1971 certificate of naturalization and his 1994 American passport identify his country of origin as China, but these documents reflect this country's one-China policy. When Shen was growing up, that China was the Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan. In 1971 the United Nations delegation ousted the Chinese delegation from Taipei in favor of one from Beijing, and in 1979 the United States formally recognized the People's Republic of China.