Street Crossing Man
At a very difficult and painful time in Chicago's recent journalistic history, Ray Coffey acted correctly. In February of 1978, as the Daily News was shutting down, Jim Hoge, who edited both the Daily News and the Sun-Times, offered Coffey the Washington bureau of the surviving paper.
Coffey was then Washington bureau chief of the Daily News. Dozens of people at both papers were losing their jobs, and if Coffey moved to the Sun-Times there'd be one more casualty: Loye Miller, that paper's incumbent chief in Washington.
Seeing what was coming, Miller had asked Hoge to guarantee his position. "He felt he had that commitment," Coffey remembers, but Miller was mistaken: he was no safer than Keyes Beech, the veteran Daily News foreign correspondent whose retirement, Coffey reminded us, "was unilaterally announced."
"I had a serious disagreement with Hoge and the people who put together that Sun-Times/Daily News package," Coffey told us. "I didn't feel it was done with much finesse and sensitivity." He turned down the Washington bureau. "I've never been one, frankly, for taking someone else's job."
Instead Coffey found work at the Washington bureau of the Tribune, soon became bureau chief, and a year and a half ago was brought back to Chicago to join the editorial board. The frequent jeering tone of his Sunday column troubled us--Coffey had reported from overseas with such wit and majesty. We wondered if he chose to write like that because Tribune writers don't.
Anyway, last week he quit the Tribune. This week he finally joined the Sun-Times, as managing editor.
"I was pretty close to perishing of boredom," he told us. "I was never treated any way but handsomely at the Tribune. I could sit there on Monday and go home at night and face going back there and writing another editorial on Tuesday. But I couldn't sit there on Tuesday and face doing that for another seven or eight years. I frankly was looking to have a little fun. I wanted to expend some energy."
Monday of last week, Coffey sat in La Tour, waiting for Ken Towers, the Sun-Times's executive editor, to arrive for breakfast. In came Jim Squires, the Tribune editor, who was meeting Eddie Vrdolyak. Squires said hello and asked why he was there and Coffey said, "Well, it's a little awkward, but I'm here to change careers."
Coffey said, "He and I had a talk that was very civil and cordial and it was just five minutes before Vrdolyak showed up and another five minutes before Ken showed up, and we had breakfast, and then I went in and talked to Squires, Dick Ciccone, Lois Wille, and Jack Fuller and I left."
Just like that?
"At my level you don't give two weeks' notice," Coffey said. "They don't want me to know what they have in Sunday's paper."
Coffey has known Sun-Times president Robert Page for 32 years. At one point, Coffey ran UPI's Detroit bureau and Page was a reporter there. "Maybe it's the UPI heritage," Coffey said of his new boss, "but it seems to me he's a hard-news man."
These are difficult times inside the Sun-Times. Morale, we are told and told again, is as low as it's been. Money is tight and layoffs have occurred, while Tribune talent like Mike Sneed and Steve Neil comes over to be gratified by lavish salaries and fancy offices. The atmosphere, we are told, is poisoned.
Ray Coffey will not contribute to that. Travel editor Jack Schnedler, a survivor of the Daily News, describes Coffey as "a very matter-of-fact, no-nonsense person . . . just a consummate pro. He's a terrific thing for the Sun-Times." He recalled a passage in the piece Coffey had contributed to the centennial edition of the Daily News: "And as time goes by, I find that I am somehow more and more fond of the places I haven't been."
Coffey told us, "I used to say the only place I ever really wanted to go to was China. Well, I've been to China, and I'll gladly take a seat in Wrigley Field for the rest of my life if it's all right with everyone.
"I feel very strongly about local news," Coffey continued. "Which it seems to me the Sun-Times is admirably aggressive about."
The resignation of Ray Coffey isn't the only change in the Tribune's editorial board. Days before, Lois Wille (another Daily News alum) had been moved up a notch to editor of the Tribune's editorial page, succeeding Jack Fuller. The Sun-Times amused itself by reproducing in its Sunday paper the house memo Jim Squires had posted to announce the reshuffling; the Sun-Times commented: "Wille, incidentally, is expected to bring to the editorial pages a kneejerk brand of liberalism that will have the late Col. Robert R. McCormick setting records for grave-spinning."
Squires reacted to this sally with disgust. "That's ridiculous," he told us. "That shows you how much they know about how a real paper operates." Editorial policy, he said, reflects the consensus of the board, and, if push comes to shove, is ultimately his responsibility as the representative of "the views of the owners and the traditions of the institution." Squires went on, "The influence Lois brought, which is a really strong commitment to local news, has already been reflected."
As for Fuller, he's now executive editor. He will learn and then assume the present duties of managing editor Dick Ciccone.
"For the sake of Kremlinology," said Squires's memo, "this is nothing more than an effort to let Mr. Fuller do Mr. Ciccone's job for a while, while Mr. Ciccone does some other jobs he needs to learn for his own management development." Kremlinologizing reporters we talked to interpret the changes to mean that Fuller is now being groomed to succeed Squires in a few years, and Ciccone has lost out.
"That's not true at all," said Squires with fresh disgust. "It's a typical reporter reaction." He said he's giving both Fuller and Ciccone broader experience at the Tribune because both have futures there. "Dick Ciccone has had a hell of a fast track since I came over here," Squires let us know. "It'll take Jack Fuller a hell of a long time to get his arms around what Dick Ciccone is doing. Dick Ciccone has got the hardest job in the place."
"There is no loser," Squires insisted. "Well, maybe Ray Coffey is the loser. Personally, I could never tell what Ray Coffey wanted. I liked him a lot, but I could never figure out what his career goals were."
Irving Layton is a great Canadian poet you've probably never heard of. We're not sure whom to blame for that, possibly Layton himself, for not hying himself south along the trail blazed by Monte Hall, Lorne Greene, and John Kenneth Galbraith.
We called Layton at his home in Montreal the other day and asked him why he hasn't come.
"There have been small temptations," Layton allowed. "I've been constantly at war with my own society and I think that's what poets are for. For me, for instance, the influence of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants has been overwhelming and injurious. And when I started writing, Canada was a cultural wasteland. I had to crawl my way up to a position of visibility. At such times I'd think maybe the United States would be an easier place to be published.
"But these were minor irritations. Fortunately, I've always been able to make a living by teaching."
It's too bad. The Britannica cites Layton's "hatred of the bourgeoisie and all other enemies of spontaneity." A Canadian biography notes: "Often at the centre of bitter feuds, he has frequently added prefaces to his many books of poetry, attacking English professors, critics and reviewers, and even his fellow poets, for effete elitism . . ." We've missed out on a giant among brawling curmudgeons.
Layton's old friend Joyce Friedman talked him into coming to Chicago this week. For the past couple of months she's been scrambling around trying to arrange a schedule worthy of such a bard--the peer, in Canada, of Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood. The Poetry Center was booked; the University of Chicago did not call back; the bookstores would not put up a dime.
As it stands, Layton will read next Tuesday at Northeastern Illinois University and Wednesday at Joliet Junior College--for fees in the immodestly low three figures--and Wednesday evening at Guild Books. Because Guild isn't paying Layton a red cent, Friedman's tried to raise a respectable sum on her own.
"I made everybody I know pay me ten bucks for 'reservations,'" Friedman said. "I got about $150."
That's just 15 people, we observed.
"Well," she shrugged, "everybody knows they can go for nothing."
Layton acknowledged Joyce Friedman's desperate toil. You see, we admitted to him that, even in the USA, poets rank no higher than church mice.
"No, I investigated," Layton confessed. "And they don't make a living there either."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.