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Weak Coffey/Sneaking Into Print

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By Michael Miner

When Raymond Coffey was burnishing his reputation in Vietnam, he wasn't expected to conclude his war stories by noting, "Ho Chi Minh could not be reached for comment."

The quest for balance has practical limits. But ideological warfare is easier to cover in Uptown than it was in Saigon, and Alderman Helen Shiller does have a listed number. Shiller says of Coffey, "I've been in Chicago 27 years. I do not recall anytime having met him or anytime having talked to him on the phone."

Their lack of human contact is only worth mentioning because of Shiller's well-founded impression that Coffey "has a hard-on for me." There's a divide in Uptown between the champions of renewal and gentrification and the guardians of the woebegotten who long have clustered there. Coffey and Shiller line up on opposite sides, and since Shiller keeps getting reelected and Coffey keeps getting column material, it's a fight nobody's losing--except Sun-Times readers who enjoy information.

Last week Coffey struck gold mining the discontent in Schiller's ward. He began his August 12 column: "State law prohibits convicted felony sex offenders from loitering within 500 feet of a school or school property. But that law is consistently ignored and unenforced in the case of two schools in the Uptown neighborhood of Ald. Helen Shiller's 46th Ward, which is home to an uncommonly high proportion of paroled sex offenders..."

Shiller's not a cop, a parole officer, or a school official. And since it's the Salvation Army, Uptown Baptist Church, and Harper House that run the centers and shelters where those miscreants allegedly congregate--not the alderman--it's hard to see what she has to do with Coffey's story. Apparently nothing--Coffey never mentioned her again. Another reporter might at least have asked Shiller to comment on the problem in her ward. But that would have required a conversation.

Two days earlier Coffey lined up Shiller in his sights. He wrote that while she "fiddles," chancellor Wayne Watson of Chicago City Colleges has stepped in "to clean up a messy situation at Truman College in Uptown."

Coffey went on, "For a start, Watson has ordered Truman president Phoebe Helm to evict two organizations affiliated with Shiller's political machine that have been occupying space at the college with no lease and no board approval."

He named the two organizations: the Uptown Community Learning Center and Uptown People's Community Center. Though a Truman spokesman told Coffey a "lease" had expired just weeks earlier, Coffey was shrewd enough not to believe a word of it. "I knew better," he wrote. "And Watson confirmed last Friday that in fact there had never been a lease covering the apparently free-rent tenancy."

Watson admires Coffey. He says Coffey's been "right on target" writing about Truman, and he praises him for figuring out "what everybody's missing," which is that "just as we have raised our academic standards, we have raised our capital standards and safety standards and security standards."

Even so, Watson had to concede that Coffey got this story wrong. There was a lease--Watson himself recommended it to the board of trustees in June of 1998, and it ran to May 31 of 1999. And there was rent--$300 a month. "Mr. Coffey's question more than likely was, 'Is there a lease now?' And I said no," Watson told me. "Without a doubt there are some people trying to split a hair and get some craziness going."

For sure, there's craziness in Uptown. But when you insist there was no lease when there was, and no rent when there was, you're more than a split hair away from factuality. "I was there when the chancellor spoke to him," a City Colleges spokesman told me. "But you know, he's a columnist. It's not a news story. It's an opinion."

Twenty years ago, when she was only a neighborhood firebrand, Shiller helped establish the Uptown Community Learning Center. Over the years it's run various programs in local schools, and at the moment it's focusing on health education. "I have nothing to do with Truman renting to the Learning Center," says Shiller. "I was surprised when they went there and surprised when Truman said yes. But it's none of my business."

Executive director Laurie Odell told me the Learning Center's old headquarters was in a building at Montrose and Clifton that was sold, torn down, and replaced by luxury housing. "We've moved a lot in 20 years to stay ahead of the real estate deals going down," said Odell. "It's hard to find space around here that's not too expensive. So I approached Helm. And she said Truman was not in the business of being a landlord, but as a temporary thing to assist an important community group, if it was approved by the board it was fine by her."

The center asked for a couple more months to relocate when the lease expired, but last week it moved to a second-floor space on Broadway. Odell would have told Coffey all this if he'd asked. "Our voice mail has been functioning, and there was absolutely no call from Ray Coffey."

What about the Uptown People's Community Center, the other neighborhood group operating out of Truman? Shiller and Odell say the same thing: they've never heard of it. Presumably Coffey was referring to the old Uptown People's Community Service Center, which they say does not exist either. It lingers on in the telephone book, but according to Odell it was absorbed by the Learning Center back in the 1980s. The Learning Center was the only tenant on the lease approved by the board of trustees of City Colleges.

Coffey was wrong about the lease, wrong about the rent, and not exactly right about who was taking up space at Truman. He was also mistaken about a fence that's going up--"to keep druggies and dealers and assorted other nighttime ne'er-do-wells out of a walkway between two Truman-owned buildings."

Coffey reported that "Helm and Shiller resisted putting up a fence," but Watson stepped in and ordered one installed "by the end of August." But Watson confirmed what Shiller and Helm had both told me: the new fence will surround only a small raised courtyard along Wilson Avenue, a place where drug users congregate at night. It won't close off the far more significant walkway, which before the college was built was a block of Racine Avenue and which Shiller says is still legally a public way. Shiller and Helm insist that they've never objected to fencing off the courtyard, and Watson told me he isn't saying they did.

There's a reason why all journalists--even the columnists who champion one side of a story--are smart to talk to both sides. It isn't so they can satisfy some platonic concept of fairness. It's so a partisan writer like Coffey can test his understanding of the facts against someone like Shiller who'd be only too happy to tell him where he's wrong. It's so he won't wind up wrong in print.

I called Coffey and asked him why he didn't call Shiller. "What does she have to do with Truman College?" he replied. "Why would I talk to her?"

Sneaking Into Print

Tom Batiuk is a Chuck Yeager among comics-page cartoonists, always pushing the limits of his craft. Last January he inflicted Lisa Moore with breast cancer. This launched a Funky Winkerbean story line that lasted six months, earned him various awards and testimonials, and prompted the Sun-Times to drop the strip. "We prefer cartoonists who stick to the task of trying to be funny," explained editor Nigel Wade. "Funky's story lines meandered all over the place and, in the end, he lost his way."

Batiuk had already spun off Crankshaft, a strip the Sun-Times still carries. He'd jumped Funky Winkerbean ahead four years so he could write about young adults instead of teenagers. He'd conflated unreality by setting Lisa's husband Les to work solving the murder of John Darling, a fatuous TV personality from a bygone strip he'd launched and discontinued.

Because the Tribune decided not to pick up Funky Winkerbean after Wade dropped it, Chicago's been unable to fully appreciate Batiuk's latest coup. He pitted the Rough Riders, a squad of young rowdies coached by the irascible Crankshaft, against the defending champs from Montoni's pizzeria in the big baseball game.

Montoni's, of course, is Funky's joint. Batiuk converged his two strips this month so both chronicled the same game. Leading lights from each strip showed up in the other. "Hey, I just thought of something," Batiuk told me. "I had some Funky Winkerbean characters back in the Sun-Times. I had Lisa back in the Sun-Times."

Maybe there's a precedent for this kind of whimsy, but Batiuk couldn't think of any. It seemed to him that Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey was originally the brother of Lois of Walker's Hi and Lois, but if so the connection was never really exploited. King Features handles Funky Winkerbean, while Universal Press Syndicate distibutes Crankshaft, and I wondered if they approved. "They're probably not ecstatic about it," Batiuk allowed, "but I have editorial control of both strips so they really can't say a lot about it. It's harmless stuff."

He thought twice. "The other person who probably wouldn't like it is Nigel Wade."

Why? I asked.

"I have no idea," said Batiuk.

Unless you read both strips you weren't going to notice what he was up to. Funky Winkerbean appears in about 400 newspapers and Crankshaft in 375, Batiuk told me, but when he was sending out Christmas cards to comics-page editors and weeding out duplicates he discovered that the number of papers carrying both strips was "surprisingly small, 35 or 40 papers. But they were the big papers. The Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Dallas Morning News. It used to be the Chicago Sun-Times."

Do you do this stuff to push the envelope or to stay interested? I asked him.

Both, he said. "I find by pushing the envelope it keeps me interested. It ticks off Nigel Wade but keeps me interested.

"I hope there's nothing in Crankshaft that ticks him off."

News Bites

"Partners in Peril," this week's four-part Tribune account of undertrained rookie cops who got themselves in fatal trouble on the south side, was full of absorbing detail, none of it more compelling than the Confederate flag pictured on the wall of a bar frequented by the rookies. Robert L. Kaiser's text simply mentioned the flag in passing and said the bar was popular with white cops. No further comment was needed to deeply complicate our reaction to the story Kaiser was telling.

A copy of Talk, Tina Brown's sensational new magazine, was set out for the curious by our coffee machine. It didn't get picked up much, though there's time to kill when the coffee brews. Here are some of the names boasted by the cover that for some reason didn't compel our troops to look inside: Hillary, Gwyneth, George W., JFK Jr., Princess Diana, Drew Barrymore, Rupert Everett, Michael Korda....Those are A-list names, every one of them. What could have gone wrong?

Talk offers a nice little tribute to home run calls (to save you hours of searching, it's on page 76). Naturally, one of them is Harry Caray's: "It could be! It might be! It is! Holy Cow!" Well, it's in the ballpark.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph/Marc PoKempner.

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