Born to work for a feisty, independent hometown paper

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Days after graduating from college, I found myself back at my mom's house in River Forest, being asked (frequently), "So, what are you going to do now?" I wanted a job at a newspaper, I said, adding with desperation, any newspaper.

But, I noted, I'd be quite happy if I could start my career at a quality, independent community newspaper with a little bit of spunk, just like my hometown's WEDNESDAY JOURNAL (Yes, I really did say that).

So, I sent an e-mail to Ken Trainor, asking for some freelance work. Good timing. They had an opening. It wasn't many months after I started my job here that I discovered the reason I got an e-mail back requesting I stop in for a job interview, was because Ken liked the 1930's actress with whom I share my name [Editor's note: She starred in Showboat]. Hey, whatever works.

That wasn't the only quirky coincidence that has marked my career here. After I got my first paycheck, I was told the paper started up the week I was born. Later, I remembered that as a talented 7-year-old, I garnered second place in WJ's annual "Design An Ad" contest. I got $50 in gift certificates to an ice cream store that closed only a couple months later.

My first day on the job, I was preparing to learn the ins-and-outs of local government, the beats I'd be assigned to, what the heck tax caps and TIF districts were, and why there was that tent-like thing over Barrie Park.

Instead, Ken said, "Why don't you give Genevieve York-Erwin a call?" (For those who don't remember, Genevieve was the OPRF valedictorian who refused to wear the then-requisite white dress). She was at OPRF's 2002 commencement to see her brother graduate, and Ken said, why not ask what Genevieve thinks about seeing the graduates not in dresses?

Well, sure I'll call her. I have her number memorized, we're still good friends. A letter-to-the editor shortly followed criticizing my 150-word interview with Gen. The writer indignantly suggested that I must be some old fart who clearly didn't understand the truth behind the 1998 dress controversy.

The same day, we had a special meeting on another graduation incident. A young woman had been arrested on the stadium field for going on the grass to meet her sister. "Who is she?" I asked. "She lives in Seattle but she's from Oak Park," I was told. "Is her name MICHA?!" "Yes, that's it!" Micha has been a good friend since sixth grade. I was to be a bridesmaid in her wedding in a couple months.

Sure, I'll call her. I have her cell phone number.

There were some other smaller coincidences. Deputy Village Manager Pete Dame is the other Dame, whose house I used to accidentally call while looking for my friend, Jon Dame, who lived on the same block. And I still get teased, like I did in high school, by the lifelong Oak Parkers around here for being from "rich, white, snotty" River Forest (It's not that bad ... really).

After almost three years of covering Oak Park and River Forest, however, working for my hometown newspaper has been much less about my personal past here, and more about the great history and unique character of these two towns (and also TIF districts and tax caps). But, I've come to appreciate little things, such as what a truly wonderful teacher Mr. Currie, my just-retired Trapeze advisor, really was. And also how rare it is to find a job at a feisty independent newspaper.

When my Oak Park buddies return home for the holidays, we drive around and I'm the resident expert on those new buildings going up, why they can't park where and what their old teachers are up to.

Sometimes they ask me if I'm sick of writing about Oak Park and working in Oak Park. "Don't you run into people from high school you don't want to see all the time?"

That doesn't bother me anymore, I say. Mostly I'm afraid of running into that village board member who's mad about what I wrote last week.

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