It has been a hard week at Wednesday Journal.
We’re mourning the out-of-the-blue death of our friend and long-time production manager Dennis Gordon. And we’re monitoring the prognosis for Arlene Biela, our morning receptionist, who collapsed shortly after she walked out our back door and before she reached the end of the alley last Thursday.
This is a lot of trauma for a small company of 75 folks.
Ours is a place with an odd and inspiring assemblage of talented musicians, actors, artists and frustrated social workers and philosophers, who came for the day job and discovered a place where designing ads, schlepping bundles of newspapers, or reporting on small town school boards was a greater calling than imagined.
Unlike “The Front Page,” not all of our staff have a bottle in the bottom drawer. But if you haven’t written a play, directed a play or performed in a play at Circle Theatre you might not fit in here. If you don’t play three musical instruments, haven’t been bounced from assorted more corporate environs or don’t see the endless humor in arguing over the placement of an ad in George Bailey/Mr. Potter personas, then you just might not be right for us. Or us for you.
Dennis was the personification of why this company we’ve built isn’t like all the other little companies you might encounter. We were the natural landing place for a fellow sent to a military high school for some straightening up, who cruised through Northwestern on his brains and charm and then decamped for a commune in Oregon.
The obituary last week in the Sun-Times captured the elemental truth that Dennis was first a musician. A hard-working, enormously eclectic, you-want-to-hear-polkas-I-can-play-polkas musician. Creating ads for ReMax in the Village and talking six times in a morning to our printer in Harvey to make sure the color plates were aligned, really was the day job.
Could be why you’d find him walking down the hall at the Journal playing his mandolin, or why, just once in a while, he’d pull out his banjo and play for a time. I knew things were right with the world when Dennis was in the ad design room playing music.
Dennis worked hard, though, at his curmudgeonly image. He played the cynic. He could let fly with a profane tirade I haven’t heard the likes of since my summers loading trucks with the Teamsters. Having 16 ad salespeople with eight immediate-or already passed-deadlines, would be enough to make any person ornery. But all of us knew his rants and his pronouncements that “We’re totally screwed,” passed in a moment and then the resourceful, problem-solving, working-on-the-weekend Dennis would take over.
Dennis took pride in being an old-school typographer. And he took pride in leading our company through several generations of technological growth over 15 years as we moved from pasting up pages with wax and razor blades to state-of-the-art pagination and electronic transmission.
Did I mention that Dennis was funny? All-the-time funny-funny in the way only astoundingly bright people are funny.
An agile mind led to the quickest rejoinders on any topic. Horrible puns, scathing political stuff, hilarious, dead-on observations about this place and our people. There were times in management meetings when I’d just push my chair back and let Dennis and Marc Stopeck, our weekly sales manager (and Shrubtown creator), play out the riff they were working about our network, our newspapers, the ups and downs of our business.
Dennis was admittedly a bit of a fatalist. That he died of a heart attack last Tuesday morning as he rode the Brown Line from his North Side home out to Oak Park was about right. I’m sure he didn’t want to die. His wife Mary and son Jeremy didn’t want to lose him. But he’d appreciate the showmanship of going out fast and clean, on the el, working his crossword.
This, though, isn’t the same company it was last Tuesday when we put out our final paper with Dennis at the helm. And it won’t be the same company again.