Paul Sassone died Monday. An Oak Park guy, he had been a top editor and columnist for our competitors at Pioneer Press for almost 50 years. He held about every job there, as growth and contraction and perpetual changes in corporate ownership demanded someone step up to lead the community news side of the venture. Paul was often that person.
He understood the value and the power of community journalism. He appreciated, supported and often taught the reporters and freelancers who did the work each day. And as he rose in the chain, as the business changed and diminished, as tensions rose more often between various ownership groups and the unionized newsroom, those editors and reporters saw him as a steady hand who had their backs.
I knew Paul for more than 40 years. We go back to before I was in the newspaper business. In 1974, while I was still in college, I opened a used bookstore on Marion Street. The West Group of Pioneer Press, where Paul was the editor, was just across the street, housed in what is now Poor Phil’s. The West Group topped out at maybe a dozen papers. Oak Leaves was the flagship but the papers he edited stretched across Proviso Township and up the Desplaines River to Elmwood Park, Stone Park, Schiller Park.
A voracious reader, Paul was a lunchtime regular at The Booksmith and we came to be friends.
As I recall the story, he had recently returned to Pioneer after taking a year off to write a novel. Don’t know if that novel still sits in a drawer somewhere. But it did not shift the trajectory of his life and he came back to neighborhood news.
Eventually one of our conversations was about my desire to break into the newspaper business. I was not having much luck and, probably taking some pity on the used-book guy, Paul actually offered me my first job in journalism. Part-time, $80 a week. I was about to become the “Lively Arts” editor for the West Group. That would have been a fantastic mismatch. Then, unexpectedly, I became sought after with a competing offer from the old Oak Park News to work full-time for less money but working as a reporter covering Oak Park.
I was always grateful to Paul for the offer. A couple of years later, with the News failing, a trio of us set out to raise the money to launch Wednesday Journal. That was 38 years ago, almost to the day.
Most people in Oak Park and River Forest may not know that Paul played such a notable role at the one-time 50-paper chain. He wasn’t an editor who sought attention. Instead they knew him as the weekly columnist, often humorous, finding some foible or pop culture moment to wryly comment on.
Talked on Monday to Sharon Sassone, his wife and, way back when, a freelance writer for the Journal. She reminded me of all the awards he won for that column. I told her I was well aware of that since Paul beat me almost every year in the Illinois Press Association editorial contest. Not that I let it bother me. Much.
As happens in corporate life, in one of the ownership lurches at Pioneer Press, Paul Sassone got unceremoniously off-loaded as an editor. We talked over lunch one day about Paul shifting his column to the Journal. But before long Pioneer brought him back as a freelance columnist and he wrote most every week until his health failed him in March. He was also penning a column for the Cook County Chronicle.
Paul was 76 when he died this week.
Visitation will be Thursday from 3 to 8 p.m. at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home, 203 S. Marion St. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m., Friday at St. Edmund Church, 188 S. Oak Park Ave.