Saturday, June 27, 2009
I will remember John Callaway, a quality journalist
I was saddened by the news of the death of John Callaway, one of Chicago's finest journalists. He leaves behind an enviable legacy. He was a good and decent man who excelled at the profession he loved, which allowed him to touch countless lives of people in all walks of life. I am privileged to have been one of them.
I remember when I met him. It was during his final year of hosting Chicago Tonight, which showcases newsmakers and various and often contrasting views of issues. On March 11, 1999, I was part of an invited panel, among former mayors — Dick Benson of Peotone, and Ed Palmer of University Park as well as former Illinois Transportation Secretary Kirk Brown. The subject was Chicago's "third" airport near Peotone. It was a fair fight — two for and two against. Benson and I opposed the project while Palmer and Brown promoted it.
I recall being a bit star-struck. It was a surreal experience — as Benson and I rode the train from the southernmost stop on the Metra Electric Line at University Park to what is now Millennium Station at Chicago, a lengthy cab ride to the north side, and finally onto the show's set at WTTW. Chicago Tonight was as familiar to me as my own living room, yet being there was like seeing it for the first time through a new pair of eyes. Being interviewed by the likes of John Callaway was pretty impressive in itself. Hearing him introduce me was certainly a personal high point. But it was also the pinnacle of the early anti-airport movement. After twelve years, our voices were finally being heard.
So much about those days is locked in my mind, but remains close to the surface. That was ten years ago, and I no longer live in Illinois. And while there is no reason for me to care about what happens, I still do. Revisiting the subject not only brings back the recollection, but remains powerful enough to revive the emotion.
I remember enjoying the confrontation with Kirk Brown, instigated by Callaway.
When I learned of Callaway's death, I wanted to watch a video tape of the show, something I haven't seen since around the time it was recorded. What a fascinating historical perspective. Nothing has changed except the players!
Chicago Tonight's discussion was inspired by then newly-elected Gov. George Ryan who announced downsizing the proposed airport — from 23,000 acres to a mere 4,100 acres. Brown remarked that a scaled-down mini version was Gov. Ryan's idea because "he is a practical man, a doer, who wants results."
Callaway observed that to him Ryan's gesture was the sign of cooperation between the Republican Governor and Democratic Mayor of Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley opposes another airport.
Callaway made mention that "Peotone seems a long way (from Chicago)." He mentioned that he had recently been to the Gary Airport, remarking that it really looked like a "nice facility at Gary."
"We looked at that," Brown said. "From an environmental standpoint, you can't do it." He added that there wasn't enough acreage available. "Gary has no future. There is nothing useable for a major air carrier airport."
I became angry all over again, as I heard Brown misrepresent the potential for the Gary/Chicago International Airport again. During those days, he said it often. It all came back to me; I recall the feeling of helpless injustice that comes when representatives of the government blatantly lie to get what they want.
This might be a good time to point out that George Ryan is absolutely a doer that gets results. And, his efforts have landed him in a federal penitentiary. Kirk Brown now works for the company — Hanson Professional Services, Inc — that he hired when he was secretary — to manage the state-owned land in the airport site. Coincidence? Brown no longer holds the title of secretary. U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., has replaced him as chief airport booster with his own brand of airport rhetoric. He not only repeats Brown's lies, but has added a few of his own.
During the interview, Brown went on about how the airport could be completed in five years — which by my calculations — would have been 2004. He claimed that all that was needed was for the FAA to complete an environmental impact statement. That wasn't quite accurate either. Brown said the Peotone site had no environmental issues that couldn't be mitigated. When a government bureaucrat talks about mitigation, it isn't about a permanent solution to a problem. It is a more likely a temporary fix, accompanied by glowing press releases that cover up problems, usually creating new ones in the process.
So, during our discussion, Callaway asked me if I thought there were environmental concerns at the airport site. I shot back that yes, flooding was a major issue, with all of the many creeks and streams that flow through the airport site. I suggested that when it rains, the flow pattern is obvious. Today, the soil absorbs and drains the water, but that wouldn't happen if the land was paved with concrete and asphalt.
Callaway then asked if perhaps there was a need for an airport to service the southern portion of the region some time in the future. I answered that I didn't think so. I saw future technology as more likely to move toward shorter runways, not longer ones.
Benson talked about high speed rail and how it had begun making headlines. That has begun again with the election of President Barack Obama, but this time with the leadership necessary to move forward on this exciting new mode of transportation, it could become a reality. Kirk Brown's position, though he didn't discuss it on the show, was dismissive of high speed rail. Today's state decision-makers have continued Brown's notion that high speed rail should be built to connect Peotone to downtown Chicago. He refused to accept that high speed rail would serve as competition to aviation, further negating a need for a new airport.
Callaway tried to engage Palmer in a conversation about the people who would be dislocated. Instead, he presented a scripted message about economic development for the south suburbs.
"It is coming. It is a fact that it will be here," he said. "For those dislocated, stop thinking in the past," he said.
Palmer's remarks insulted our intelligence. As a representative of the grass-roots organization Residents United to Retain Agricultural Land (RURAL), my role was to represent the views of our members, many of whom would be displaced by a new airport. To me, thinking in the past was Palmer and Brown trying to push an idea conceived more than 40 years ago.
Watching the tape reminded me that the kind of nonsense which is still being spewed by Jackson and others, still retains the power to annoy me.
Before our introduction on Chicago Tonight, reporter Rich Samuels traveled to the Peotone area to talk to the folks most affected. Providing the balanced view was former Chicago Heights Mayor Angelo Ciambrone.
I felt a pang of homesickness as I watched the tape, remembering the frustration that was displayed on the faces of the people who I felt very close to in those days — people I am no longer in contact with since I retired and left the area.
Warren Gottwald, who years later has since moved away as well, talked about his 40-acre farm that he loved. He said that when he was a young man he thought the American Dream was to own a place with a little creek on it.
"I have that now and they want to take it away from me," he said, admitting, "I'm bitter about this unnecessary airport."
"We need an infusion of an economic giant," Ciambrone said, as he and Samuels toured the urban decay in and around Chicago Heights, a once vibrant, bustling community, rich with jobs, shopping, theaters, and clubs. Someone should have repeated to Ciambrone before he spoke, that the airport he was talking about was scaled down to just one runway and one terminal. Even if it was a smashing success, it wouldn't be an economic giant. The reality is that the airlines who oppose the project would likely continue to oppose it. Instead of a boon, it likely could be an economic drain like Illinois' other boondoggle airport, Mid-America near downstate Mascoutah which has been virtually a ghost town since it was built a decade ago.
A scaled-down airport would duplicate what is now in Gary, accessible by only tar and chip roads instead of highways that serve Gary. How has Gary's airport provided an economic benefit? For that matter, where is the economic benefit in Maywood, that isn't far from one of the busiest airports in the world — O'Hare? Sadly, an airport more than 20 miles away would likely change nothing in the south suburbs. And, it is time to admit that economic development cannot in itself change generational illiteracy, poor schools, gang crime, high murder rate, crooked cops, drug dealing, and a pathetic political structure that does nothing but make excuses.
The video portrayed the rich farm fields and wide open spaces where the airport is actually proposed. The contrast was startling. Samuels went to Peotone — which remains a quaint, little Rockwellian town with a viable downtown where people still gather to talk, shop, and frequent restaurants and saloons. While there, Samuels talked to people who said what they have been saying for the past 20 years when the project was revived by Ryan's predecessor, Gov. Jim Edgar. And they are still saying them. They want to keep their way of life, free of the airport 'dangling here,' as Mary Ann Talamontez, who works in the local doctor's office, put it.
Judi Austell, who owns the local beauty shop, said she wished the state would just make up its mind.
"Let's be fair. The people will be compensated fairly," Ciambrone said. Glenn Ginder, who farms for a living, was concerned about the cavalier attitude that folks in the path of runways can simply relocate.
"How do you put a price on food, family, or our church," he said.
Callaway wisely commented that the debate would likely continue.
I had been interviewed many times over the years. But, I was most impressed with John Callaway — for his knowledge on the subject, the questions he posed, and the understanding he held for the victims who still live with the uncertainty of this 40-year old project. His calm demeanor was capped by his keen sense of the politics involved, which was a hallmark of his stature as a journalist. Chicago has lost one of its brightest and best.