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Monday, January 11, 2010

RIP Jim Sulski, My Friend and Mentor

Posted By on 01.11.10 at 09:56 PM

I heard about Sulski before I actually met him.

That would be Jim Sulski—not that his friends, colleagues, or students called him by his full name most of the time. He was just Sulski.

Ever since Sulski died last week at 52 after fighting cancer, I’ve been trying to process all that he meant to me and my other friends who knew him. I know I still can’t get it all quite right, but in my own limited way I’m going to try. (And while I think “fighting” is way overused to describe the determination most seriously ill people can muster, if anything it’s inadequate in the case of Sulski, the most laid-back badass I’ve ever met. As I hope to explain . . .)

Jim Sulski
  • Jim Sulski

So . . . back when I was working at The Chicago Reporter in the early 2000s, I had a colleague who’d studied journalism at Columbia College Chicago, and a good number of our interns were J-students there as well. They all talked about this guy Sulski with an unusual mix of reverence and head-shaking laughter. He was their professor and their mentor and their adviser at the school newspaper, the Columbia Chronicle, yet they universally referred to him as if he were the smartest, loosest, most colorful of their older brothers. He was the one who’d interested them in following South Loop real estate deals and scrutinizing Columbia’s tax filings to find out how much top administrators were paid. He was the one who’d assured them that Chicago was full of corrupt politicians but also lots of people like the ones he’d grown up with in South Chicago who believed in working hard, looking out for their families, getting into fights for them when they had to, and stopping by the corner tavern on the way home. And he was the one who'd convinced them that the opportunity to write about all of this made being a journalist a privilege and a joy.

He was also somebody who showed a minimal interest in such soul-killing, pedantic nonsense as worrying about grades, getting to class on time, or doing anything else that made school unpleasant. If you got lower than a B in Sulski’s class, I was told, it meant you’d been simultaneously drunk, asleep, unable to spell your own name, and dismissive of journalism—for an entire semester. It was actually hard to do.

I soon discovered that the man was larger than the myth. He wasn’t a big guy physically, but he could fill a room with his charm and enthusiasm, as I learned after he asked me if he could bring a class to visit the Reporter. They came by late one morning, which was still too early for many of the somnambulant students who stumbled in after Sulski. No matter—he very calmly reminded them that he’d promised me they would be full of questions. Then he started asking them himself, sometimes attributing them to the people in his class (“What Jason over there really wants to know, but has become too shy to ask, is where do you get your story ideas?”) until a few embarrassed souls stepped up to help him out. He led by example and his passion got others to follow.

Sulski and I became acquaintances, then friends, then allies; he helped me get hired as an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia, then recruited me to serve alongside him as a coadviser to the Chronicle. Jim was a master at it.

The paper depended on Columbia for space and some funding, but Sulski insisted that the editors run it—they not only chose, wrote, and reported their own stories, they hired and managed their own staff. When one of their articles touched a nerve, Sulski shrugged off the angry calls from faculty or administrators, let his journalists speak for themselves, and suggested that they see what else they could dig up—if that first story had pissed people off so much, there must be something even better out there.

As a journalist, Sulski was intense; as a person, he didn’t sweat jack shit. He loved hard news far more than hard work, though he was more than willing to engage in it when it produced results or gave him the opportunity to help somebody. And when he did have to bust his butt, he subscribed to the philosophy of following it up quickly with some sort of celebration, like an hours-long lunch. He didn’t advise his students by proclamation or command—he just got so ramped up talking about how great it would be to investigate, say, the school’s fund-raising efforts that people simply had to do it. Except for the times he wanted to play a video game in peace, Sulski’s door was always open, and his office usually buzzed with the comings and goings of students seeking insight or encouragement. The girls thought he was hot; the guys thought he was cool; everybody thought he was hilarious and amazing.

Including me. When I’d vent about department politics, rage against the Daley machine, or fret about my place in the world, Jim would listen, nod, agree, throw out an idea or two, and gracefully get to the point: “Hey, if it doesn’t work, it doesn't work.” He would then shift the conversation to something far closer to the essence of life, such as his plans to go on summer vacation in Michigan with his beloved wife, Jo, and their kids. Both he and Jo had children from previous marriages, and when the two of them fell in love, they fell hard, and they also fell in love with all the young people in each other's lives. It was such a common sight to see family accompany Jim into the office that one of the Chronicle’s editors once wondered aloud, “My god—how many kids does Sulski have?”

When doctors first found cancer in him about three years ago, Sulski was defiant in his own sort of way. I’m sure he was scared, but he acted like it was no bigger deal than an annoying call from someone in Columbia’s marketing office complaining that last week’s front-page story had left out the good things happening at the college; it was just something that had to be dealt with. I only heard him confront his illness directly a couple of times, but even then he laughed it off. He’d grown up down by the mills, in a house built on top of slag—did anybody really think this was going to kick his ass?

He was in and out of school for a while; then, after he'd had a kidney removed and things were looking good, he was back in full Sulski form. The paper won more awards, and even amid the bleakest job market for young reporters in decades, Chronicle alums went on to get jobs and assignments with Pioneer Press, the Sun-Times, the Tribune, Chicago Public Radio, Big Ten Network, Playboy, Crain’s, Chicago magazine. Others went to law school or joined the Peace Corps.

Once I left the adviser gig and started working full-time for the Reader, Sulski and I got together every so often to shoot the breeze, which gave me the chance to tap his south-side wisdom. When he dropped me a line last fall to say hey, he casually mentioned that he was dealing with some health issues again. But it wasn’t until a week ago that I found out from some mutual friends that things were truly bad.

I got in touch with Jo. She said Sulski—and she too called him "Sulski"—had taken a turn for the worse. She invited me to come down to their Bridgeport home to see him—the implication being that he might not have much time left. When I got there, Jo said that though he was in and out of consciousness she knew he was listening. So I sat next to his bed awhile. As he breathed and snored and wheezed under the blankets, I prattled on about politics and news and what some of our former students were up to these days. I’ll admit that I felt foolish at first, but then I realized Jo was right: he was listening. When I talked about how TIFs were financing some downtown development deals, he grunted and shifted around. When I told him I could use his advice on places to get a brew the next time I was on the East Side, he murmured and reached for my hand.

Last Wednesday I went back with a group of Sulski’s former students. When we arrived a family member told us it wasn’t a good time—the nurse was estimating that he was down to his last few minutes. We retreated, standing in the icy street and telling Sulski stories.

The next morning Jo sent out a message. Sulski’s last minutes had stretched into more than 12 hours. “A fighter to the end,” she wrote.

His last words: “It’s all good.”

I hope I have half the impact on other people that he's had.

(Fine obits of Sulski have run in the Trib, the Sun-Times, and of course the Chronicle. My favorite, though, is this wonderful remembrance from my friend Cyryl.)

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