Toward the end of my full-time employment with the Kane County Chronicle, the Publisher got frustrated with something within the organization and sent out a company memo that read, “The Truth, The Way, and the Light, The Chronicle Way.”
The reception toward the memo was less than enthusiastic by many of the company staff. A week later I raised the issue that people shared concerns with me that the memo was considered offensive. I thought the Publisher ought to know how people felt. I was being honest, in other words.
As it turned out, someone on the staff stapled a copy of the memo to an image of Jesus and sent it off to Tom Shaw, owner of Shaw Publications, the parent company of the newspaper chain to which the Chronicle belonged. That put our Publisher in hot water with the higher-ups. He arrived at one of our weekly management meetings furious that he’d been called out for using Jesus’ words for his company communications. “No one can question my faith,” he sputtered. “I go to church every week!”
By his own frequent pronunciations, he was a devout Catholic. But I already had some perspective on the church he attended. I was the youth group leader at a Lutheran church in town and brought our high school kids to other churches as a way to experience other Christian traditions. During the service we visited, we knew not to take communion because the Catholic version of Christianity is rather insular about that. So we watched and listened and kneeled and participated in everything that was obvious to us.
Then came the priest’s homily. He preached about the challenges of having wealth as Christians. That was pertinent because the church congregation drew from an affluent area. He intoned, “God blesses us in many ways.” Then he clasped his hands together in front of him in an isometric pose, tugging one hand against the other. In a fatherly tone often used by religious leaders seeking to excuse what they’re about to say, “You are fine in God’s eyes as long as you feel the tension between what you have and those in need.”
I sat there stunned at the words I’d just heard. That statement was about as far from sincere Christian doctrine as anything I’d ever heard. No one else in the place seemed to notice the hypocrisy and falseness of the claim that essentially said, “It’s alright to be rich as long as you feel a little bit bad about it.” Then the music started to play. People sang some sort of hymn. Everyone seemed to leave the church happy. I was disgusted.
So it was no surprise to me that the Publisher felt comfortable using Jesus’ words to justify his own corporate doctrine about competition with other newspapers. But gosh! was he offended when people questioned him. In fact, he called me into his office a week later and accused me of being the one that sent the memo with the stapled picture of Jesus to Tom Shaw. “It wasn’t me!” I said flabbergasted. That didn’t convince him. “I’ll expect you to turn in your resignation,” he pronounced. “I’ll give you two more weeks of working here to transition. Then you’re gone.”
That was shocking, but I was determined to prove him wrong about me. A day later, I held a meeting with a pair of prominent women representing a key non-profit organization in the area. The meeting went well. They thanked me for the support I’d provided them all year and left happy to have worked out another year’s agreement with the newspaper. After that, the Publisher pulled me aside and said, “You know, it’s funny. Our customers seem to love you. It’s only me that has a problem with you.”
I couldn’t help myself and replied, “What does that tell you?”
He responded. “Listen. I still need you to resign. But I’ll hire you back as a contractor if you want to continue working with the newspaper.”
I didn’t know how that made any sense. But what I did understand is that his massive ego needed to feel like he’d earned a “win” somehow, a way to prove his own worth in that situation. My mistake was in assuming that being honest about the nature of the problem with the memo would be taken the right way, as a means of support, not criticism. Yet as many people in history have learned (including one John the Baptist) it is often those being honest whose heads wind up on the chopping block.
The Publisher’s desperate need to utter the words “You’re fired!” remind me of the made-for-TV antics of a man we’d all meet in the future. That would be Donald Trump, another egotist claiming (and demanding) religious fealty while acting brutishly in his business dealings.
Run with it
There was nothing else for me to do but take the dismissal as an opportunity and “run with it.” I’d been freelancing in writing for several years, and helping friends and other companies with their marketing on the side to make ends meet beyond the stingy $40K I was making at the Chronicle.
Fortunately, the world seemed to open up with other opportunities. Once I was free to work as a contractor, there were no constrictions on my client base. I didn’t have to sign a non-compete agreement with the Chronicle, and I’d been approached by a much larger newspaper, the Daily Herald, to write and design their marketing collateral. They’d heard of my work for the Chronicle and there was already dialog going on. So I landed that contract.
A fitness challenge
Then a friend named Dennis Piron for whom I’d done freelance marketing for his Westbank Fitness business called me. “Hey, I’m selling our club to some developers that are going to combine the membership with another fitness club in St. Charles. They’ve got land at Keslinger and Peck Road and want to build a health-based fitness club. Can you help us with the marketing and proposals?”
So it all came together in rapid fashion. I also continued producing the content I’d been developing for the Chronicle, a full-page monthly feature titled ENVIRONS. I’d first written a nature column titled Field Day for the newspaper back in the early 80s, reprised it with a retitled column called STRAIGHT NATURE in the late 80s, and built that template into the ENVIRONS content with interviews and commentary.
All told, my new “business” would bring in nearly $100,000 in 1994 money. However, by the time company expenses were extracted and taxes paid, the family income wasn’t that great. I was learning the hard way that “paying the company first” meant that you didn’t get to keep everything you earned. That drove my (late) wife crazy. While her father ran his own business for decades and had multiple employees, she’d never seen how it all worked or been front and center with the books. The ordeal of running our own business made her anxious. It was hard on her, I’ll admit. I was trying my best to create a big break for us.
So I bounced from one obligation to the other, working out the details of Chronicle programs and promotions one day, writing content and leading photography sessions for the Daily Herald the next, and diving into day-to-day marketing for the developers the other days of the week.
On the run
In between, I’d go for brain-clearing runs. While I kept some office hours with the developers, the other work going on allowed me the freedom to run when I wanted. That felt more like the years I spent working for myself in the City of Chicago. But back then (83-84) I had no wife and no kids. Now I was a young father with two children. They’d loved all the perks we got when I was full-time with the Chronicle. Free entrance to the circus that came to town. Tickets to Kane County Cougars games and shows and concerts. Memories of those early years with the Chronicle are fun to think about.
The developers needed help the most. They’d nearly completed the build-out in a subdivision called Westhaven, but time pressures and a fluctuating market had soured relationships with the builders putting houses on their lots, so relationships needed to be repaired. I reached out to the builders and put together a press release and a half-page Real Estate ad to run in the Chronicle. It looked great to get some exposure for the development in the papers and got some things moving again.
But the two guys running the business were a bit stingy about putting in the sign in front of the development. The residents in the subdivision complained that the promised entryway sign was never placed. It stunned me that the delay had happened at all. Compared to some of the other investments the company was making, the sign seemed a pittance. I urged them to finish off the deal. It still stands there to this day. But frankly, it was never very impressive compared to other entryways of similar developments in the area. It almost screams Cheaphaven.
Fitness in action
In the meantime, the work to consolidate the two fitness centers continued. We met with another developer, an active player in St. Charles that owned Fox Valley Fitness, a 1000-member club situated in the Piano Factory Outlet Mall, the retail center operating in a former industrial building (now torn down.) But our first meeting with the developer gave me the creeps. He showed up with a crocheted cross stuck in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. My religious Spidey-sense screamed PHONY!
Apparently, he wanted to make a show of his fine Christian nature. Yet the more we looked into his business dealings, the more we found out his entire methodology was a sham. He was even telling his contractors to sue each other to get the money he owed them for their work. In many respects, he foreshadowed another corrupt developer and fake Christian the world would meet in the future. That would be Donald Trump, again.
Despite these hiccups in relationships, we got busy making pitches to hospitals about the health-based fitness center. The first group we approached was Central DuPage Hospital, a non-profit known for its quality of care. Their board representatives loved the idea, but the proposed Geneva location was a bit out of reach for their current service area. So they passed.
Then we pitched Delnor Hospital, the main medical center in the central Fox Valley serving St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, and Elburn. That was the original target anyway, but it was helpful to test market the pitch while making it to Central Dupage. The Keslinger-Peck location made sense for Delnor as it was just down the road from its new campus on Randall Road. They listened intently, asked many questions, and ultimately expressed interest in doing a joint venture. “There’s one thing we ask,” they wrote in a confirmation letter. “We want $250,000 for the use of the Delnor name.”
To their ultimate detriment and for reasons I never fully understood, the developers chose to balk at that requirement. And guess what happened? Delnor contacted the architects that our team had contracted to design the proposed plans for the fitness center, flipped them around to fit the campus site on Randall Road, and built the damned thing where it stands to this day.
Real Live Disappointment
My friend and business associate Dennis was rightfully disturbed by that turn of events. He’d poured his expertise into planning a great facility. He’d sold his Westbank Fitness club for a shot at a great opportunity and a vision for the Fox Valley. But it all came to naught because the guys with the money were too stubborn or insecure or incapable to see the Big Picture. I still don’t understand it. Perhaps the project was ultimately too big for their britches. Who knows? One of them has gone on to become a successful commercial real estate broker. He’s a good guy, but he was a bit too particular for me. He once tried to convince me that using keyboard scrolling was better than depending on a mouse or trackpad. I frankly didn’t buy that bullshit. We were just different kinds of people. And that’s okay. To each their own in that respect.
For a while, one of my closest friends, and then one of my fellow church members wound up running the Delnor Fitness Center. Then a company called Power was called in to take over and the locals were booted out. At the same time, Central DuPage grew its service area westward and an entire network of healthcare locations was created through consolidation into the Northwestern Hospital System. So the entire circle of healthcare systems we contacted is now part of the same organization. My connections there include a former backdoor neighbor that is their Internal Communications Director.
It all proves that sometimes the harder you reach for something the further it gets away from you. Of course there’s also the existential principle of the irreversibility of time, which means you cannot go back and fix your own mistakes, or those of anyone else. You’ve just got to keep moving on–or ahead– or whatever. If my habit of running isn’t the perfect metaphor for life itself, nothing is.
What comes next?
The dissolution of the hospital fitness center deal left me out of that chunk of work. They dissolved my contact in late summer even though I’d been representing them showing other commercial real estate space they owned. By September, I’d also finished the collateral work for the Daily Herald, providing them with an all-new sales brochure for which I’d hired friends and associates to be models.
Then in October, the Chronicle announced that they were hiring someone to take over the work I’d carried forward for them. The year was 1994. It had been a tumultuous year in many ways, and now I had to look for work going into the year 1995. My wife Linda was worried. What could possibly come next?
I went for long runs trying to figure it all out and can’t say there weren’t a few regrets and a touch of resentment to work off. Much of it was due to a long line of people conflicted by their own sets of conflicted beliefs and/or selfish fears.
All I could say to myself was this: “Welcome to the world, Competition’s Son.”
If you would like to read more about being honest in the face of sometimes conflicted ideals, consider purchasing my new book, Honest-To-Goodness: Why Christianity Needs a Reality Check and How to Make It Happen. Available on Amazon.com in paperback ($19.99) and Kindle ($9.99)