Andrew Patner

The death of Andrew Patner at 55 is terrible news. Wasn’t it just yesterday or the day before that I was chronicling his dispute with WBEZ over what Patner considered the indiscriminate use of jagoff on its airwaves? “Is there any line of language not to cross?” Patner (a cultural commentator on rival WFMT) wondered in e-mail to his “WBEZ friends.”

Patner wrote often. He liked to put in his two cents, sometimes on the record but more often not. He passed along helpful information, and there can be nobility in that. Before Studs Terkel died in 2008 he was infirm and frightened and Patner was often at his side, easing his troubles and reporting to the rest of us on Studs’s welfare. I should get over there myself, I sometimes thought. I wasn’t there, but Patner’s updates allowed me to feel represented.

We met in 1988. Patner had just published a book about another ancient icon, I.F. Stone: A Portrait. Stone was nearly 80, Patner 52 years younger. Stone had made his name in the 60s as a muckraking reporter and editor—”Stone created the New Left,” Patner told me. But Stone had moved on; he’d taught himself Greek and his latest book was The Trial of Socrates. Patner shared Stone’s enthusiasm for the ancient Greeks. So they got on.

Patner called both of them “gregarious loners.” Stone raised questions Patner wasn’t ready to answer. “He has the same kinds of interests that I have, and they’re interests that in one person can be in tension with each other,” Patner told me. “I mean, like, should newspapermen be activists? Do you need to be a writer to be a newspaperman? Should a writer, quote, lower him- or herself to write about daily events? And isn’t a scholar kind of a loner and aren’t those other people kind of more social . . . ? “

Patner had done some journalism, but at the time he was in law school and trying to figure out his life. He was a second-generation Chicagoan in the sense that he was somebody’s son: his dad was Marshall Patner, an attorney who’d founded Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI). The ACLU had honored him. So had the Newspaper Guild.

Andrew Patner wasn’t sure how closely he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps. “I’m still trying to figure that out,” he said back then. “Obviously I went to law school for some reason. I think partially because I found it frustrating not being able to step in. You see something bad and you write an article; that takes you x far, and maybe it influences a lot of people. . . . I guess I’m looking for some kind of fusion . . . appealing to people’s heads and hearts, and also getting justice for people.”

In the end, he didn’t practice law. He chose journalism—as a critic, a kind of activist, someone who may not turn over the pot but at least keeps it stirred. He covered the CSO for the Sun-Times, contributed his Critic’s Choice and Critical Thinking to WFMT, and maintained a blog, The View From Here.

Andrew Patner was someone you were never surprised to see. There was an event, you looked around, and there he was. Often he’d be there with his partner, the illustrator Tom Bachtell; but when I had a birthday party in Michigan two summers ago, he arrived with his lively mother, Irene. As I write this she’s whom I’m thinking a lot about.