Ten years ago Phil Kadner gave a young colleague a piece of advice. Linda Lutton, then a reporter for the Daily Southtown, had the goods on a suburban school official who’d been stealing thousands of dollars from his district. Lutton was feeling triumphant—maybe even a little too excited for her own good. Kadner, the Southtown’s veteran news columnist, set her straight.
“It was Phil Kadner who really pulled me back, who told me, ‘You don’t get to feel like that,’” Lutton told me later. “‘You do your job and put down what you find and that’s all you get. You don’t gloat.’ He made me realize this is part of your job—just to report this out and be as measured about it as possible. And he told me, ‘You’ll write a million more stories that aren’t exciting like this. And that’s our bread and butter. And you’ve got to figure out how to keep moving forward. And keep writing day to day.'”
Lutton soon moved downtown to WBEZ. Kadner stayed where he was at the Southtown, writing his column and working the rich soil of the southern suburbs. But when we talked this week I found him—not gloating, certainly, but a little bit pleased. Tribune Publishing now owns the Southtown, and Kadner has decided to take advantage of the company’s latest round of buyouts. His last day will be in January. After 37 years at the Southtown, the last 30 of them as a columnist, he’s looking back at some stories he allows himself to feel pretty good about.
He remembered getting a phone call some 25 years ago from an Oak Forest woman, Loraine Cook, who ran a charity out of her home. People donated food, clothing, furniture; Cook dispersed it. But she was outgrowing her home and needed a bigger building and funding from United Way. Kadner wrote some columns, and the charity grew into Together We Cope, which he tells me is the largest social service agency in the south suburbs.
A shelter for battered women in Palos Hills wanted to expand, but the neighbors wouldn’t have it. “People feared the husbands would come looking for their wives and endanger the community,” Kadner remembers. Besides, he said, the feeling was the battered women must have been asking for it. Kadner wrote some columns championing the shelter and the women in it. “As a result, Tinley Park stepped up,” he remembers. A lot of money was raised, and land for a bigger, better shelter was rented for a dollar.
An elderly woman in Dixmoor called to say the local park board was stealing money. Show me some paperwork, said Kadner. There is no paperwork, said the woman, Alice Green, who actually got herself elected to the park board so she could sniff around. They just steal the money. But when there’s no paperwork there’s no paper trail, says Kadner (an insight the next generation of civic skimmers and rakers might want to keep in mind).
It took a long time and a many more calls from Green to rouse Kadner to action on this one. Finally he dropped by Dixmoor. The town’s one park was the size of a football field and overgrown with grass and weeds. It was obvious not a dime was being spent on it. Kadner decided to call the park and ask about recreation programs, “but the only working phone number was for the Dixmoor Park Police Department, which had a full-time chief and maybe 99 deputies,” says Kadner.
If you knew a Dixmoor official and wanted a badge you could get one, says Kadner, and they were even for sale to Chicago gangbangers. “In one case, gang members broke up a drug deal showing a badge and stole money and drugs from other gang members. Badges of Dixmoor Park District police were showing up all over the state.”
“Alice Green was braver than almost anybody I ever met,” says Kadner. “The woman could have been killed. I’m surprised she wasn’t. She’d come into meetings with her tape recorder and they’d adjourn.” One time he went by her house and to his amazement the front door was unlocked. He found her in her bedroom and lectured her on taking proper precautions. “That’s all right, Phil,” she replied. “I saw your bald head coming up the stairs. I got a gun under my bed. If it wasn’t you I would have shot you.”
Because her story was so bizarre, it took Kadner about as long to get anyone in law enforcement to take Green seriously as it had taken Green to get him to. But eventually three park officials went to prison. Earlier this year one of the three, former park board president Bobby Jackson, was hired by Blue Island to run its rec center. “I believe in second chances,” said the mayor of Blue Island. If it did nothing else, this gallant act of redemption gave Kadner an opportunity to write a new column retelling the tale of the Dixmoor park district.
Kadner told me several other stories, and he didn’t even get around to the one I wrote up back in 1996. That’s when the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski of Evergreen Park, was captured, and the Southtown outreported every other paper in the country. It was Kadner who tracked down the Dartmouth professor who’d been Kaczynski’s boyhood pal. “It was just basic journalism,” Kadner told me then. “I started making phone calls all over the place. You just kind of hope somebody will know someone who knows someone, and it just worked out this time.”
Kadner’s 63. The Southtown has gone through so many iterations in his day that he’s not sure he can count them all. Bruce Sagan owned the paper when he arrived. Later came the Pulitzer company, and then Conrad Black’s Hollinger, followed, post-Black, by various other bosses, bankruptcy, and sales to investment groups led by first James Tyree and then Michael Ferro. Thirteen months ago the Tribune Media Group (now a piece of Tribune Publishing) took it over. “Pulitzer came in and invested a lot of money and people. It was probably our heyday,” says Kadner. Since then, “we’ve lost a lot of people, a lot of downsizing. It’s typical of the industry as a whole.”
The result of the downsizing is a Daily Southtown website that lists a total of eight staff writers and columnists. Kadner’s one of the eight, and he’s not leaving by himself. Reporter Steve Metsch is taking a buyout, and so are metro editor Tom Finn and news editor Mike Deacon. “They’ve done grunt work and heavy lifting for a lot of years,” Kadner says.
Kadner wrote five stories a week and some years he wrote six. Late last year he and his wife, Jeannie, took in his older brother, who’d been diagnosed with cancer and had no other family. Kadner worked from home and cared for him until his brother died in September. “At the end of that I was pretty well burned out in every way possible,” he says. When the buyout offer came along, “It just seemed right. I was exhausted.”