image added 2018
image added 2018 Credit: Janet Heitz

Those who sincerely admire and respect Bob Greene–who read his columns aloud to entertain their dozens of cats, perhaps–should leave the room now. We don’t want to upset them.

That leaves those of us who can rationalize his existence only by inverting the normal expectations of readership–instead of excoriating his faults, savoring them. We pick up his column with a tingle of anticipation–how awful will it be? Will he content himself with another effortless sputtering of baby talk, lavished over one of his pitiful handful of themes and interests? Or will he reach some new benchmark of idiocy?

Bob loves imperiled kids, and himself holds a key role in the chain of abuse. Parents torture their kids, DCFS ignores them, the schools and the courts bungle the situation, and, finally, the tiny emaciated survivors are led into a room where Uncle Bob awaits, cooing sympathetically while he boosts them onto his knee for the Final Abuse, the flopping out of his revolting pity. This week he sallied day after day, again and again, to the defense of “a little boy in deep, terrible trouble,” an unfortunate he called, “with typical folksiness, “Joe.” Last week it was a class of handicapped students who had lost the services of a speech therapist. The last sentence of this column, where Bob appeals to Mayor Daley to personally intercede, is a joy. You can see the mayor of Bob’s fantasy world–porkpie hat, big cigar, sitting in the bathtub–crushing the paper in his little fists and squeaking “Why, why, this is an outrage!”

The next day, Bob rewrote the New York Times obit of Victor Riesel, the columnist blinded in 1957 when acid was thrown in his face by union thugs. Bob begins the tale by conjuring up his beloved idyll of 1950s Columbus, Ohio, where little Bobby Greene learned about the courageous newspaperman who wouldn’t back down. Though Bob gets almost halfway through the column before he remembers to mention Riesel’s name, he implies that the “kid reading the paper [who] wondered about the man behind the glasses” was inspired by Riesel’s example. We are left marveling how a blind man’s bravery helped embolden one special little boy to someday become Bob Greene, nostalgist of courage, boldly speaking his truths and letting the chips fall where they may, whether he is daring to openly worship Michael Jordan or mourning the passing of toaster covers.

Bob doesn’t quite come out and say it but, from his vantage point, Riesel’s sight must seem a small price to pay.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Jeff Heller.