Newspaperman Gets Serious

Daniel Tucker was cleaning out his office. Find any forgotten old concertos? we asked him. No, said Tucker, but here’s something. He handed us a sheet of music from The Duenna, an opera he’d once been working on. Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote the book and lyrics around 1770, Tucker explained, and the original music is long forgotten.

Now, Dan Tucker wants to finish The Duenna and much more music besides. Which is why on the last day of 1987, Tucker–30 years an editorial writer, the last 13 with the Chicago Tribune–called it quits as a newspaperman at the age of 62.

“After all this time, you get a sense of deja vu,” he said, making the familiar observation about how headlines come and go and very little really changes. “You wonder if this is where the eternal verities are. Leaving here will be hard, but I think after 30 years it’s time to concentrate on the other thing, the thing I think I’m really about.”

Some old-timers complain that kids in the news business today have no soul. We hope they’re wrong, but here’s what they mean: journalism is no longer a haven for eccentrics; for inquisitive bohemians in shiny pants with minds full of odd lore. Bohemians, we would add, who have learned to squint at existence with a generous but ironic common sense. And who, we’ll further add, focusing on Dan Tucker, have mastered seven or eight languages and compose music of distinction.

“He himself was never really outrageous,” said a onetime colleague, “but you knew there was a secret place inside him that was really mad. The editorial page was a place for him to be whimsical, thoughtful, and informed. And he never carried anything home with him. He’s a guy who always did what was expected of him at the paper, but you never had the feeling he was anything but his own man.”

A motto on the office wall said: “Being Irish he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” Tucker couldn’t remember who wrote that–Shaw, perhaps. “You do pick up an amazing amount of odds and ends,” he said. “Who wrote ‘Journalism is writing that will be less interesting tomorrow’?” He couldn’t remember that either.

Tucker’s father, Irwin St. John Tucker, was an Alabama minister’s son who came north. At one point he was sentenced to 20 years by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis for the seditious act of editing a socialist newspaper, a verdict quickly overturned after Clarence Darrow intervened. “Which is just as well for me,” Dan Tucker remarked, “except if he had served his time I’d now be 20 years younger.” Irwin Tucker wound up a copy editor at the Chicago American, where he wrote a column as “Friar Tuck.”

Dan Tucker’s oldest brother, Ernest, survived being blown off a gun mount into the Pacific Ocean during World War II to write a column for the American and become city editor of that paper’s last incarnation as Chicago Today. He wrote children’s history books on the side.

The middle brother, Barney, was an American reporter before going into public relations. Ernest Tucker’s son Ernie is a feature writer today at the Sun-Times.

Of course Dan Tucker would become a newspaperman too. “I was never seriously aware there was anything else you could do. I wandered in and never wandered out.”

But what he most wanted to be, he also became. A newsman by day at the American (until it folded in 1974 and he shifted to the Tribune), Tucker took night classes at the American Conservatory of Music and earned a master’s there in the middle 50s. He estimates that he’s written 50 or 60 pieces, all told, and he’s heard most of them performed, including an opera, Many Moons, inspired by a James Thurber book for children. “This is the proudest thing I am of,” he told us self-consciously, and handed us a Chicago Symphony Orchestra program from the ’75-’76 season. There, first on the bill, was Tucker’s Celebration for Orchestra.

At the moment, Tucker is setting Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” to music, a commission from Evanston’s Immanuel Lutheran Church. “It’s kind of tough to make a chorus sound dappled, but it’s coming,” Tucker said. And he’s orchestrating American Variations, which Mstislav Rostropovich asked him to compose for the National Symphony to play on the Fourth of July. “It’s for orchestra, chorus, and barbershop quartet,” Tucker said.

A choral work, The Dream of the Rood, will premiere March 25 at the Quigley Chapel, sung by His Majestie’s Clerkes. “Essentially,” Tucker explained, “it’s the Crucifixion as told from the point of view of the cross.”

We supposed there is not much money waiting to be made by composers of new classical music, not even when the music is as good as Tucker’s. “No, not a hell of a lot,” Tucker acknowledged. “In ’86 I cleared a cool eight dollars–and was it 14 or 40 cents? But last year I was paid $310 for a hymn I wrote and sold outright.”

Are you as good as you used to be? we asked him.

“It doesn’t come as readily as it used to,” he reflected, “but the ideas are still worth working on, and I’m eager to get at them. Sure I could have done more”–if he’d given music all his time when he was younger–“but there’s no point in chewing that over. Actually, the two things play off each other pretty well. It’s nice, after punching a keyboard all day, to get into a nonverbal way of thinking. And they’re very much alike–they share the same problems of form, of getting from one place to another. Carrying the audience along so they want to know what happens next.”

He handed over something that he thought we’d like–sketches of the spray of water that the Sanitary District intends to have permanently arching across the Chicago River east of Columbus Drive. That’s one of the nice things about your job, we said; you get to see stuff like this before the rest of us.

“Leaving here will be hard,” Tucker allowed. “I’ve liked it. I’ve enjoyed it. But it’s time to get serious.”

Direct Mail

There are two kinds of Americans: bleeding-heart suckers for every bogus cause of the com-symp clique, and everyone else. And since nobody gets off easy in life, we assume everyone else is being dunned by the crypto-fascists.

We aren’t sure how we happened to find ourself numbered among the ultraliberal patsies rather than the pigeons of rock-ribbed conservatism; we suspect it goes back to a UPI assignment in 1967 when we were spotted sharing an elevator with Hubert Humphrey. At any rate, we give when we can and don’t sleep at night when we can’t. A typical appeal begins like this: “In the time it takes you to read this letter, the little girl in the enclosed picture will have died.”

No one on the mailing list of one camp ever seems to be bothered by the other. Thus there are two Americas, each known to the other only by rumors of perfidy. But yesterday brought two new appeals that trouble us. Some of “us” have become more of “them.”

One appeal came from “a proven and award-winning” publication by the name of Gifted Children Monthly. “Frankly,” says the letter from the “chairman” (journals of this distinction don’t settle for mere editors or publishers), “it would be easier on you if your child weren’t gifted, but that special satisfaction that parents like you know would be lost.”

It’s true our children are highly talented lollygaggers. But where does this leave parents of kids who aren’t so distinguished? Watch the rock-ribbed crowd move in now with a journal sensitive to the special satisfaction parents take in shoving their unexceptional children out the door in the morning with their mittens on. We foresee both sides storming the same households for alms, setting child against child as moppets grow up unclear if they’re valued as geniuses or ne’er-do-wells.

The other letter was far worse.

“People say it’s a man’s world. But is it really?” begins the message from the president of the National Congress for Men. “The American divorce system . . . doesn’t seem to think so. . . .

“Because more and more fathers are at least trying to assert their rights to love and nurture their children . . . more and more women are feeling threatened. . . . And if things aren’t bad enough, they have launched a terrible backlash against us. A very well-organized, well-funded, professional backlash” (their emphases).

We hadn’t been alerted to a backlash of this enormity since the campaigns to block Jesse Helms’s reelection and the legalization of dum-dum bullets.

“Some women,” warns the National Congress for Men, “don’t like the fact that men can be strong, proud, confident, independent parents.”

So “some women” have been drummed out too! They can’t find out if our wife is in league with “some women” if they don’t ask; so we expect the invitations to start rolling in urging her to invest in the Panama Canal defense fund and a promising faction in Angola.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.