By Michael Miner

Nigel Wade Yanks the Football Away

From the age of three, Jump Start’s Robb Armstrong wanted to create a comic strip. At five he began practicing by drawing pictures of Charlie Brown. “I kidded myself,” says Armstrong. “I said, ‘His head is a circle, and he just has lines for the eyes and mouth. How hard is that?'”

Very, Armstrong discovered. “His head is not a circle, actually. It’s a strange-shaped thing. It’s round, but it’s not a circle–it’s very tricky.”

As Armstrong grew up he learned to admire Charlie Brown’s creator, Charles Schulz, not simply for his technique but for his humanism. “I’m much more invested in humanity than I am even in the black experience,” says Armstrong, who’s one of a handful of black cartoonists in the popular press. “We are, after all, in this gigantic human family.” He intended to bring the spirit of Peanuts to a comic of his own, and upon launching Jump Start ten years ago he sent Schulz one of the first published strips.

Armstrong’s new syndicate, United Feature, also represented Schulz. “I bet this is doable,” Armstrong thought. “I bet I can end up in the same room with Charles Schulz.” It was soon arranged, and Armstrong discovered that the Jump Start strip he’d mailed Schulz had been framed and was hanging on Schulz’s wall. “I was hoping he wouldn’t just toss it in the trash,” Armstrong says.

Schulz became his friend. “I’m not much of a historical-cartoon buff, if you will,” says Armstrong. “But I do know who influenced me. One of my main characters is named Marcy. And so is one of his main characters. That is not a coincidence. It’s also not a coincidence that his black character, Franklin, has my last name.”

Schulz is 77, which is 40 years older than Armstrong, and he has cancer. Even before he called it quits last month, Armstrong began to think of saluting his sick friend. Talking it over with his wife, Sherry West, he decided how. Jump Start’s Marcy is a hospital nurse, and Schulz would show up as a patient.

Armstrong wrote a week’s worth of strips. Marcy is delighted to have the great man on her floor, but a clueless male nurse mistakes Schulz for a peanut farmer. When I talked to Armstrong he was bundling up the original artwork to send to Schulz as a gift.

Armstrong’s tribute appeared last week in some 400 newspapers across the country. But no one got to see it in Chicago. Jump Start is carried by the Sun-Times, Peanuts by the Tribune. In the name of competition, the Sun-Times, which had reported Schulz’s retirement with a one-paragraph note on page 61, dusted off some old Jump Start panels from 1993 and published those instead.

“If Robb Armstrong had limited himself to a day of tribute instead of a week do you suppose you’d have let it go?” I E-mailed Sun-Times editor Nigel Wade.

“Possibly,” he replied.

Armstrong didn’t know what had happened.

“You’re kidding!” he said when I told him. “Oh man! Aw, I’m so sorry to hear that. That is just–that is such a shame.” Then he tried to bite his tongue. “I don’t run newspapers. I don’t own newspapers,” he allowed. “They’re competing for money. Business is business. I just wish they would run those strips.”

He had a second thought. “It also breaks a kind of personal meaningless record. Jump Start has been going ten years now without a repeat. My personal Y2K disaster has occurred.”

Armstrong described Schulz to me as “a bigger-than-life icon that every cartoonist on some level has mercilessly ripped off. I think his method of infusing cartoon characters with personality is something that every cartoonist emulates. Before Charles Schulz came on the scene they were very flat, one-dimensional–like the town drunk. A cartoon character was an extension of vaudeville. He realized there was something more to be done there.

“I’ve heard people say they don’t see his influence. But his influence is everywhere–like, you know, oxygen is taken for granted. But we’re headed back into the box now, and one day we’ll go, ‘Wow, what happened?’ I already see it. I see the hot new strips being very flat and angry, being one-note–very uninteresting and predictable. It may take time, but we’ll see his influence when it’s not there.”

Switched at Birth

Tiny, pink Mishayla Holzmeister is a very special baby. Born just 13 seconds into the New Year at La Grange Memorial Hospital, she was pictured in the arms of her adoring parents on the front page of the January 2 Sun-Times.

Tiny, brown Isaiah Brandon Feria is another special baby. Pictured in his parents’ arms on page three of the same Sun-Times, he was born at Illinois Masonic Medical Center 13 seconds before Mishayla.

It’s rare that the second-born of a New Year–or, if you will, century or millennium–gets better play than the firstborn. And since we’re keeping score, little Mishayla actually arrived third locally–Charles Daniel Norris III was born at five seconds after midnight in Aurora. Isaiah’s indignant family examined the Sun-Times coverage and reached for the phone. How come, they complained in calls to the paper’s city desk, our Isaiah is on page three though he’s the real millennium baby?

There are Sun-Times reporters who believed they could say why. They’ve been complaining among themselves for years that their paper bends over backward not to look “too urban”–as they say the front office delicately puts it. In their view, the Sun-Times is determined to make circulation inroads in white suburbs and skews its coverage accordingly.

This perception isn’t limited to the staff. Cliff Kelley tells me his morning callers on WVON have been railing for months at the Sun-Times for, as they see it, disdaining black Chicago. “People are saying they’ll never buy it again,” says Kelley. The picture placement of the year’s first babies was more grist for the mill. “I would have mentioned it,” says Kelley. “It’s just that it was mentioned first by a caller.”

Though it looked both awful and intentional, the back-of-the-bus insult paid firstborn Isaiah Brandon Feria was simply an “unfortunate mix-up” says Nigel Wade. Jaundiced reporters have come around to agree, some blaming a corps of editors that is understaffed, underexperienced, stressed-out, and intimidated.

Celebrating the first birth of a year is a precious newspaper tradition that calls for slightly more science than Groundhog Day. These days fetal monitors automatically print out the time of delivery, but since there’s no atomic clock in Greenwich, England, or anywhere else that the world’s fetal monitors are synchronized with, differences of a few seconds in the birth times recorded by various hospitals are meaningful only to editors. This New Year’s Eve no new baby was expected at Illinois Masonic at any time close to midnight. The one woman in labor, Mary Hernandez, was barely dilated, and her delivery was believed to be hours away. Jeremy Manier, the Tribune reporter at the scene, was present only because Illinois Masonic is a level-one trauma center and he was trolling for Y2K calamities. “Utter coincidence,” he says.

Midnight passed, and Manier called his desk and said nothing was going on. Little did he know. As hospital spokesman Carm Esposito puts it, Mary Hernandez had suddenly “started dilating really fast and boom-a-dee-boom.” The fetal monitor she wore announced that her son Isaiah had been born at the unlikely moment of 12:00:00.

The nurse in charge of the labor and delivery unit called the hospital’s Y2K “command center,” a conference room off the emergency room where top administrators were standing by to deal with system breakdowns. The command center called Esposito. She told Manier, who, luckily for him, hadn’t left yet and rushed to the birthing floor. Baby Isaiah’s extended family was also piling in. “There must have been 10 or 12 people there. It was kind of chaotic,” says Esposito. “I couldn’t have used the phone at the nurses’ station even if I’d wanted to.” The family had taken it over and was calling everyone in town–except, alas, the Sun-Times.

Soon the TV crews began to arrive–from Channel Seven, Fox, CLTV. When she found a moment, Esposito retreated to an empty room with a telephone in it. She called Channel Two, which had asked to be alerted if a baby was born at midnight, but Channel Two responded that it had decided not to send anyone. The other name on Esposito’s list was the Sun-Times–reporter Jim Ritter had written every hospital in the region asking for help. But Esposito told herself she was too busy just then to call the Sun-Times as well, and she went back to work.

The Sun-Times found out about Isaiah Brandon Feria when the early Sunday edition of the Tribune arrived in the Sun-Times city room Saturday morning.

The screwup is what followed. The Sun-Times dutifully dispatched a reporter and photographer to Illinois Masonic and got a fine picture of Isaiah in plenty of time to slap it on the front page of the later Sunday editions. But a decision had already been made–back when the picture of Mishayla Holzmeister was the only one in the house–to run Mishayla’s picture on the front page. And nobody in authority thought to countermand it. Unlikely as it sounds, the picture of Mishayla stayed where it was. As if to set things right, a bizarre caption appeared beneath the picture advising readers that “Isaiah Brandon Feria…beat Mishayla by seconds to become Chicago’s first baby of the new millennium.”

“Most regrettable,” says Wade of this performance.

Having botched the story the first time and weathered a day of calumny, the Sun-Times decided to try again. On Sunday a second reporter-photographer team was sent out, and the Monday paper carried a front-page story of Isaiah’s arrival home on the northwest side and a front-page picture of the baby and his parents. “Fittingly, Chicago’s first millennium baby has a face of diversity,” announced the Sun-Times. Not done yet, last Saturday the penitent daily carried a story about an appeal by Mary Hernandez’s church for businesses to help the struggling family.

I asked Wade if the phrase “too urban” was one he was apt to use.

“No,” he replied. “That is not a phrase I am apt to use.”

But one of his reporters tells me that an analogy sweeping the newsroom compared the paper’s blundering to a chronic felon finally sent to the chair for the one crime he didn’t commit.

News bite

Last Sunday brought news of a 54-year-old grandmother in the state of Washington who’d just given birth to triplets. The radio report I heard concluded with the assurance of a specialist in fetal medicine that it’s “extremely rare” for women in their 50s to have triplets. An expert’s perspective enhances any story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eddy Palumbo/Jump Start reprinted by permission of United Features Syndicate, Inc.