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Christmas a time for reflection on 47 years in the newspaper business

A Christmas card . . . to our readers:

Stick with us.

As I enter my 48th year in the newspaper business in Chicago, I thought I’d share a few memories with those of you who have stuck with me since my column began at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986.

In fact, there was a Michael Sneed before that.


If Christmas is a time for reflection, I’d like to spend a little time doing just that — if you don’t mind.

It was snowing when I began my career in 1967. At least I remember it that way.

I was wearing gloves and a Saks Fifth Avenue dress and looking perfectly ridiculous walking into the old 18th District police station on Chicago Avenue, replete with a bleeding stab victim in the foyer, to cover my first beat for the prestigious City News Bureau of Chicago: the police.

That assignment enabled me, a former political science/geography teacher at Barrington High School, to be called “Girlie,” “Honey” and “Check it out, chickie, before you believe five were killed in a craps game at Shakespeare Avenue.”

The bureau was famous for the slogan: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” . . . Or something like that. I thought it was ridiculous, but they were right.

It was the day of typewriters, copy paper, pneumatic tubes stuffed with stories pumped to newspaper, radio and TV stations citywide — and dictating stories from scratch to the legendary rewrite man, who once asked me if the suicide victim who jumped off the top of the YMCA on Chicago Avenue did a swan dive.

There were no cellphones or fax machines; it was gut hard work, being young helped, and a dress and heels were totally inappropriate for street reporters who had to be fast on their feet.

I also got to be yelled at by the legendary A.A. Dornfeld — who was the fella who infamously told you to check out your mother’s veracity.

Jeans and flats became work gear, unless you were fellow CNB reporter Pam Zekman, already a pro, who showed me the ropes at the Federal Building beat wearing white eye shadow, a shadow of a slip under a very short skirt, and looking like an exhausted cat who had just swallowed the canary — or the late, great Anne Keegan, who could charm a cop or a soldier into an award-winning story . . . and scare the hell out of everybody else.

It was a time to be young . . . and ambitious . . . and the era of trying to have a scoop by persuading your sources to keep their mouths shut overnight.

Nowadays a tweet can be a scoop; an email an answer; a text a confession.

Scary. Ridiculous. True.

It probably wasn’t Christmas Eve when I first entered the blood-smeared foyer at the Chicago Avenue police station in 1967 to cover my first story, but it was late in the year and I remember snow.

The memory fades with time . . . but what a time it was.

Covering the plight of Brookfield Zoo’s Ziggy the elephant (look it up), to the troubles in Northern Ireland; the uprising at Wounded Knee; the kidnapping of Patty Hearst; the White Night Kool-Aid killings at Jonestown, Guyana; the unknown scourge of child pornography that brought the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings in Chicago; becoming Mayor Jane Byrne’s press secretary; covering the return of the American hostages in Iran; the Cardinal Cody scandal . . . all led to a column I call a tip sheet.

What a time it was before technology took over in 1994; what a time it has been since then.

But one thing I know for sure: If you can’t find the story in the newspaper, which is struggling to survive this era of instant news (and gratification) . . . you better, like the great A.A. Dornfeld once said . . . check it out.

Merry Christmas.

The police file . . .

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) is urging the public to help identify the gunman who shot and killed 14th Ward resident Donatello Herrera, 35, in a drive-by shooting at a bus stop last week after finishing his shift at a Burger King near Western and Ogden Avenues.

Herrera left behind a wife, Amanda; two sons, Donatello Jr., 15; D’Artagnon, 12, and a daughter, Serenity, 6. “It’s tragic and it’s senseless,” Burke said.

Donations to help support the family are being accepted through the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, 1751 West 47th Street.

Sneedlings . . .

Friday’s birthdays: Jared Leto, 43; Lars Ulrich, 51, and Lynn Martin, ageless and priceless.