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A last kindness: Judy Baar Topinka twinkles from the beyond

Sun-Times photo

It couldn’t be.

Could it?

I had been burning off a few excess vacation days at the end of December, working at home on home stuff instead of working at work on work stuff, when I stopped by the office the day before New Year’s Eve, to write a column, schmooze and collect my mail. Last-minute Christmas cards, a manifesto of some sort and . . . a white legal envelope, bold return address: JUDY BAAR TOPINKA.

Judy wrote to me — and I assume to all reporters, perhaps to all Illinoisans — more than any public official I know. I received more mail from her than from the rest of state government combined. After she died Dec. 10, I had hopelessly pawed through the piles of clutter in my office, looking for the quaint little 1950s-style folders she sent with a clipping tucked inside. One last one, as a keepsake. They were designed to send to constituents, but she used them to praise things I had written, with underlines and highlighted sections and exclamation marks and comments in her tiny, crabbed hand. The sort of thing you’d look at, smile at and throw away. I couldn’t find any and felt bad. It would be good to have one.

This . . . oh wait. I quickly remembered how a Topinka staffer had come by the office, the day after she died. Could she buy a few extra copies of the paper, with Judy’s obituary? No, I said, she couldn’t buy one. But we of course would be happy to give her some, and I handed her a stack. This must be her note of thanks. Who does that? But if anybody still did, it would be someone from Judy’s office.

No, not a thank you. The same cheesy folder, with a photo of the Capitol in Springfield, shaped to the outline of Illinois, with a retro “I Saw You in the News!” across it, and “STATE OF ILLINOIS COMPTROLLER — JUDY BAAR TOPINKA.”

“Dear Friend” began the form letter printed inside. “I enjoyed this clipping about you in the newspaper, and thought you might like a copy. Congratulations!”

The clipping was a Nov. 17 column, where I begin by talking about the variety of books in my home office and end by talking about Kim Kardashian’s backside. “What a wonderful column,” Judy scrawled in the margin. “Gets me somewhat motivated to organize my voluminous library of books. If you ever need anything ever written about Elizabeth the 1st and her age, let me know (Sincerely) Comp. JBT.”

For the record, it wasn’t a particularly good column, never mind wonderful. But if you were puzzled by the outpouring of general sadness at the passing of Judy Baar last month, I think that note explains a lot, and perhaps gives us all a few tips about living our own lives in the coming year.

What does it show?

1. Make an effort. Judy put herself out. She went to the trouble. There is no part of the comptroller’s job that involves greasing reporters’ massive egos and, indeed, her note wasn’t done with the idea of a quid pro quo, of tilling the soil for good coverage. Her kindness would curdle if it were followed up by her rattling the cup for publicity. But she didn’t. She was just being nice.

2. Be nice. When people have a complaint, you sure hear from them. And sometimes I want to say, “You’ve never said a word, for years, about ever liking anything, and now something bothers you and I’m supposed to listen to you grouse?” Being nice is planting the seeds that flower later. I guarantee you, had Judy Baar been irked by something, I’d have snapped to attention, because that wasn’t her way.

3. Be interested. My column started by talking about books and ended by talking about Kardashian’s butt. Judy moved the focus into the age of Elizabeth I. There’s something refreshing about that. The range of interesting things is boundless, unless we blinder ourselves. Look around.

There are more conclusions I could draw, but that’s enough.

I checked the postmark of the envelope. Dec. 2. I’ve never been so grateful for the foot-dragging of the post office, though the paper’s decimated back-office staff might also have had a role. My guess is it worked its way through the Chicago mails for a week and spent another week in a bin at the paper.

No matter. I have it now. I carefully returned the clipping to the folder, the folder to the envelope, and filed them under “Topinka, Judy Baar.” A little scrap, a tangible token of the love and enthusiasm that she radiated. I was lucky to know her. We all were. And if you want people to miss you, too, when you’re gone, the way everybody misses Judy, you might consider adopting a few of her practices.