For Charlie Wheeler, 50 years watching what happens in Springfield as a reporter, educator is enough
Former Sun-Times staffer is stepping down as director of the University of Illinois-Springfield’s public affairs reporting program.
Charlie Wheeler has forgotten more about the Illinois Legislature than most reporters will ever know — and he hasn’t forgotten much, least of all the time an ill-tempered state senator purposely dumped a bowl of hot soup on him.
Longtime readers of the Chicago Sun-Times might remember Wheeler by his elegant byline, Charles N. Wheeler III, matched by the equally elegant writing style he used to explain the legislative complexities in a way everyone could understand.
More recent readers might know him for his insightful comments, offered from his perch as director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois-Springfield, where he has helped mold a generation of top young journalists.
Wheeler, 77, is retiring this summer after an amazing 50-year run as a close observer of the Springfield scene — the first 24 years with the Sun-Times, the last 26 running the reporting program.
It offers internships to graduate students, who spend a semester covering state government for professional news organizations that staff the Capitol. More than 700 students have come through the program since it was started in 1972 by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon between stints in public office.
Many former students went on to distinguished careers in newspaper, radio and television newsrooms across the country, creating an accomplished alumni roster I won’t even try to list to avoid leaving somebody out.
Wheeler has had a hand in all of those careers, serving on the selection committee that picked the students in the earlier years and then inheriting the director’s role in 1993.
Simon, a former newspaperman himself, recognized a need to train young journalists as specialists in government reporting. That need remains great, even as contraction in the news business has made the task more complicated.
As recently as the class of 2004-2005, the program had 22 interns. This year, it has seven.
The problem, according to Wheeler, is so few news organizations still maintain a full-time bureau in Springfield, a result of budget cuts and realigned priorities. Two- and three-person operations have disappeared or been shrunk to one reporter “really overworked, trying to do everything.”
“It’s not just in Springfield but in state capitals all across the country,” Wheeler said. “It’s limited the public’s ability to know what’s going on and alert people to things that shouldn’t be going on.”
The hands-on experience and training under the close supervision of professional journalists have made the PAR program so successful.
Longer ago than I care to admit, I was one of those interns, lucky to be assigned to work in the Sun-Times’ bureau with Wheeler and the bureau chief, G. Robert Hillman.
Between Wheeler’s scholarly, gentlemanly approach and Hillman’s more aggressive, sharp-elbowed style, I got a great introduction to the news business and will always be indebted to them both.
As a reporter, Wheeler’s reputation was impeccable, based on two pillars of the business — fairness and accuracy.
“I don’t know how many stories I’ve written. I remember all the errors I made and how they came about,” Wheeler told me, and he began to enumerate them.
Fortunately, he doesn’t remember the time I made a really stupid mistake on a legislative roundup story on which we shared a double byline — the only time I’ve seen him angry.
Wheeler also was a master of the art of writing for people who know nothing about the subject while also writing for those who know more than the writer — an underappreciated balancing act that helps cultivate readers and sources.
When Wheeler joined academia in 1993, the Illinois Senate passed a resolution in his honor.
“Throughout the course of his reporting on the General Assembly, one thing you could always say: Charlie reported it accurately because he actually did read the bills, more than what we do sometimes,” former state Sen. Emil Jones of Chicago observed that day.
It is indeed one of Wheeler’s golden rules: Read the bill.
It seems simple. But you would be amazed how often reporters and lawmakers alike don’t do that in the crunch of a legislative session.
The rule is based on the premise that legislators can’t be trusted to explain what’s in legislation they present because often they don’t really know. And, well, sometimes they lie.
Wheeler’s overall good relationship with lawmakers made one particular 1977 incident stand out. It came during a stalemate in the election of a Senate president that required 186 roll calls before Sen. Tom Hynes of Chicago finally was selected.
Senators were in the thick of the contretemps when Wheeler paused to chat with two Democratic senators deemed disloyal to the others’ cause, prompting the often-erratic John Knuppel of downstate Petersburg to “accidentally” dump a bowl of tomato soup on Wheeler in a fit of pique.
I’m sure it was well worth it to Wheeler, if only to be able to repeat the story all these many years.
Wheeler first went to Springfield to cover the Constitutional Convention of 1970. That’s where he met young political up-and-comers such as Richard M. Daley, Dawn Clark Netsch and a fellow named Michael J. Madigan.
Their career proximities helped forge what I perceive to be a mutual respect between Wheeler and the controversial House speaker, though they are by no means buddies.
“He’s very good at what he does,” Wheeler said of Madigan. “I have a lot of respect for him. He works very, very hard.”
He had little respect, though, for our most recent governor, saying, “I think Bruce Rauner is the worst governor Illinois had in the 50 years I’ve been watching this stuff.”
Which is saying something considering three of the others went to prison.
If his name seems vaguely aristocratic or stuffy, please understand Charles N. Wheeler III is just a kid from Joliet Catholic and a rare third-generation newspapermen. Wheeler’s father insisted, as did his grandfather before him, that Charlie use his full name in the newspaper so there would be no confusion about which of them had authored a story.
His grandfather was political editor of the Chicago Daily News after earlier stints at the Inter Ocean, the Tribune and the Herald-Examiner. His father was a reporter and editor for the Chicago Times and the Sun-Times.
Wheeler says the reporting program he’s leaving will continue. A search for his successor is underway.
It’s trite to say it won’t be the same without him. But it truly won’t.