Columns / Discourse / April 17, 2019

Tribute to Robin Metz

I am not normally a scarf person but I am wearing one today in honor of Robin Metz. He was my friend and my colleague. He was also outrageous, a genius and a magnet, which is why I am here to start with.

Years ago, which was roughly in 1997, I had just published a book on death and dying, called “The Good Death.” I was happily living in New York and teaching journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Among the courses I taught was one on the history of progressive journalism, which of course included S. S. McClure and McClure’s magazine. It was published at the beginning of the last century and it included in its pages all the great journalists of the time: Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell. These journalists changed the course of journalism itself from yellow tabloids into investigative journalism, compelling then President Theodore Roosevelt to later dub them the Muckrakers.

All of these writers were primarily responsible for ushering in Progressive Era legislation like child labor laws and safe food laws. They wrote about corruption in city after city, about the building of trusts like Standard Oil that were throttling small industry growth, about poverty, about crime and about the shame of it all. McClure’s also included great fiction writers as well. In its pages were among the first published works of Mark Twain, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Willa Cather, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, among many others.

The mastermind behind all this was S.S. (Sam) McClure, Knox College class of 1882. While at Knox he founded The Knox Student (TKS) — which is, as you are reading this — still being published today. The year after he graduated from Knox, McClure and his TKS business manager John Sanborn Phillips went to New York and began McClure’s magazine. You can read about this in a fabulous book by Willa Cather, called “The Autobiography of S. S. McClure”. He was my journalism hero; Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell were among the first journalists I had ever read.

And then along came Robin. When I wrote my book, “The Good Death,” Bill Colby, the key attorney who successfully argued the landmark case of Nancy Beth Cruzan before the U.S. Supreme Court, had helped me significantly in understanding end-of-life law. After my book was finished he told me he had gone to Knox College as an undergraduate, that there was a professor there he loved, and that professor — a poet — had just written a book of poetry about the death of his wife, Liz Jahnke. He wanted to send it to me. He thought I would like it.

Now, I am not a poetry person any more than I generally wear scarves, but Bill had helped me a lot and I felt indebted. I had never heard of Knox, not even of Galesburg, Ill., where he said it was located. I felt compelled to say yes, even to read it. I discovered I loved it and called Bill to tell him so.

The next thing I knew the poet was on the phone. His name was Robin Metz and he said he was about to come to New York and did I want to have lunch. Well, there too, I had to say yes, so we did, he and his new wife Liz Carlin-Metz and me. That lunch went on for three hours. We had so much to say, enjoyed ourselves so much.

Meanwhile, Liz made piles of romaine lettuce stems on the side of her plate and when I eventually asked her why she said she hated “lettuce bones.” Robin told me both his wives were named Liz and he wore two wedding rings. Liz number two was Liz number one’s best friend. I thought they were lunatics. I loved them both. They were crazy, just like me. I’d found my tribe!

Robin, it also turned out, was co-teaching a seminar on death and dying, with Professors Diana Beck and Tim Kasser. Robin asked me if I would come to campus to speak. I was glad to. I didn’t know it yet, but then, after my talk, the seduction began.

Robin told me then that McClure had gone to Knox, that he’d started the school newspaper and then began McClure’s magazine right afterward. He told me he was buried here and took me to Hope Cemetery to see his grave. McClure is buried with a small stone beneath the large headstone of his father-in-law, Knox Professor Albert Hurd, who considered McClure a menace, not worthy of having married his daughter, Harriet, who is also buried there.  

It turned out, Professor Hurd wouldn’t let Sam in his house; McClure, it should be said, may have been as outrageous as Robin. But he ended up supporting Hurd in the retired professor’s old age, which is likely why he was even allowed to be buried there. Then Robin took me to see Carl Sandburg’s house, to see sites on the Underground Railroad, told me the labor history of Galesburg, and, of course, showed me the site of the Lincoln-Douglas debate.

As he drove me back to the airport, I mused that I would love to teach at a college like this. And that’s when he pounced! He said, “How would you like to create a journalism program here in the vision and history of Sam McClure? How would you like to create a program in the very tradition of progressive, investigative journalism, Muckraking journalism, in the place where it all began?”

Mind you, I had already told him how much I loved McClure before I’d ever heard he was from Galesburg. I tried to resist.

I told Robin: “I live in New York.”

He said: “You can come only one term a year. What’s 10 weeks?”

I said: “Where would I live?”

He said: “We’ll get you an apartment.”

I said: “My husband lives in New York.”

He said: “We will give you three plane tickets for him to come visit.”

I said: “I have no car.”

He said: “We’ll get you one.”

By the time we had reached Moline he’d practically given me a contract. Only I didn’t know he wasn’t authorized to do that.

To cover himself, I later learned he called Dean Larry Breitborde night and day until the poor man could say nothing but yes. By the time Larry called me I was surprised. I thought it was superfluous, that I already had the job and had accepted it. I thought Larry was making a joke.

He said: “Is it okay if your title is Distinguished Professor of Journalism?” (I’d never heard of a great title like that.)

I told him: “Well, I’d rather be Queen.” And that’s how my stint at Knox first began.

By the time I arrived I realized the truth. The plane tickets were real. It turned out the car was Robin’s mother’s. He wanted her to stop driving after watching her mount multiple curbs on her travels around town. So he took it away from her and gave it to me, probably telling her how much she was helping out. It was an honor.

The apartment wasn’t what I was used to. When I drove up, there were loud bird screeches filling the air. Robin said they were recordings of hawks in the midst of a kill, that they were blaring from loudspeakers atop the buildings downtown, that they were there to scare away the hordes of crows that had descended on the city. It was a veritable Hitchcock movie.

When I got inside, Gordy—who was four at the time and the child of Tom and Carla Foley, who owned the building—told me I needed an umbrella whenever I went outside so the crows wouldn’t poop on my head. Plus, his mother always carried tissues to wipe off the poop in case they did. He suggested it might be good if I took some, too. Need I say? I loved everything about Galesburg right away.

Robin created a vision, one that was exactly meant for me. He totally got me. He got right away who I was and expanded that vision so I could see myself in the middle of that drama, see what that vision could become and how I could grow into a far better person.

But he also did something more. He embedded that vision right into Knox’s legacy, expanding that legacy greatly. I stayed on for 13 years. Using McClure as our guide, our journalism students rode in police cars, learned to cover the city, got newspaper bylines and won state-wide professional awards, fulfilling not just my vision or Robin’s vision, but likely McClure’s vision himself.  

TKS also became great. It won state-wide, regional and national awards. It made all of us — David Amor, my co-founder and co-chair, and Tom Martin, who eventually agreed to take the paper higher than ever before — it made all of us proud.

Robin was a genius. He could create anything into being just by talking about it. He made me and everyone else think big. Robin was also a fantastic friend and he has now become a Knox legacy himself. I thank you Robin. We will miss you.

by Distinguished Professor Emerita Marilyn Webb

TKS Staff

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1 Comment

Apr 18, 2019

You’re right, McClure’s autobiography is fabulous. What a great tale of a poor Irish immigrant rising to the height of American journalism. Just to clarify, S.S. McClure’s book is called “My Autobiography.” When originally published Willa Cather got no byline–she was hired as the ghost writer. We’ve recently republished the book, giving both contributors credit. McClure paced around the room while Cather typed–it’s his story, but it’s her book.

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