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PAPERWORK: Giving praise to the real ‘superheroes’

I had to pause the documentary I was watching.

Several times.

To be candid and honest, I was getting emotional.

And thoughts were sprouting and I had to pluck ‘em and write them down.

Now, with my keyboard getting restless, I’m reading those notes.

Where to begin?

Feels like I need to share. But what?

Feels like there’s more at stake right now than me pecking out a few hundred words to entertain or educate you.

Yeah. I need to take your hand and pull you in closer. Sit you down.

So you know it’s important.

You need to hear this.


I guess that means everyone. At least everyone who can read.

In some ways the documentary I was watching turned into a “superhero” movie.

With a different breed of superheroes.

They didn’t fly or crawl up skyscrapers.

But they did go where others couldn’t … or wouldn’t.

They didn’t have mystical or mythical or magical powers.

At least not the kind you find in comics or graphic novels.

Their powers were super, but very human. And keen and focused.

They could see things. Hear things. Feel things that many of us ignore or miss or simply forgot.

Things that surround us, sometimes overwhelm us, and most certainly affect us.

The stuff of life.

I wrote down these names … my superheroes:

Jimmy Breslin.

Ernie Pyle.

Mike Royko.

I put Breslin first because he was the star of the documentary I was watching on HBO, “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.”

Breslin and Pete Hamill were competing columnists in New York — and friends.

Hamill wrote for the New York Post, New York Daily News and the Village Voice.

Breslin was in the New York Daily News Sunday edition.

Hamill and many others also belong on the heroes list. But the three I listed stand tall in my hall of fame.

And it’s for the same reason. Because of those very human but highly focused powers they had … to see and hear and feel.

And write.

It’s because of where they went to find their stories. And the kind of stories they found.

Now … stay in close. This is the part that’s important to many of you.

These guys weren’t leashed to meetings or official agendas. Their day did not have to include City Hall or some capitol building or government facility.

They covered the streets. And the people walking them. Working them.

Their hopes. Their pain. Their dreams and schemes.

Or in Pyle’s case, he also walked through the mud and slept in the trenches with soldiers. Soldiers who yearned for the streets back home.

Their mission was a lesson for reporters. A billboard message for those who think newspapers have lost their way.

I wrote it down as it spoke to me, the mission:

Find those who have no voice.

Hear the whisper and give it volume and space.

Step away from the spotlight and explore the shadows.

Find the victims … and the day-to-day heroes.

Find these people and simply say, “Help me understand. Make me understand.”

And then tell their story.

And they did. And so Breslin, Pyle, and Royko helped us understand.

Royko gave us the streets of Chicago. Breslin the boroughs of New York.

And Pyle took us down streets and back roads across America, and then into the gut of war.

Most telling are the pieces Breslin wrote after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

They stand as lessons for excellent journalism. And what newspapers can deliver … when you need it most.

While the massive herd of reporters absorbed press conferences and official announcements, Breslin took another path.

He found the doctor who desperately tried to save the president’s life. And failed.

The day the nation mourned and followed the caisson with the presidents’s body, Breslin saw more.

He found the man who had been called out to dig graves that day in Arlington National Cemetery, including the president’s.

Breslin gave Clifton Pollard a place in history, and a voice — a chance to say, “It’s an honor.”

That’s what reporters do. Give voice.

That’s what newspapers do. Give voice.

Breslin. Pyle. Royko. They are gone.

But not the mission … the need to give voice.

Not the clamor and clash of national politics. Those voices will always be heard.

More important are the voices that need to be heard.

Voices that speak of the good and the bad, the strong and the weak, the give and the take … in the community where you live.

That’s what a local, hometown newspaper does, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Local papers give voice. As best as they can. As long as they can.

Yeah, that’s important. Because that voice belongs to you. And me.

All of us.

LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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