Doing Stories About People You Know: Example: Jim Ryan
News is easy to do when you don't know the people you're covering--detachment breeds objectivity. it's another story when you know the person you're talking about.
Enter Jim Ryan.
I've prepared a feature on the Penfield Children's Center president and former Milwaukee County Board Supervisor that's set to air Monday on Wisconsin's Morning News. Most of you remember Jim as the man who lost to Scott Walker in the 2002 race for Milwaukee County Executive. I had the chance to meet him long before that as we did any number of things (most, at Jim and wife Lisa's urging) for St. Mary's Catholic Church in Hales Corners.
In fact, we'd just completed one such task--a fundraiser for the St. Mary parish school endowment fund around this time a year ago. It was a formal event at the Boerner Center in Whitnall Park (a beautiful facility that Jim spearheaded the construction of) and we'd all worked it in some capacity. I was the emcee, and by night's end, I was dog-tired. There was nothing left in my sociability gland. I wanted to go home. Badly.
Jim, on the other hand, won a bunch of money at one of the event's raffles--a good bit of cash that had earned him the nickname "Jimmy Wad". He and other the other couples were headed to a local bar to celebrate both his good fortune and the successful end to the event. My wife wanted to go, too, and insisted I come with. I REALLY wanted to go home. I relented, and we ended up closing the place.
It's the best thing she ever talked me into.
It was just a few weeks later that we'd heard Jim wasn't feeling well, and by January he'd gotten the news he had an aggressive form of stomach cancer. Chemo and other treatments followed, and Jim's energy started to sag. He missed the annual Brewers tailgate party our group throws for high bidders at a St. Mary's auction. Then, he missed the annual Penfield Croquet Ball at the Milwaukee Country Club--an event he always invited me to emcee. It gave me a chance to see Jim at his best--gliding effortlessly among some of the area's financial, business and social heavyweights, all for the benefit of the facility he serves so tirelessly. Jim is about bringing people together, building a consensus for a cause, never keeping score as to who has the best ideas.
When Jim missed THAT night, I knew he had to be pretty sick.
His illness is forcing him to end his 20 year run as Hales Corners Village President, and to pull back on some of the many committees, boards and advisory groups he's part of. That prompted my boss, News Director Jon Byman, to ask me if I was up to doing an interview with Jim about his illness, and about life. That's what tomorrow's story is about. How he's coping. How he views the future. How friends came through for him when he got ill. How others deal with him. How he looks at what all of us will eventually face.
Reporters get to "know" their subjects--it's hard not to when you talk to someone over and over again. It's something else, though, when you were friends with a news maker long before they made headlines. Such was the case Tuesday morning at Penfield when Jim and I spoke. We'd done most of our talking over a County Stadium/Miller Park grill, prepping food for the annual St. Mary tailgate. Or, we'd be chasing around the Endowment dinner, doing something our wives had asked us to carry out. At the end, there'd be a drink and talk and laughter amid the afterglow that comes with a job well done.
Tuesday meant a mike and a tape recorder and talk about his life: his commitment to others, his joy at bringing people together, his belief in consensus in politics rather than partisan bickering and the reduction of the process into bumper-sticker-sloganeering. We had a laugh or two, but, in the interest of full disclosure, it's the first time I ever ended an interview in tears. I want the old Jim Ryan back, both for my sake and the community's. His fight continues, but it still hurts to see someone you care about suffer--someone who can't do what he wants to because of a disease that's dominating his life.
Milwaukee is a big city, but the longer you live here, you realize what a small town it truly is. You get to know a lot of people, and you'll like some more than others. In the news business, you'll eventually have to report about someone that you've had a relationship with. This was one of the first times I found myself in that position. I hope there's another one soon--the one where Jim and I are talking about his recovery and his full return to public life.
He wants it.
Our community needs it.