It was a happy occasion, the ceremony for Chicago journalist Rick Kogan’s Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement Tuesday night at the Chopin Theater, just a mile’s chilly walk from my house. But it put me in a bit of a funk.
“This is, I like to think, a sort of preview of my funeral,” Kogan said with a grin, to begin his charming and beautiful speech.
I smiled, but I did not laugh. I don’t like to think about Kogan’s death—or even a “lifetime achievement award,” which someone suggested Tuesday night meant telling an aging artist, “Okay, that’s enough.”
Rick Kogan was part of the very most exhilarating time in my writing life. Far from, “that’s enough,” Kogan was the one who first said to me: Let’s see what you got, kid.
After spending my twenties at a trade publishing company, rising from editorial assistant to writer to editor and editorial director, I found myself at 29, standing at the office coffee pot, not wanting to return to my desk to edit other people’s writing and sign off on columnists’ invoices. I wanted to write! And not just about the narrow field I was covering, but about everything, and everyone!
But trade journalism was one thing, and real journalism was a fortress—like its Chicago symbol, the Tribune tower—that seemed as practical to scale with my bare hands as to be welcomed through the front door.
What was I going to do?
There was a dark night in tears, sitting on my living room floor. There was an abrupt resignation from the publishing company and a wolverine scramble to find some freelance income. There were a few clips in local alternative papers. And then there was an introduction, through a well-connected friend, to a Chicago journalist named Rick Kogan. Somewhat miraculously, Kogan had inherited not just all the connections, but all of the talent and the drive of his legendary newspaperman father Herman, a contemporary and pal of my greatest hero, Studs Terkel.
Meeting Rick Kogan led to a thrilling run of newspaper and magazine writing in Chicago and far beyond. Eventually my bio would say, “Murray has written feature stories on politics, golf, murder, hairpiece making, boxing, ballet, homelessness, motorcycling, the state supreme court, sailing, dinosaurs, professional poker and other related subjects.” Not even mentioning my gonzo season, playing quarterback on a women’s professional football team.
I was happy to be invited to write something in the program for Kogan’s lifetime achievement award. I wrote:
I am one of countless Chicago writers who owe the start we got to the generosity of Rick Kogan.
On the strength of one bare connection, Rick bought a babbling young Ohioan three stiff drinks at the Billy Goat, and told me which of my story ideas to pitch to the managing editor of the once-great Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine. Reemerging on the surface of the Earth, I understood that my pitch would be Kogan-endorsed, and that this really was my shot at the Big League.
Long before that article was published … I wrote to Rick in astonished wonder, asking what motivated him to help out a dummy like me, in this way.
I wish I had the email he wrote back, because paraphrasing Rick Kogan is like paraphrasing—well, Herman Kogan. But I do remember that Rick invoked his dad in his reply, saying that giving hungry Chicago writers a leg up was a Kogan tradition that he did not start—and specifying that the way to pay it back was to be as helpful as I could to young writers, too. And I know he signed it as he signs all his emails, “Onward.”
The promise I returned to Rick, I consider to be among the most sacred I have ever made.
Maybe more sacred than I meant to make. Much of my life’s work, these days, involves helping other writers—many of them young, too—find and navigate meaningful careers in professional communication. I love this work, as anyone can see.
Still, when I think of Rick Kogan, I think of that other me—and that trembling meeting at the Billy Goat. Kogan was also there the night I met Terkel, in a restaurant booth, and listened open-mouthed to the great man deliver a first-person monologue that leapt back and forth across the entire 20th century before he interrupted himself to boom at me, “I’ve been talking to you for two hours! Who the hell are ya?”
And there was the day I went on Kogan’s Sunday “Morning Papers” radio show at WGN, whose studios were located in the Tribune tower, where they now had my name at the front desk. I remember climbing up the stairs from Lower Michigan Avenue, looking up through the big hole in the sidewalk and seeing that great Medieval edifice silhouetted against the perfect blue morning sky of my writing future.
I’ll never feel like that again.
I hope I have plenty more writing and publishing left to do in my life. Like every writer who can still bring him- or herself to the keyboard, I still hope that I have yet to do my best work. And hey, maybe there’ll even be some more collaboration with Kogan, who—between a terrifying COVID bout and another health scare—interviewed me again on WGN on the day before we launched An Effort to Understand. Kogan doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, anytime soon.
But I left the Chopin Theater Tuesday night without speaking to Kogan or most of the rest of the Chicago writers I know who were there.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to say hello.
It was more that I didn’t want to say goodnight.