To the associate professor with the TV news background who told a young Mike Cassidy that he ought to consider a career other than media, we have just one word:
Years after graduating from the UI — a three-year adventure that admittedly got off to a rocky start — the Loyola of Chicago transfer went on to share the newspaper industry’s most coveted prize with his San Jose Mercury News teammates, for their coverage of the earthquake that crippled the Bay Area in 1989.
“It’s a good thing the question at hand isn’t about the place I spent the most time at while attending the University of Illinois,” he says “Let’s just say Murphy’s Pub edged out the Undergraduate Library. In fact, the library might as well have been buried underground as far as I was concerned.
“And while Murphy’s probably did go a long way toward shaping who I am today and a long way towards convincing me I never had to drink another Busch beer in my life, the physical location I probably owe the most to is the basement of Illini Hall.
“The basement was home to the Daily Illini newsroom during my U of I stint, which was 1978 to 1981. I can’t say that I was one of those DI staffers who practically lived in that basement. In fact, I was a little slow to warm up to the place — starting out as a copy editor in my junior year and a very bad one at that.
“See, I had doubts. I wasn’t sure I could be good at newspapering. I wanted to be. I was taking Introduction to Journalism at the time and I was struggling. Well, I didn’t think I was struggling. I kind of liked it.
"But my instructor, an associate professor who’d worked in TV news, thought I was struggling. Or he thought I was average. A ‘C’ student — someone, he said, who should consider another career.
“Instead, I kept at it in the basement of Illini Hall and in the classrooms at Greg Hall, because I didn’t want to consider another career. I wanted to work at a newspaper — more than anything.
“I branched out from the copy desk and started writing stories. My first was a cops and courts story about someone, a student I’m guessing, who was charged with a crime — nothing extremely serious, but nothing to write home about either. Literally.
“It’s funny that I don’t remember the details: What crime? Was the alleged perpetrator a student or not, a man or a woman? What I remember is sitting at a desk in the basement of Illini Hall staring at a phone. I needed to dial that phone to reach a Champaign County prosecutor.
“I was having serious stage fright. What if I called and someone answered? I’d have to start firing questions at a complete stranger. What if they weren’t the right questions? What if they weren’t even good questions?
“What if I called and no one answered or the prosecutor wasn’t available? What if the prosecutor didn’t want to deal with some college kid who didn’t even have good questions?
“I made the call. I reached the prosecutor. The conversation was awkward, but I got through it. I presumably made some more calls. I wrote the story. I survived. I wrote more stories.
"I started writing features — a big takeout on the South Shore Railroad, a big takeout on the Kentucky Derby with the help of my friend Ted Cox, who as I recall did most of the driving when we hightailed it to Churchill Downs in a DI-mobile.
“In the basement of Illini Hall, I began to love the idea of working for a newspaper even more, now that the idea wasn’t just an idea anymore. I began to feel that bond that would become wonderfully familiar to me in later years, the bond that a group of diverse personalities in a newsroom forms, knowing they are on a shared and serious mission.
“My senior year I tried out and was selected as Campus Scout, a humor column that was a Daily Illini feature for nearly 100 years before it was retired in the early 2000s. That sealed it. I loved column writing — the pressure to produce, the freedom to prod and entertain and, yes, the sense of celebrity, however minor and fleeting it might have been.
“I set off from Illinois down a 33-year career path in journalism. Small weekly paper to small afternoon daily to larger afternoon daily to larger metropolitan regional paper. I traveled the country, witnessed history many times over, shared in a Pulitzer Prize with my newsroom colleagues and, yes, became a columnist covering Silicon Valley.
“And I loved every minute of it.
“While I’m grateful for the educators of Greg Hall who worked teaching me the basics of reporting and writing, without a doubt, it was the days and nights in the basement of Illini Hall that turned me into a journalist.”