One of the classics
of English (and Flemish) literature is the anonymously written medieval
morality play entitled “The Summoning of Everyman,” or more commonly
and simply known as “Everyman.”
About 900 lines in
length, the play tells the story of an unnamed protagonist — Everyman —
to whom God has sent Death to summon for a pilgrimage from which he may
Along the way, Everyman,
the character, attempts to negotiate his fate. He runs into Fellowship,
Kindred, Cousin and Goods, all of whom have comforted him in life. None
are willing to accompany him on the road ahead. He similarly comes upon
Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and the Five Wits (or senses), all of
which have served him well with goodness but ultimately remain behind.
Partial spoiler alert:
Good Deeds, Knowledge and Confession figure more prominently in the
journey as it progresses, Good Deeds gaining strength along the way.
Longtime St. Louis
Post-Dispatch Metro Columnist Bill McClellan nodded toward Everyman in a
compelling and graceful column published in Sunday’s edition.
Four times nearly every
week for more than 30 years, Bill McClellan has held up a mirror to St.
Louis. Through reporting and writing, and with about 850 words each
installment, he has told uncounted stories of St. Louis people and
situations. They focus on facts, customs, landmarks, and circumstances
of life in this community. Many are cause for celebration. Others reveal
crossroads where deliverance and despair, the ordinary and
extraordinary, and the sacred and the profane intersect. Some just lapse
into good natured silliness, and kidding around, that's also part of
McClellan wrote this
Sunday that he has been diagnosed with cancer. It is cancer of the bile
ducts, a rare and serious condition. Those who know McClellan’s work
understand an irony in this.
McClellan’s methods of
chronicling community life, here in St. Louis, recalls the best of
fellow Chicagoan Mike Royko — the greatest of all metro columnists. Both
display herculean work habits. Both make it look easy. Both employ
prose that are crisp and concise, engaging the reader with wit
and wisdom powered by short declarative sentences made up of common
Anglo Saxon words.
But here’s a difference:
McClellan confines himself to cheerfully reporting facts. Some facts
sting. But when they do, McClellan conveys them without animus, and when
appropriate with sincere hopes for second chances.
McClellan, thus, is best
seen as Royko’s sunnier younger brother. He's that rarest of people for
whom bile ducts seem superfluous. His copy is bile (but not gluten)
Still, McClellan, like Everyman, seems to be weighing options. His Sunday column reflects as much.
For now, only two things are abundantly and irrefutably clear:
McClellan Ain’t Dead Yet, and it is hard to imagine a person — Any Man — with a stronger negotiating position.
Dan Martin, longtime
illustrator of the Weatherbird, is one of McClellan’s closest associates
at the paper. Both started at the Post in May 1980. Martin calls him
the “sort of the older brother I never had,” the “kind of brother who
would show you how to make a fake ID.”
Martin argues that, “if reader affection … is a gauge for a successful outcome, I know Bill will be fine.”
But there is more:
Imagine a wall large
enough to post a monthly calendar covering more than 30 years, month
following month, dating from 1983, when McClellan began writing columns
for the Post-Dispatch, through this Sunday. Call the calendar
“Generation at a Glance.”
Throw a dart at the
calendar. Let’s say it randomly lands on five years ago. Consider the
opening excerpts — “ledes” as they are called in
the news-writing business — from just three of the more than one dozen
McClellan columns published in October 2010:
Stephen Berger sold
cars. He was good at it. Susan Berger was attractive, personable and
could type a mile a minute. She was a secretary for a big shot at the
brewery back when that meant something.
In the fall of 1984,
Stephen and Susan were invited to a dinner party on a Friday night. That
was always a big night for selling cars, and Stephen suggested Susan go
to the dinner and he'd join her later. He did. So they were in two cars
when they left the party. Susan was just ahead of Stephen, driving west
on Loughborough Avenue. She stopped at a flashing red light at
Morganford Road. As she entered the intersection, her car was struck by a
car heading north on Morganford.
"I saw the car come flying into the intersection," said Stephen.
The driver of the car
was a young man. He had been at his grandparents' 50th anniversary. In
later depositions, he admitted he'd been drinking, but on the night of
the accident, he was taken to the hospital and was not charged with
Susan survived, but
barely. She was in a coma for 67 days. The doctor told Stephen he had
never seen anybody survive with such terrible injuries. "Thank you for
saving her," Stephen said.
"I hope we did you a favor," the doctor replied.
Dale Hough knew that
he was adopted. He knew that he had been put up for adoption immediately
after his birth on Dec. 12, 1963. He did not know much more than that.
His adoptive mother
died when he was 3, so he was raised by his adoptive father. Dale was
smart, but rebellious. He got in trouble at his public school, and his
father put him in a Catholic school. Not for religious reasons — his
father was not Catholic — but because there was more discipline at the
Catholic school. Dale did better, but he remained rebellious. He
eventually dropped out of high school and earned a GED.
He straightened out
when he fell in love with a young woman, Margie Hood. She was Catholic.
Margie and Dale had two daughters, and they raised them in the Catholic
faith. The family went to St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church on
Flad Avenue in St. Louis.
About 20 years ago,
his adoptive father gave him the name of a midwife who had been involved
in his adoption. Dale contacted her. She would not give him names, but
she told him that his biological mother was Jewish and his biological
father was not.
Michael Karr grew up
in a middle-class family in St. Louis County. He went to Christian
Brothers College high school. He did well. Then he went to Spring Hill
College in Alabama. He majored in psychology with a minor in business.
He did well.
He went to work in
the financial industry. This was in the mid-'90s and the market was
booming. People talked about stocks at parties. Everything seemed to go
up and up. Karr worked at a brokerage house. He did well.
In 2006, with the
market again climbing, he was recruited by a mutual fund and annuity
company as a regional marketing director. He was responsible for five
states. He had a salary in the low six figures.
In 2008, the financial world cratered and Karr was laid off.
He was disappointed
but confident. He had some savings, a small severance package and, most
of all, an impressive résumé. He figured he'd find another job in the
financial industry without too much trouble.
* * *
What happened to
Stephen and Susan, Dale and Margie, and Michael? What about the hundreds
and hundreds of other St. Louisans whose circumstances Bill McClellan
has so carefully looked into, considered and shared with us, over the
years and right up to this Sunday?
Not many Everymen engage
Beauty, Strength, Discretion and the Five Wits so thoroughly in the
cause of humanity and community life — or have created a record that
confers a special kind of immortality on others.
Not many so securely harness and elevate Good Deeds, Knowledge and Confession for their neighbors to see.
(Pictured: Sunday Oct 18 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and partial view of cover illustration (by Dan Martin) of Gently Down the Stream, a collection of columns by St. Louis Post-Dispatch Columnist Bill McClellan.)