6 min read
Posted on 10.19.15
  • 6 min read
  • Posted on 10.19.15
  • Filed under
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • Bill McClellan
  • Dan Martin

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 never return.

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 community life.

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) free.

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:

Oct 10

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 anything.

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.

October 25

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.

October 27

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.)