Don McLeese and Dave Hoekstra — remember those names, all you newspaper readers?
They were, in their time, not so long ago, among the most influential and popular in the Sun-Times, McLeese on the music beat and Hoekstra on many cultures, entertainment and sports .
McLeese first left the city, going to Austin, Texas, where he wrote for the Austin American-Statesman and then went to the University of Iowa in Des Moines to study journalism, where he worked for almost 20 years.
Hoekstra started writing for newspapers in high school for the Aurora Beacon-News, Hoekstra left the Sun-Times after 30 years there in 2014. As he told me that time, “The time was right, even though the paper mostly. stopped covering a lot of things I wrote.”
Each has written previous books, McLeese about Dwight Yoakam and the Motor City 5, and Hoekstra about dinner parties, soul food and more. These new books are their passion and boldness, one on a professional level and the other on a personal level.
In “Beacons in the Darkness: Hope and Transformation Among America’s Community Newspapers” (Agate Midway), Hoekstra writes, “To understand a community newspaper … you have to understand what a community is.” He also wrote that “this is not a book about journalism … (but) a book about a lost land of community relations and dedication to the common good.”
It started four years ago with his desire to write about the Hillsboro Journal-News in a small Illinois town of about 6,000 people about 75 miles north of St. This idea grew into a challenge, as he interviewed and examined dozens of people in nearly 20 other newspapers, all independent and family-run, from one to the fifth generation.
He gave us a look at the papers in Miami, South Carolina and the Reader in the city, and gave good stories. I was very taken with the people from Marfa, Texas, where the Big Bend Sentinel is run by a young couple from New York, who decorated their offices with coffee and soda bottles.
The upbeat and optimistic setting is set against a grim backdrop, filled with stark statistics like “since 2004, more than 1,800 local printing houses have closed in the United States and elsewhere of 200 counties have no newspapers.”
“More than once during the interview … family members were close to tears,” he wrote. But Hoekstra is a happy man. He doesn’t have an easy answer to “how do newspapers survive?” question but he gives many examples of how others have tried, bravely and creatively. He wrote, “newspapers are not dead if they share the spirit of experimental thought with society.”
I read this book before it was published and that is why you will see some words from me on its cover. I wrote that it contained “hope for us all.”
The same goes for McLeese’s “Slippery Steps: Rolling and Tumbling Toward Sobriety” (Ice Cube Press), in which he tells readers, in about 250 pages, “I didn’t write this because, I thought it was a book about me. You have some serious interest, and if I had, I could have made that part very interesting – rock stars, news articles, etc. My purpose now is to write about how dating can change your life, or has changed my life.”
However, it begins in such a happy way that it is impossible not to read it. He wrote, on his first page, “I don’t know who I am, where I am, or why. I don’t know how long I’ve been there. It’s so dark, it’s pouring, but 10 o’clock at night or 4 in the morning? Lightning and thunder. It’s a hot August night in West Des Moines. I’m lying on the grass, but not wet.
Then he gives us the bumpy road that got him to that sad place, through his childhood, running a bookstore, a first marriage, writing for the Reader and then the Sun-Times.
He continued to drink and was addicted to marijuana and cocaine for a while. He didn’t see any problems, because he continued to work high and successful. He has a family, good jobs and status.
But he knows better now, asking in the book, “How many times have I driven drunk? Every time is bad, at least on the way home. The fact that I haven’t hurt anyone, or killed anyone, or been charged with drunk driving, seems like a miracle to me.
He started writing this book without any intention of getting it published. “In some ways, it’s a cleansing for me, a sanctification of the character I once wrote for myself,” he told me. “This is an effort to understand myself.”
It’s very true and, he says, “My wife Maria doesn’t really want me to do this book but she’s brave,” he said. However, he and his two older daughters, Kelly and Molly, are placed on the sidelines with loyalty and love, his love and respect are evident.
McLeese and Hoekstra are excited to be in the business talking about their new books. We can only hope that they have a lot to write about.