Miner says True “was sick about it. I was sick too.’’ They discussed the best way to handle it. True decided she would personally tell each of the four. Conroy was not in the office, so True drove to his home. She stayed about thirty minutes. “It was the worst day of my professional life,’’ she says. “Maybe it was in the top two worst days of my personal life.’’
Conroy says he harbors no ill will. Regrets, sorrow, yes, but, “I’m still friends with the people who fired me.’’
One of his regrets is going into journalism in the first place. At least that’s what he says when the bills are due and he doesn’t know where his next freelance assignment is coming from. When Conroy set off for the University of Illinois in 1969, he wanted to make a lot of money. He majored in finance and got good grades. Conroy and his three sisters had heard stories from their Irish-American father, a salesman at Sears, about the horrors of the Great Depression. Conroy’s mother, a bookkeeper and graduate of DePaul University, had her own Depression tales, but the memories were not seared into her soul.
But the campus and the country were in turmoil in those days. Conroy did not want to be on the sidelines. “I wanted to do some good in the world,’’ he says. He switched his major to English with a minor in journalism. “It was probably the first bad business decision I made,’’ he says. “If I had stayed the course as finance major I wouldn’t be worried now about how I am going to get my kids through college.’’
After college, Conroy, who grew up in suburban Skokie, joined Vista, the domestic Peace Corps. During his nine months working with the poor on Long Island, he helped start a community newspaper, the Fair Hearing. Then he sent out 120 application letters, hoping to land a journalism job. He got three offers. “I was twenty-three years old,’’ he recalled in his remarks upon receiving the Studs Terkel Award for excellence in reporting about Chicago’s diverse communities in 2005. “I’d been hired by what later became Chicago Magazine as the bottom man on a three-man editorial totem pole. I was making $7,500 a year and was worth about that much. At the time, Chicago Magazine was owned by WFMT, where Studs had his daily show and the magazine and radio station shared the same offices. So there was I, who knew nothing, sharing the same hallways with Studs, who knew everyone . . . and whose books were full of people you could not ordinarily read about, ordinary people doing extraordinary, brave, and sometimes questionable and even cruel things. I couldn’t believe my luck.’’
Conroy is old school. He asks the questions, but he’s reluctant to answer them, especially when they are about him. When he was approached by Chicago Magazine to write about being mugged in 2008, his instinct was to say no, even though he needed the money. He ended up writing the piece, “A Mugging on Lake Street,’’ which was published in September 2009. In the piece he writes about his ambivalence: “As I scramble to make a living from freelance assignments, I should also be thankful that an editor solicited this story and kept the offer on the table until I overcame my reluctance. That editor was laid off while the contract was in the mail.’’
The article touches on the main issues of Conroy’s reporting career—crime and violence, race and justice. It begins:
I was ambushed on the West Side last year, an attack that on its face made no sense. I’d never seen my assailant before; he’d never seen me; no words were exchanged; nothing was taken. Like many crime victims, I wanted the incident, which changed my life for the worse, to have some meaning. I’m white, he is black, and in time it was hard not to wonder if race had something to do with it.