In Memoriam: Bob Schwabach

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An ebullient guy.
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Bob examining his birthday cake from newsroom colleagues. (Inscription on the cookie, “Write if you get work.”)

Only a few people make me wake up in the middle of the night and laugh. This is about one of them.

I was living in Chicago in the 1980s when there were still two big daily papers, the Sun-Times (blue-collar, South Side) and the Trib (white collar, North Side). Local columnists, many of whom drank at the Billy Goat Tavern (of later SNL fame) were local heroes: Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, Bob Greene, and others.

And there were still plenty of people around who remembered the rambunctious newspaper culture captured in the old stage play (and 1974 Lemmon-Matthau movie) The Front Page.

I’ve only known one veteran of the old newspaper wars, as he was also a freelance contributor to a business magazine I edited for a time. Bob Schwabach was a portly guy (by the time I met him) who often resembled an unmade bed, even when dressed up. He was for a time a food critic and that made sense: he liked to eat.

I recall him once taking me to the Berghof restaurant’s bar in downtown Chicago where we stood next to futures traders and cab drivers quaffing dark beer on tap while Bob proceeded to pop down several steaming knackwursts one after the other. (“They’re small,” he observed happily.)

Somehow I can’t let my old friend go without attempting to put down at least a few of his stories, as best I can remember them. (Some details here are probably wrong, I have no doubt, so apologies in advance.) I’ve put Bob’s voice below in quotes, with my explanations in brackets.

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I knew Bob was a graduate of the University of Chicago, back in its glory days. I was always asking him about famous people there, most whom he pretended to have barely heard of, just for dramatic effect.

It was a wonderful time there. I walked into my first literature class and it was this guy named Bellow [Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize laureate]. For American history, I remember it was a prof named Boorstin [Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress and noted historian]. I took one economics course — some guy named Friedman [Milton Friedman, Nobel-winning economist].

At the time I was interested in improv and I thought I was pretty good. But some of the other students were really good — there was a guy named Nichols. He had a girlfriend named May. [The famous Nichols and May comedy duo, progenitors of Chicago’s standup tradition that culminated in Second City and numerous Saturday Night Live stars.]

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Bob went on to do graduate work in archaeology and then decided to try the newspaper business. This story is one of my favorites.

One day I just dropped out of academic life and took a cub reporter job with the paper in Wilmington Delaware. I didn’t quite know what I was doing — or much about Wilmington. One day, not long after I moved to town, I sat down at a local lunch counter and the guy next to me looked up and said hello. I said hello back but just couldn’t place him.

Finally, he leaned over: “Bob, don’t you know who I am?”, he asked. I gave him a blank look and he said quietly, “Bob, I’m the mayor.”

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Bob launched his newspaper career in Wilmington, won some prizes, hosted a talk show, and then moved on to the Philadelphia Inquirer and to the Chicago Tribune, where he wrote features and became a restaurant reviewer.

Yeah, I got pretty good at the business. Newspapering is actually simple if you’re willing to do the leg work — mostly verifying and making sure everything is accurate. You know the old saying: If your mother says she loves you, check it out!

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Working in Philadelphia naturally leads to an awareness of neighboring places — like New York City. Bob once told me an epic story about why New York is different, including the restaurant reviewing business.

I heard about a guy who got fired from his paper in New York because they found out he “threw” a restaurant review. Here’s what happened. One day the guy gets a call asking him to please come review a new Chinese restaurant which is just about to open on the ground floor of a new building. The critic says, sorry, I pick my own places to review. The other guy says, you better think about this. My organization is prepared to pay you a certain sum of money if this restaurant gets a five-star review. The guy is kinda stunned. He talks a little more and then decides to throw the review. He goes to the restaurant, has a meal, and next day in the paper the place gets a five-star review. A couple of weeks later, the story about the payoff somehow leaks out and he’s fired on the spot. So here’s the question: how much was he paid to do the review?

Answer: $25,000 — in 1990 dollars. For writing a 600-word review. The caller was a real estate guy who understood that the new restaurant was going to be a key attraction for the ground floor traffic. So in New York, in the midst of the real estate boom, this all made perfect sense.

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One of the things I loved about Bob was his highly sensitive B.S. detector. His training at the University of Chicago gave him a razor-sharp style when evaluating other people’s big ideas, such as the educational theory behind the Sesame Street TV show.

One day the Inquirer asked me to go interview the woman who founded this new TV show, Sesame Street. She had a nice bright office with lots of toys lying about and quite a few plaques and awards on the wall. She gives me the spiel about how Sesame Street uses television to draw children into a media environment in which they are bombarded by images, colors, sounds. Which she obviously thinks is highly educational.

So I ask her: what does this do to kids’ rational faculties? Doesn’t it weaken their capacity for careful, sequential reasoning, all these images and sounds washing over them? Seems like it might actually set them back in school.

She sits up in her chair and starts sputtering at me. How can I question this great new show, with all the research behind it, etc., etc. She turns and points to all the plaques on the wall. “Just look at these,” she says.

“Yeah, yeah”, I say, adding, “But you know what? All those people eat lunch together.” She was really furious with me.

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There were other stories I can’t quite recall in every detail. His college roommate (from England?) who woke him up from a nap one afternoon to go see an amazing discovery he’s made in the Hyde Park neighborhood. It turned out to be a Dairy Queen — his roommate had never had soft-serve ice cream which for some reason he found absolutely life-changing.

One of his first articles for our business magazine was on the explosion in online computing (this is early days in the PC revolution, remember). Bob began the piece with something like (I’m paraphrasing wildly here), “The new PC modems are popping up all over the computing landscape today, more numerous than the ukka-bukka flies on the plains of Goombashi…” It was hard to continue reading the article after an opening like that.

Finally, I’ve omitted several interesting details about his life covered in this obituary. And I’ve said nothing here about Bob’s long partnership with his wonderful wife Joy or about his children, as I have not met them.

I hope his memory will always be a blessing to them.

Civic entrepreneur

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