SSU changed the course of my life.
I was a dissatisfied teacher who had no idea I could actually be paid to write, something I loved to do, and further learn more about public policy, an area in which I'd hoped to 'make a difference.'
I owe a debt of gratitude to founding President Bob Spencer for helping form Sangamon State and, even more, for allowing me to meet then-Lt. Gov. Paul Simon, who was at that moment creating the Public Affairs Reporting program.
That seminal project of Paul's introduced me and 14 others to the vital field of public affairs journalism and, via Capitol bureau internships, allowed us to enter the profession I felt so privileged to join.
I served my reporting internship under the gifted pro, John Camper, who was chief of the Capitol Bureau of the Chicago Daily News, Mike Royko's home paper. I met so many fascinating Daily News journalists, including Henry Hanson and Charlie Nicodemus, for whom I did a lot of legwork in the corporation division of the Secretary of State's office.
John taught me about the legislature and its operations and how to cover it all. He helped me conduct an investigation of 'double-dipping' legislators, who got paychecks from both the state and 'back home' local governments. He even shared his byline with me on that one.
The pressroom, then overseen by Shelby Vasconcelles, was in a huge, cavernous room, divided by partitions for each bureau. It was full of typwriter and newswire clacking, riotous jokes, and Shelby's occasional yells, "UPI! Pick up your phone!" when someone wasn't answering an incoming call.
We interns met and worked alongside such great reporters as Tom Laue, Mike Robinson, Bob Kieckhefer, Burnell Heinecke, Charlie Wheeler, Larry Kramp, Gregg Ramshaw, Taylor Pensoneau, Simeon Osby, and Al and Mary Lou Manning (and many more I've forgotten at the moment).
We met and worked alongside the gifted photographers Les Sintay and John Filo, who just two years before had won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography for his shot of the girl kneeling, pleadingly, over the body of a Kent State student who'd been killed by the Ohio National Guard in an infamous 1970 incident.
SSU and Paul Simon gave me superb training that led to a newspaper job, and gave me friendships that have lasted for a lifetime.
Because of SSU and Paul, I had the credentials to take over a fortuitous opening for legislative correspondent at the now defunct Illinois State Register, just months after receiving my degree.
And, when the Copley family decided to merge the PM Register with the AM Journal (creating today's Springfield J-R) and I suddenly didn't fit into their new editorial plans, I was able to continue reporting thanks to the intervention on my behalf of fellow PAR graduate Roger Wolfe, who was covering the legislature for WICS-TV in Springfield and helped me land another aptly-timed opening at Roger's station.
Eventually Paul asked me to join his congressional office in Washington to cover education issues (and energy, the environment, agriculture, foreign language education, transportation, and other public policy topics) as one of his legislative assistants. Through him and his staff I learned, over the course of nearly seven years, how Congress and its committees work and was able to assist Paul on a number of education-related bills and resolutions.
After I left Paul, I ended up as a legislative specialist (lobbyist) for the American Assn of School Administrators, the professional membership association for local school superintendents, where I have been able -- for the past 25 years -- to advocate on behalf of school leaders and the interests of disadvantaged children and their education.
Again, thanks to Paul, I had the skills to become a freelance biweekly columnist for the 'Tempo' (lifestyle) section of the suburban Washington Journal Newspapers (circ. 120,000) for a year; and then the only weekly columnist published by Arlington, Va.'s only weekly newspaper for 19 years.
Many of those columns and subsequent blogs that became 'recommended reader' posts during the '08 campaign at The Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo, can be read at www.penningthoughts.com, the tag that had been the name of my 19-year, "Penning Thoughts" newspaper column.
The paper decided in early '08 that I was too hot to handle, when I became the subject of fierce postings on at least two gun blogs. Those groups were reacting to my last column, "Honey, Grab the Derringer, We're Taking the Kids to McDonalds!" a story of how an anti-gun bill, 'Guns may not be carried into bars,' got turned into, 'Guns may be carried into bars, as long as the gun-toter doesn't drink'!
Thanks to Bob Spencer, Paul Simon and SSU for what each of them did to help me become a newspaperman, columnist and education advocate who made it to Washington, D.C., where Mary Ann and I raised four daughters and jut celebrated our 42nd anniversary.
What a life you gave me. What a joy it has been.