Remembering Benjamin Israel

Higher education had a term for folks like Benjamin Israel: “nontraditional student.” That applied to him in so many ways.

Benjamin died Monday morning. I wanted to share a little bit about his impact.

I first met Benjamin when I worked at UMSL’s student newspaper, The Current. Unlike the rest of us, he was older, with many years of journalism experience under his belt.

Why did he join The Current, a student newspaper at a commuter school with no journalism program?

Joe Harris, the paper’s editor, was in dire straits. There was a lot of turnover after the fall 1999 semester: Joe lost his news editor, photo editor, managing editor, and many other key personnel. Benjamin was working on his masters degree at UMSL and happened to see The Current’s “help wanted” advertisement. He was a journalist, and he needed a few bucks. Why not?

Joe hired Benjamin as news editor and proofreader. I was the production manager, so I worked closely with Benjamin each weekend, as all of us made the newspaper: designing pages, writing headlines and cutlines, proofreading, then printing, cutting and waxing stories onto “flats.”

Benjamin’s experience was a boon to us all. We listened to him and watched how he worked. He was a reporter who took things seriously, took nothing for granted, and had a sense of social justice. He believed reporting was more than just making phone calls; you had to go out into the real world, observe things and talk to people.

No matter what subject was being discussed, Benjamin would have an astute observation to offer, or a related story (or many) to tell. He was a gifted storyteller.

He and I came from very different backgrounds. I was an opinionated young conservative; Benjamin was a passionate liberal who had already lived an adventurous life of activism. That could be a recipe for butting heads, but that wasn’t the case with Benjamin.

My respect grew for him. A couple years later, while taking a Broadcast Writing and Reporting class, I was assigned to interview and write a story about a professional journalist. There were plenty of reporters around St. Louis to ask, but Benjamin seemed to me potentially far more interesting. And I was right. He agreed to be my subject and shared a number of anecdotes with me.

I’m going to post that story below, in tribute to him.

But first I should say that we stayed in touch over the years through email and Facebook. He wrote to me after the protests in Ferguson last fall, to find out how our family was doing. A few months later, we had a chance to catch up at a fundraising dinner for The Current. We talked about his experiences joining protesters in Clayton after the grand jury decision. He also talked a little about his recent health problems. He was as sharp as ever, sharing anecdotes, and making incisive observations as a group of alumni, students and administrators discussed the newspaper’s recent troubles and its plan to overcome them.

Benjamin was a great guy, and I will miss him.

Benajmin Israel reporter interview

(written Nov. 2001)

When Benjamin Israel found a typewriter in the trash, he knew it was a sign.

Israel has definitely led an unconventional life. In person he’s a character, a big guy with curly hair that’s almost an Afro, large glasses and a standard uniform of dress shirt, suspenders, rumpled trousers, but never a tie.

Some might be fooled by his resume, which includes stints as a garbage collector in Columbia, Mo. But eventually he became a reporter and has worked at large and small newspapers around Missouri. He’s volunteered as an activist for various causes, been a hospital clerk, studied to be a nurse, gotten involved in radio, worked in various factories and donut shops, and was active in several Marxist political and social groups during the 1970s and 1980s.

In the early 1970s, Israel got his first exposure to “news.” He started working at radio station KDNA shortly before his 21st birthday. It was a small operation and Israel soon became the news director. KDNA folded, but it was succeeded by today’s KDHX (the DHX stands for Double Helix, as in DNA).

But it was the underground press that really attracted Israel. One such paper was called On the Line and it dealt with various workplace issues in the light of Marxist ideas. Later, they used it to tackle world issues as well. Israel said it was distributed at factories around the city.

Eventually Israel had to take on other jobs to make ends meet. He worked at a factory making hospital beds and sleeper sofas for a while. He ended up in Columbia, Mo. as a garbage collector. One fateful day he found a typewriter in the trash and said “This is a sign!”

It was while he was in Columbia that Israel wrote his first professional news copy. He had been volunteering at a radio station and met a man who was upset about nuclear plants. The man told Israel about a disaster in Virginia and Israel wrote a piece on it that was published in The Guardian. He was paidUe $15 for his work–the first time he had been paid to write a story for a newspaper. Israel began stringing for the Guardian and selling the newspaper when he had time.

Later Israel went to Kansas City to join another Marxist group. But this group fell apart and Israel began having philosophical problems with some of the ideas these groups had been espousing. He and a friend named Lenny began producing a leftist newspaper called The Hammer that examined groups on the far right, like the Aryan Nation.

“It was a quarterly that came out three times a year,” Israel said laughing.

He spent a lot of time doing research for The Hammer. He began to realize that he was a good researcher and writer, but not a good organizer.

After a brief foray into the nursing field, Israel decided he needed to get into journalism. He was accepted by UMKC and MU but he decided to start at a small community college Dcalled Penn Valley since it would be cheaper the first few years.

“I did journalism before going to school,” Israel said,” but I still learned a lot in school, like how to be fair. I recognized that I had had an agenda.”

Once he joined MU, Israel did well as a student and he worked at the Missourian, a daily newspaper the University runs in order to give students real journalism experience. The other paper in town, the Tribune, is a professional paper that most residents seem to prefer.

While he was there, Israel covered the hospital beat. At that time the public county hospital was trying to go private.

“I consistently beat the Tribune reporter on that story,” Israel said. “Years later, she told me ‘You made me fear for my job!'”

Israel got noticed by the Tribune and the next spring was working for them.

He spent 4 years at the Tribune, but left after a dispute over a correction that ran in the paper about one of his stories. Israel was upset because

the correction was run for political reasons, not to fix a mistake.

“I felt disrespected because the paper didn’t back me up,” he said.

Israel also butted heads with some of the editors. They were good people, he said, but “everyone there had been promoted to their level of incompetence.”

Israel liked his stint at the Tribune because the area was easily manageable.

“Here in north county, there are so many god damn municipalities and so many school districts,” he said, laughing. “[In Columbia], we had one big city, one school district, and you had a good handle on it. You knew where to focus.”

Israel’s reporting philosophy is very people-centered.

“I’m a believer in democracy,” he said. “For democracy to work, people have to understand how things are. So I try to help people understand things in a story.”

Israel’s primary beats were health care and education. He said he wrote stories “bottom-up rather than top-down.” He interviewed first-graders (but said he didn’t get a lot of coherent ideas from them). He befriended the kids at the high school newspaper and got to know teachers in the schools. They made great sources, he said, and gave him information he’d never have gotten from school administrators who were at the “top.”

“I had a rule that I would spend time in a classroom at least once a week, so I could see what was actually going on.” Israel said. “You know, I ended up marrying a teacher.”

This human element sets his stories apart. Israel said he has always m>ade a point of visiting the people, places and locations his stories mention, rather than just interviewing them over the phone. On more than one occasion, he has discovered unusual things that changed routine stories into more interesting pieces.

“I like to see the things I’m writing about,” Israel said. “It’s nice to be able to describe what someone looks like.”

Israel has been a reporter and stringer for many other newspapers around the state, including the Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jefferson County Leader, and others. He was a stringer for the Associated Press. Over the years, he has moved around to meet the needs of his wife and family, and as their financial situation has changed.

After working for several years away from St. Louis, he came back to UMSL to pursue his master’s degree in history. Israel has become something of an expert on the life of Ira Cooper, a famous black police detective who lived in St. Louis in the early 20th century. Israe*l wrote a big feature on Cooper for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a year ago and is now working on a book about Cooper.

Of course, writing books doesn’t pay much, and school is expensive, so Israel swallowed his pride and joined the staff of the North County Journal. He’s on the Ferguson-Berkeley beat, where a lot of things are happening. While Israel didn’t have much positive to say about the Journal’s management, he said he preferred the Journal’s twice-a-week deadlines to daily newspaper deadlines because it enables him to write better stories than what his competition at the Post-Dispatch is able to.

With everything he’s done in life, it’s hard to imagine where he’s going next. But as he pursues his degree, works on his book, and reports for the Journal, Israel said he has an ultimate goal.

“I know that the chances of me making enough money on my book to be set for life are low,” he said, smiling. “But as I like to say, if HBO pays me for the rights to make a mini-series, I’ll be in real good shape.”

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The space explorers fight over an asteroid

Usually I tell Josie and Joseph bedtime stories which star two space explorers named Josie and Joseph.

Tonight I decided to change it up. They laughed so hard as I told this story that I figured I’d share it with you, too. Here goes:

The object of the quarrel. Photo by NASA.

The object of the quarrel. Photo by NASA.

Once upon a time there were two space explorers: a brother and sister named “Bonk” and “Bonk”.

Bonk was piloting their ship while Bonk was sleeping. Suddenly, a control panel lit up with flashing alerts. “Bonk!” yelled Bonk. “We’re running into a new asteroid field. Get up here!”

Bonk woke up, wiped his eyes, and ran to the bridge. “What is it, Bonk,” Bonk asked.

“Look over there,” said Bonk, pointing through the window towards a giant asteroid outside the ship.

“Wow!” said Bonk.

“Yeah, it’s a brand new asteroid,” said Bonk. “You know what that means, right?”

“We get to name it!” shouted Bonk. “Hooray!”

“I think we should name it ‘Bonk,'” said Bonk.

“But that’s YOUR name,” said Bonk. “Why can’t we name it ‘Bonk’ instead?”

Bonk rolled her eyes. “But you were sleeping. I’m the one who saw it first. Please, let’s call it ‘Bonk’!”

“NOOOO!” screamed Bonk. “No! We can’t name it ‘Bonk.’ We have to name it ‘BONK’!”

The two space explorers argued and argued back and forth. They just couldn’t agree who to name the asteroid after.

Finally they decided to flip a coin. Bonk chose heads, while Bonk chose tails. They flipped the coin, and it landed on heads.

“YES!” exclaimed Bonk.

“Aw man,” sniffed Bonk.

And so the asteroid was named “Bonk.”

But Bonk made Bonk promise that the next asteroid they discovered would be named Bonk after him.

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Merry Christmas from Ferguson

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What does one write in a Christmas newsletter after your little town has suffered civil unrest and become the center of international attention?

I’m not really sure, but here goes.

The first seven months of the year were memorable.

In April, for example, Yoli and I dropped off the kids for their AWANA class at church and decided to get away for a quick date night. We got a mocha latte and a snack and decided to walk along a trail at Creve Coeur Lake. We rounded the corner of the lake and just kept going. After all, how long could it take to make it back? But as the sun went down and bikers and joggers disappeared, we realized belatedly just how long a route it was. Our romantic walk became a race against time to get back to church that we will never forget.

In May, Yoli’s parents came to visit us. It was Don Hector and Dona Lucila’s second visit to St. Louis. They got to see the kids’ final days of school, Jadzia’s violin concert and the kids’ dance recital. We visited new places like the Science Center, the World Chess Hall of Fame and the Magic House. And we had a grand time seeing classic cars in old St. Charles (except the part where Joseph threw up all over everywhere).

In July we headed south to visit friends in Houston and family in San Antonio. It was cool to get a tour of my dad’s new business, called “City Plating.” We played putt-putt golf with mom and dad, the kids found frogs near Nan’s pool, we swam in the Guadalupe River (and so did my iPhone), we spent a morning at Kiddie Park. It was a great few weeks.

And then came August. Michael Brown was shot on Saturday, Aug. 9. That weekend was intense and surreal: I designed the front page of the Post-Dispatch each night, while watching on TV as my town convulsed with anger.
In those early days our family felt so sad and uncertain. What was happening? Many times we had difficult conversations with our kids. We prayed for the Browns, we prayed for justice, we prayed for peace.

I attended city council meetings and residents-only town halls. I learned of the cycle of tickets, warrants, and arrests driven by poverty. My eyes were opened to injustices I had been ignorant of.

It has been a long four months. The struggle in Ferguson has gone global. “Ferguson” is now a hashtag, a symbol known worldwide. Many people think they know our town, but they don’t. There is a resolve here to turn this tragedy into something good. To reform — and to rebuild, as we did after the Good Friday tornado in 2011.

I once heard a resident cite Esther 4:14, saying she believed Ferguson had been chosen for just such a time as this.

It’s hard to imagine a bright future. Yet we agree with her. God can bring change.

Josh and Yoli celebrate their anniversary at the Corner Coffeehouse in Ferguson.

Josh and Yoli celebrate their anniversary at the Corner Coffeehouse in Ferguson.

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Ferguson Sunday Parkways

Just as I began my drive to work, I noticed they were having Ferguson Sunday Parkways just down Darst from our house. This is one of many fun events Ferguson holds in different neighborhoods throughout the year.

I had forgotten it was coming up, and that it was so close to home. So, I called Yoli and let her know.

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Ferguson’s children: Our voice

Jadzia and her Vogt classmates pose for a photo in the bandshell at January-Wabash Park after the concert.

Jadzia and her Vogt schoolmates pose for a photo in the bandshell at January-Wabash Park after the concert.

Drums. Singing. Shakespeare. MLK.

What a great afternoon we had enjoying the artistry of Jadzia and other Ferguson kids!

The event was designed as a response to recent events in Ferguson and throughout St. Louis. Students from across the Ferguson-Florissant school district and neighboring districts sang, acted, and spoke in order to bring peace, joy and love through the arts.

Jadzia and a number of her Vogt schoolmates participated. Here is a video I made of some of the highlights:

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Second Ferguson DOJ town hall meeting

Ferguson residents line up outside First Baptist Church waiting to attend the second DOJ town hall meeting.

Ferguson residents line up outside First Baptist Church waiting to attend the second DOJ town hall meeting.

Tuesday night, the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service held its second town hall meeting in Ferguson.

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First Ferguson DOJ town hall meeting

Ferguson residents line up outside Wellspring Church waiting to attend the first DOJ town hall meeting.

Ferguson residents line up outside Wellspring Church waiting to attend the first DOJ town hall meeting.

Monday night, the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service held its first town hall meeting in Ferguson.

The town hall meetings were closed to everyone but Ferguson residents. The media were not allowed. Though I am employed at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I am also a Ferguson resident. I wanted to attend a town hall and I was allowed to.

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The space explorers meet the Borg

Borg and waffles

On nights when I am home from work, I tell the kids stories before bed. Because they are divided among two rooms, I usually tell two stories.

The first story is for Josie and Joseph, and usually involves me making up something about the two of them as “space explorers,” visiting new planets or meeting aliens or trying to escape from black holes.

The second story is for Jadzia and Ludi, who prefer to have an improv-style story in which they each pick a character for the story (like “a good dragon” and “a bad lamp”) and I have to make up the rest.

Occasionally, though, the older girls will overhear the younger kids’ story and ask me to repeat it for them. Tonight was one such night.

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Remembering Yolanda Salinas Hess

I was surprised this morning to see an obituary in the Post-Dispatch for Yolanda Salinas Hess. I wanted to share a little bit about her brief, but bright, impact on my life.
It started one morning late in Oct. 2002, when my dad told me to read an article in the Post-Dispatch about a new Hispanic bookstore that was opening in St. Ann. He said it had mentioned something about selling Bolivian music.

I read the story and headed over to “Librería Cultura Hispana” to see what sorts of Bolivian things they might have. I didn’t count on meeting a live, Bolivian person.

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Jadzia: Monarchs, part 2

Jadzia watches Muncher the butterfly hang on to a curtain.

Jadzia watches Muncher the butterfly hang on to a curtain.

Today I bring you the second part of the Muncher and Cruncher saga. There is sadness and there is hope. The following story was written by Jadzia. After the story is a video, which I filmed.

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