Monday, February 25, 2013

Remembering Tom Grieger

It was a Sunday afternoon in the late spring of 1987. I was living and working in Macomb, Illinois, for the Macomb Daily Journal. I'd been there since August of 1983, and was looking to make a move up the ranks in the world of photojournalism. That is, I wanted a better job at a bigger newspaper. After three and a half years, I felt I was ready.

There was an opening at The Daily Herald, in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Suburban Chicago. A staff of  six or seven photographers who took up about seven of the top ten spots in the monthly clip contests with the Illinois Press Photographer's Association. A great staff with a great reputation. I wanted to be part of that team, and applied.

On that Sunday, I was totally immersed in watching my beloved Boston Celtics on the tube. They were in a playoff run.

The phone rang. The fact that the phone rang is important. Most of the time, when the Celtics were on, I unplugged the phone.

I answered. It was my cousin, Eric Kiser, calling from Quincy. I'm not sure what he wanted, but had to excuse himself. "I'll call you back in two minutes," he said.

Less than two minutes passed, the phone rang again. I picked up and said, "Eric Kiser Insurance. How may I help you?" I thought I was pranking my cousin. There was a pause, then a voice at the other end said, "I think I may have the wrong number." I immediately knew it was not Eric. "No. You may not. Who is this, please," I asked? "This is Tom Grieger, of The Daily Herald," was the reply.

Thinking that callback to be Eric, I came "this" close to answering the phone that second time with, "What the fuck do you want?" Had I done so, I might still be working in Macomb. Later, I related this story to the man who would become my boss in June of 1987. Tom Grieger. The Director of Photography, at The Daily Herald. Thankfully, he thought it was funny.

I went to work for Tom that summer. I worked for him for eight years, barring a year and half I was at a sports newspaper. Tom retired in the summer of 1995. He was a very easy to guy to work for. A gentle man who knew how to "coach" his staff.

Saturday night, around 8 p.m., Tom passed away.

A few memories from those days with Tom and the incredible staff of people I worked with...

My formal interview was on Monday, Memorial Day of 1987. Tom, and Mike Seeling, the Assistant Director of Photography, and I sat in their office for three hours. My buddy, Mark Dial, and I had driven to Arlington Heights from Indianapolis, where we'd been to the 500 the day before. While I interviewed, Mark napped in the car in front of the paper on Campbell Street. 217 Campbell, I think.

Most of the photographers were out shooting parades. But I did get to meet Rich Chapman that day. He was back early from his gig.

I was offered the job. I was "green." I know for a fact that they could have hired more qualified shooters than me. But I'm glad they liked what they saw. And I'm grateful they took a chance on me.

I learned a lot at The Herald. I was surrounded with talented, nice, co-workers who shared their knowledge about the craft of photojournalism. I also made life long friends there. Things eventually fell apart, and I wound up in Galesburg. Some of my best work was done here. But it was good because of what I learned up there. The ten years I spent in Chicago were my "golden years." Shooting pro sports, covering big stories, etc.

One such event happened in November of 1987. Chicago Mayor Harold Washington died suddenly. City hall was up for grabs. There was a lot of turmoil surrounding who would become the next mayor. My colleague, Dave Tonge, and I, were sent to cover a meeting in downtown Chicago, at city hall. Dave was in the council chambers, I was downstairs, in the lobby.

A huge crowd assembled. Angry people. Some of the anger was directed at Eugene Sawyer, a council member who was interested in becoming mayor, and did. He was not favorable with much of the public. Especially the black community.

In the middle of the chaos, a man came downstairs to address the crowd. He was roundly booed. I made pictures, and asked a woman who was near, "Who is that?" "That's Sawyer," she told me, without  hesitation.

I raced back to Arlington Heights, processed my film. made my prints, wrote my captions, and made deadline. I was feeling pretty good.

Photographers are competitive. We all like to think we captured the best image from an event. And though we were all friendly, it was especially nice to "beat" The Tribune or Sun-Times. The next morning, I was out running errands. I went straight to the honor boxes containing papers. The front of The Sun-Times had a photo very similar to mine. But the man identified was not Eugene Sawyer.

"Uh-Oh. Shit," I thought. "Somebody is wrong."

When we walked into the photo department, Tom's office was to the left, the general work area was ahead and right. That afternoon, Tom was there to greet me, wiggling his pointer finger at me. "Come here, honkie," he said. He was calm, and polite. He even told me the copy desk should have caught my mistake. But we had a good discussion on double checking facts and identification. And not taking a stranger's word on something. It was a big story. Ultimately, I caused major embarrassment to the paper. I was forgiven, and life went on.

A lighter tale. They sent me to Sarasota, Florida to cover spring training for the White Sox in 1989. I was picked over the other guys. I was progressing as a shooter, and had apparently earned what we called "plum assignments." A trip to Florida in late winter was a good one to get.

Everything went well. We shot slide film in those days. Exposure was tricky. You had to be dead on. It was hard to expose for the highlights, while trying to obtain shadow detail under the bills of the ball caps. At the end of every day, I put the film on a flight to Chicago. Someone would go pick it up at O'Hare. This was before the days of computers, or easy transmission of pictures.

Soon after I got back, Tom called me into his office. I wondered what the meeting could be about. It was my expense report from the trip. Again, in his pleasant manner, he asked me about my accounting. "According to this, you were tipping the waitress 50%." "For that amount of money, I hope she was sitting on your lap naked, and feeding you grapes," he said with a smile and a laugh.

I explained myself. And I was honest. I didn't do any cheating. I took no advantage, or hid anything. I was simply caught up in doing my job, and having a good time doing it. Rather than do my expenses daily, I put it all off until returning. I put everything together in haste, resulting in "fuzzy math."

Tom was a graduate of Indiana University, in the journalism program. Shooting styles in photojournalism evolve over the years. Tom was very good for his era. I don't know his whole career history at The Herald, but his first day on the job as a staff photographer was November 22nd, 1963. The day Kennedy was assassinated. It was bound to have been a wild day in the newsroom!

He stayed with The Herald, and eventually rose to Director of Photography. He and Bob Finch began to assemble and cultivate a crack team of shooters. The Herald was still small, but growing. Photos got huge play, five and six columns across the page. It was a visual paper. Photography carried a lot of clout. And any photojournalist would love to have a spot on the staff. Tom was instrumental in building this reputation. Many shooters went on to larger, metro papers. The names of alumni from the paper is very impressive. And the high calibre of photography there continues to this day.

Tom was not an imposing figure. Slender, he often wore a cardigan sweater. He was not heavy handed in his dealing with people. He had a great sense of humor. He would jokingly ask us if we "Worked in a mattress factory," because he thought we must be "padding" our mileage reports.

If he was in the office when a few of us were to get together and go out for lunch, he'd send us on our way with the command of, "Eat, pigs!"

If the assignment was something he deemed to be mundane, he'd tell us, "Don't crap around on it."

"Twit" was a favorite of his. But if he referred to someone with that term, it was said with a smile, and in good nature.

"Monkification" was a Grieger original, as far as I know. This too, dealt with assignments that had so little to offer in opportunity for good photography, that a monkey could shoot them. At least I think that is the origin of that phrase.

When I moved to Galesburg in 1997, there was a period of time that Tom and I lost connection with each other. Somehow, thankfully, that was reignited five or six years ago. We talked on the phone, I visited him a few times at his home. We shared good memories, and he always took interest in how I was doing down here.

He had been failing some. Slowing down, the past year and a half. When his wife Sharon called Sunday evening, I feared the worst, even before she told me. You can just tell when it's "that" call.

I will miss him. A bunch of us will. He was a great man, a great guy to work for. A lot of us can thank him for making us better photographers, and for the opportunity he and The Daily Herald provided us to become so.

Tom Grieger and myself. November of 2011. Tom was the retired Director of Photography at The Daily Herald