Former Beacon-News City Editor John Russell recently earned the badge of “COVID-19 Survivor,” a title he would appreciate more if the virus hadn’t taken his wife, Kathy, on May 28.
That’s a heartbreaking way to begin a story about a man whose life was dedicated to newspaper work. But John and Kathy were a team in life (married 45-1/2 years) as well as the newsroom.
Now, Russell is determined to see the Copley Newspapers’ “Ring of Truth” bell on display once more in downtown Aurora as a tribute to his wife and the many others who worked to fulfill the newspaper chain’s call for accuracy in reporting.
Russell began his career with The Beacon-News in 1974 as an intern reporter covering beats including the East and West Aurora school districts, Fox Valley Park District and Fox Metro Water Reclamation District. One of his main roles, he said, was filling in for “all the other reporters and editors on vacation,” which took him to county board and city council meetings.
He moved up to the news desk, then became a copy editor and wore many other hats and titles before becoming city editor in 1989.
Kathy joined The Beacon-News in the early 2000s as the newsroom administrative assistant. Both were laid off on March 13, 2013, in a Sun-Times Media Group shedding of staff. Kathy retired. John began job hunting. “I applied for a few newspaper jobs but didn’t get a lot of response,” he said.
“I got a call from (late Aurora mayor) Tom Weisner saying that the city was going to start a new grant writer position, so I should apply for it,” Russell said.
“That bailed Kathy and me out.”
Russell enjoys the challenge of seeking out grants and doing the research and writing to garner funds for city projects. “My job as a grant writer is fulfilling,” he said. “But you don’t find out for six months how you did. At the paper, everybody was working together. As a grant writer, I am working by myself.
“Newspaper work gave automatic feedback,” Russell said. “You knew immediately if you did a good job or a crappy job. There was so much excitement in feeling that you are accomplishing something every day. Everyone was working together and there was daily feedback.
“I was born to be a city editor, I think. I really liked it.”
In his day-in, day-out dealings with staff, he said he “had to be honest with reporters and let them know what they are doing is to make sure we got the best possible story we could get. If they bought into that, you had a good staff. Most of the time we had a damn good staff.”
The staff’s hard work paid off in the form of awards.
“In 2009, under (managing editor) Rick Nagel, we won one-third of the Illinois Press Association’s Excellence in News awards. We had such a good year, and that was very cool. We always got all kinds of awards, national and statewide. We were the Suburban Newspaper of the Year one year.”
The paper also received numerous “Ring of Truth” awards, given out by Copley Newspapers. One year, Russell was supposed to go to San Diego (on the newspaper owner’s private jet) with colleagues Mike Chapin and Jeff Kuczora to collect awards.
“And then we invaded Iraq, and I got left behind,” Russell said. “They had a week in San Diego in some private resort.
“But those guys were so good to work with.”
Wall Street Journal reporter Heather Gillers worked for Russell at the Beacon from 2005 to 2008. “John trained me to not be defensive about corrections. It was a lesson in the importance of not letting your ego interfere with your effort to give a truthful account of what happened. What a gift to 22-year-old me!”
Lorena Anderson, Beacon reporter from 1997 to 1999, said, “JR is stealthy. You don’t appreciate how much he’s teaching you until that day when you’re working with a reporter and catch yourself sounding just like John Russell – and you smile, because that’s a good thing.” Anderson is a senior writer and public information representative at the University of California, Merced.
“He’s one of those ‘real newspapermen’ of legend, the kind we’re all better for having worked with and learned from,” Anderson said. “He’s also a just a great guy. Working with him was a real privilege.”
Asked how he went about mentoring reporters, Russell said, “I tried to teach them to put an emphasis on writing so the community could understand what was going on. I said this once in a meeting and (then-community news editor) Jolene (Kremer) afterward said, ‘That really was a great line.’ And it was true. We are in this because we want to change the world. It’s an important job. We have to tell people what’s going on and let them make their decisions. You have to hit the neutral line in explaining stuff.
“I also think I taught them to swear.”
“Here's what I remember most from my time at the Beacon – with great nostalgia,” said photographer Heather Eidson: “John Russell before deadline: ‘Goddamnit, Heather!’ John Russell after deadline: ‘Heather, you're a wonderful person.’” Eidson now manages her own production company, Heather Eidson Photography and Media L.L.C. She worked for the paper from 2004 until 2009.
“I was kind of an asshole with photographers,” John admits. “I thought pictures should really tell the story, but they would try to be creative. Creativity sometimes can confuse the story.”
Russell said he would consult with the photo editor on which photos would run in the day’s paper. He remembers a photo that was submitted that “looked like (the photographer) took a picture of something behind a water fountain.
“Some photographers drove me crazy. They could all hit the nail on the head, but sometimes they got too creative for me.”
Marianne Mather, deputy senior visual editor at The Chicago Tribune, said during her interview for the photo editor/photojournalist job at the Beacon (where she worked from 2005 to 2011), she “sat in a room with three people. The head boss – I think it was Rick Nagel at the time – asked me, ‘Do you think you can say no to this guy?’ and he pointed to John, who I had just met but had definitely heard about. In my youthful hubris I smiled and said yes, and so I was hired. And I was a thorn in John’s side ever since.”
On a more serious note, Mather said, “John Russell's hard work, keen news sense and dogged determination made the Beacon what it was: a robust newspaper dedicated to the people of Aurora and the surrounding area.
“Working under John meant you had to work just as hard as he did — and since he never went home, that was a tall task. He barked a lot, but you knew it was because he wanted the best for the paper and for his staff. His caring and nurturing spirit were present in the way he helped so many young reporters grow at the Beacon.”
Michelle Krupa, senior news editor with CNN Digital, now uses techniques she learned from Russell as she mentors new reporters. A flub early in her career illustrates a lesson learned.
“I'd just come back from some crime scene, tried to turn my story fast and thought I'd done a fine job,” she recalls. “Until I heard Russell's voice boom across the newsroom, ‘KRUPA! Did the suspect have a FIRST NAME!???!’ Thoroughly embarrassed, I crept over and read it from my notebook. It's what I deserved just then and a fine lesson in triple-checking before filing. When a story with an omission like that lands in my lap, I tend to keep my voice down, but John Russell's sensibility echoes over Slack when I ping a fledgling reporter with a similar question. I try to deliver it with the same godparent-like feeling it landed with me.”
“I don’t remember John ever yelling at me,” said former Beacon reporter (1992 to 1999) Tom Parisi, who works in media relations at Northern Illinois University. “He is one of the best journalists I’ve ever worked with, and I hold him in the highest regard.
“But after editing one of my stories, I do recall him asking, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ When I think about that story, as I have from time to time, I now wonder, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’”
When Russell recalls a “handful of stories that stand out,” one of Parisi’s comes to mind first.
“Back in the mid- to late-’90s, we had a house in Aurora explode because of aging gas lines in the neighborhood. Tom Parisi did an incredible series on that at a time when nobody was writing about it.
“Matt Hanley did some good work on employees at the old Nicor Gas building on River Street. They had bad water pipes and workers would fill mugs, canteens and coffee pots with contaminated water and a whole bunch of these guys got cancer.
“Steve (Lord) and Donnell (Collins) went to Alabama with Fred Rodgers, then Aurora’s youth activities director, to meet with (former Alabama governor) George Wallace on his deathbed (1996).
(The purpose of the visit, according to a column written by Denise Crosby in 2015, was for Rodgers to “grant forgiveness to the repentant politician on behalf of himself and his family, who had experienced so much bigotry in the Deep South.”)
Russell mentions names like Moshe Rogers and Nico Contreras, two innocents who were killed by gang violence in 1995 and 1996, respectively, noting that good reporting work was done in both stories. Although he says he hates to brag about good work done because of Nico’s tragic death, he acknowledges the senseless death of Aurora Central Catholic’s Rogers was a wake-up call to the community. A back-to-school fair and the beginning of Aurora Community Study Circles were started after Rogers’ death.
When recounting important stories, Russell does not mention the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on New York City. He admits that day is a blur. “We tried to localize everything,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t remember how we did it.”
As years passed and reporters began to look younger and younger, Russell remembers starting to view them in a new way. “You begin to feel responsible as the older one in the room and you wonder how your experiences can help them. My kids were the age of the reporters so I could relate quite easily.
“I wasn’t worried about their jobs,” he said. “I was worried about their private lives. Reporters having kids or having problems of one sort or another.
“When I was at Southern Illinois University, I worked on the student paper. During my senior year, I was also sort of a counselor for the younger reporters. I got started in that kind of role early and I really liked it.”
With the U.S. in the midst of a pandemic, political upheaval, economic instability and strained race relations, does Russell miss being a city editor?
“I miss it all,” he said. “Big things like this pandemic and minor details of things like ladies making lace in church basements.”
And how are newspapers doing today with the big and little things? Are reporters still in the business of fair, neutral journalism?
“I think so,” Russell said. “There’s all that fake media stuff and talk about how biased newspapers are. But papers put opinions on the editorial page. News stories, you don’t put an opinion in. You just explain to your readers what is happening.”
Russell is proud of the legacy of The Beacon-News in Aurora.
The paper is the oldest business in the city. “The Beacon first published as The Beacon in December 1846. In 1905, Col. Ira Copley bought the Aurora Daily News, and then the Aurora Beacon, and he put them together as the Aurora Beacon-News,” Russell said. Next year, the paper will celebrate its 175th anniversary in the City of Lights.
He hopes the legacy of the newspaper’s motto: “The Ring of Truth,” will live on indefinitely.
As a memorial to Kathy – as well as to everybody who ever worked for The Beacon and everyone who will ever work there – Russell said he is intent on making sure that a plaque, saved from the former Beacon-News building on River and Benton streets before it was torn down, can be mounted on the side of the David L. Pierce Art & History Center at 20 E. Downer Place.
The blue and white “Ring of Truth” sign features a clenched hand ringing a bell. It was the motto and the logo of Copley Newspapers.
“The legacy of The Beacon-News is tied to John Russell – as he put so much sweat and tears into the ring of truth,” Mather said.
“I can’t imagine ever doing anything else,” Russell said. “I am proud to have been a part of it.”
According to Aurora Historical Society Executive Director John Jaros, $1,385 has been raised to do minor repairs on the sign and mount it on the building. The project is estimated to cost at least $3,000. Those interested in making a donation to the cause can do so electronically (write Ring of Truth Memorial Fund in the comment box):
Checks (include Ring of Truth on the memo line) can be made out to the Aurora Historical Society and mailed to Aurora Historical Society, PO Box 905, Aurora, IL, 60507.