Steve Metsch

  • Stories at Morton College serve as catalyst to Metsch’s journalism careerSteve Metsch

    Steve Metsch covered Ronald Reagan’s appearance at Morton College for The Collegian. He and his friends conducted an elaborate stake out of Bruce Springsteen’s hotel to meet “The Boss.” Metsch also exposed two professors who eventually went to prison for setting up a phony computer company to steal millions from a state school.

    Pretty darn good for a college kid holding down a part-time job at the Jewel in Stickney. Even the college portfolios of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t have those kind of clippings.

    Notable journalists with a Morton College pedigree include Paul Sisco, Dan Jedlicka and the late Phil Kosin. Probably the most star-studded cast to produce The Collegian came during Metsch’s time at Morton College from 1978 to 1980. The paper received numerous statewide awards for excellence and touched off the careers of a number of talented journalists on the national and community levels.

    In addition to Metsch, who has been at the now Chicago Tribune-owned Southtown Star for 24 years, the 22-member Collegian staff included future all-stars in John Ambrosia (Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Tribune), Mike Anton (Los Angeles Times) and Alice McGee (nine-time national daytime Emmy Award winning producer of the Oprah Winfrey Show). Staffers Chris Alcorn, Anne Flasza and Alice Palach all were staples at The LIFE, a community newspaper, during the 1980s and 1990s.

    “I worked with some very talented people,” Metsch recalled. “We were always looking for stories out of the ordinary. I remember brainstorming sessions where we’d kick around ideas. Lyn Anderson was a real good advisor – she was encouraging and always asking why you should do that story.”

    Metsch tackled a wide variety of stories at The Collegian, a trait that has served him well. He wrote about the ordinary, everyday campus happenings – a scholarship fund closing in on its goal, a new class on “Taxations, Myths and Realities” and arranging visit to four-year campuses.

    He did some digging in writing stories of interest impacting students and faculty. There was the piece comparing tuition rates at neighboring community colleges when Morton College’s tuition increased from $13 to $15 per credit hour. He wasn’t afraid to knock on anyone’s door, interviewing then College President Vince Guarna on his proposal requiring full-time faculty to put seven-hour days.

    He also did “fun” pieces, weighing in on the late Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne’s casino proposal, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Chicago and calling for a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

    The Collegian also tackled serious issues with stories on peddling prescription drug pads, prostitution and gambling.

    But Reagan’s visit to Morton College ranks among Metsch’s favorite memories. Cicero was Reagan’s first stop after his announcement as a Republican candidate for President.

    “We were all excited,” Metsch recalled. “The national focus was on us. This was the place. Ronald Reagan is here in our gym on our campus. We had to go through the Secret Service. Reagan was very charismatic. He won the crowd over.”

    Metsch and fellow Collegian staffers Ambrosia, Anton and Keith Mascitti “all kind of migrated together to Southern Illinois (University).” Metsch started out on the copy desk at the Daily Egyptian and worked his way up to sports editor. His big splash came with an expose of two Southern Illinois professors who set up a phony company design to line their pockets with millions of dollars.

    “The student representative told me to check this out,” Metsch said. “They had set up a computer company in Texas, but the computers never arrived. They were stealing millions from the university. We through records and spent weeks on the story. We beat the local papers on this. A couple of years later I learned the two professors went to prison. Wow! I’m still pretty proud of that piece.”

    Southern Illinois wasn’t all work. He managed to squeeze in some room for fun and games with the stakeout of Springsteen, who was in Carbondale for a concert.

    “Me, Ambrosia, Keith Mascitti and Anton tracked him down,” Metsch said. “We figured he was staying at either the Holiday Inn or the Ramada. First, we found their tour bus. We then went on a berm and started looking in windows. We started counting the windows, then we all snuck in the back door. The first door we knocked on was Little Steven (band member guitarist Steven Van Zandt).

    "We went to the next door and it was Bruce Springsteen. ‘All right, you found me,’ he said. We told him we couldn’t wait to see the show. He said, ‘I have a show tomorrow – I’ve got to get some rest.’ And he shook our hands. I just remember the smell of McDonald’s hamburgers and the big bottle of Vidal Sassoon shampoo.”

    Versatility is the hallmark of Metsch’s career. He’s covered the tragic (Marilyn Lemak) to the triumphant (the 2005 Chicago White Sox). He’s written about world leaders (Lech Walesa) and Chicago leaders (City Hall under Richard M. Daley and the “cast of 50 characters.”) He’s reviewed rock concerts, movies and started a features section at the Northwest Herald. He writes a blog, “Sox Exchange,” on the White Sox for the Southtown Star, which covers the south suburbs.

    “It’s good to do as many kinds of stories as possible,” Metsch said. “It promotes your versatility and helps you in this job market. I feel comfortable writing whatever story is thrown my way.”

    The story of Marilyn Lemak, the Naperville mother who murdered her three children (ages 3, 6 and 7) while going through a divorce with her husband in 1999, still touches an emotional chord with Metsch. The Southtown assigned Metsch to cover the story at the DuPage County Courthouse in Wheaton because Lemak graduated from a high school in the publication’s coverage area.

    “People always ask about the one story that stays with you and I say, Marilyn Lemak,” Metsch said. “Gruesome bests describes what happened in that house. It was a bench trial and when the judge gave sentence to send her to life in prison, he told her to think about every day what she did to her children. That they would never graduate from high school. Never get married. Never have children.”

    While Metsch grew up in Lyons and now lives in the western suburbs, there’s a big part of him that’s a Southlander.

    “It’s the people – they’re friendly in the south suburbs,” Metsch notes. “They take a lot of pride in being from Oak Lawn or Midlothian or Tinley Park or Chicago Ridge. It’s how I feel. I’ve been at the paper for 24 years and it feels like home.”

    The industry has rapidly changed since Metsch received his first paycheck for the Crystal Lake Morning Herald (now the Northwest Herald) in 1982. He remembers covering an election in Woodstock when the names of the candidates and vote totals were posted on a chalkboard.

    “You get new numbers and you’d erase it,” Metsch said. “The last election, I was sitting in my car with an I-Pad, checking out the numbers all over the state on a little electronic device. You now can take pictures with a phone. With these devices, you can work from anywhere. The speed of it is amazing.”

    Technology certainly has changed the way reporters work. Metsch’s desk is wherever he can hook up his laptop. His office could be a White Castle one day, Starbucks the next and Panera Bread the day after.

    In addition to writing for the print edition, newspapers and all media outlets now have a web presence. And the public’s appetite for breaking news never is filled.

    “I have to file stuff right away to go up on the web,” Metsch said. “If I’m at a court case, I have to call in the verdict so it gets on the web right away. Some days feel like it’s 24/7. It can be very hectic, but exciting at the same time.”

    He was working on one story at a White Castle when Metsch looked across the street and witnessed a horrific 11-car auto accident on 95th Street and Cicero Avenue in Oak Lawn. He launched into his reporter gear, taking photos and getting the initial details. Within 10 minutes, photos from the accident that eventually resulted in the deaths of three people, including two nuns, were on the Southtown Star’s website.

    “Only three people died,” Metsch recalled. “I’m surprised 10 didn’t. It was a terrible accident.”

    Even after 32 years in the business, the thrill of covering a breaking story or “the excitement of knowing something before someone else” still gets Metsch’s adrenaline flowing. He still adheres to “a good reporter always keep his ears open because you never know who can help you.”

    Newspaper circulation continues to wane and staffs are much smaller, but Metsch won’t be the one writing the industry’s obituary.

    “There will always be a place for a newspaper,” Metsch said. “A lot of people are writing our obit. What did Mark Twain say – ‘News of my demise is greatly exaggerated?’ Newspapers offer more in-depth coverage of the issues. It’s a challenge to go up against TV, radio, cable and bloggers. With some bloggers, you can take what they write with a grain of salt.”

    And there always will be a place for a community college.

    Metsch fondly remembers instructors like Jack Fritsch for history, Hurley Langert for economics and Lyn Anderson for journalism. The Wall Street Journal was required reading for Langert’s course.

    “I’m proud of coming here,” said Metsch, who includes Morton College on his LinkedIn profile. “I think Morton College is a real gem for several reasons. It gives you a chance to taste college life. You can get the basics out of the way without going into a huge financial hole. You can see if you like college. Maybe you’ll find something you want to do.

    Right now, I’m using the same argument with my son who is a senior in high school. When I went to Southern Illinois and graduated in 1982, my student loan debt was zero. Plus, I got a great education.”