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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
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
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
“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
“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
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.”