Robert McClory: a beloved journalist, father, neighbor and friend

Robert McClory made me laugh from the first time I saw him. I'm talking about shoulder-shaking, body-convulsing laughter.

It was the fall of 2002. I had just moved with my family from western Massachusetts to Evanston, Ill., where I was attending journalism school at Northwestern as part of a career switch from education to writing.

Bob gave a lecture about magazine writing during our class's orientation. Standing on top of the stage, his blue eyes twinkling, he told us about people's reactions to the stories he wrote while a staff reporter at the Chicago Reader in its heyday of 10,000-word pieces.

"Bob, I started your story," he said his friends would tell him.

You have to understand: He was talking about the years when a single Reader story would jump from the front page to an inside page and then another inside page and then another, many times. Bob was writing for the venerable alt-weekly several ownerships ago, before the Internet had ascended and Craigslist had decimated the magazine's business model in a way that would have made Sherman's March through the South seem moderate.

He also talked about sitting on the El, Chicago's elevator commuter train, watching people read, then turn away from, one of his Reader epistles.

"If you'd only stick with it, this will change your life," he said he would communicate telepathically.

His silent hints might not have achieved their objective, but they did succeed in sparking an interest in me to get to know him better.

I'm so grateful I did before he died on April 3, Good Friday, at age 82.

The following summer, my wife, Dunreith, and I bought a house directly across the street from Bob and his beloved wife, Margaret, on South Boulevard in Evanston. He and Margaret were tremendously generous to our family.

When Aidan went door-to-door, drumming up business for his raking and shoveling service in fifth grade, he told potential clients they could name the price, and half would go to charity. Bob and Margaret paid Aidan handsomely and told him to keep more than half for himself.

Bob and I would chat after he'd emerge from his navy blue car that you never wanted to park too close to and start to amble into the cozy home where he and Margaret raised their daughter, Jenny. Through these conversations, we discovered that we shared significant similarities.

We were both left-handed husbands of strong, self-respecting women and fathers of only children.

We had both left previous careers to pursue our love of writing and storytelling by getting training in journalism at Northwestern at age 37. (Bob had been a priest for more than a dozen years, while I had worked in education for a decade and a half.)

And whereas Bob worked for seven years for the Chicago Defender, I worked for half a decade at The Chicago Reporter.

While at the Defender, Bob gathered the material that he used for his first book, The Man Who Beat Clout City. In the work, he recounted the story of Renault Robinson, a black cop who co-founded the Chicago Police Department's Afro-American Patrolman's League.

During that time, Bob also got to know state Rep. Harold Washington. He would re-enact phone conversations he had with the eloquent legislator in Springfield.

"Read me what he said," Washington would instruct Bob after the former priest told him about an opposing politician's words.

Bob would oblige with an offending passage, then ask a question that could only be described as leading: "Is this an affront?"

"It is indeed an egregious affront," Washington would reply in the beginning of his latest dose of soaring rhetoric.

Bob was the person waiting to enter then-Mayor Washington's office for an appointment in November 1987 when the mayor suffered a massive heart attack at his desk and died.

The mayor's life ended at that moment, but Bob's books kept coming. Nine in all.

Bob wrote about topics that included racism in America as well as the fight within the Catholic church about birth control. The latter work featured a young, ambitious and deeply conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, and Patty Crowley, the Chicago woman who battled valiantly against the cardinal and the institution in which she fervently believed.

Maverick priest Fr. Michael Pfleger, who took over the St. Sabina parish where Bob served before he met his wife -- who was then Margaret McComish, a nun -- was the subject of another of Bob's books. (I still remember the gleam in my instructor Alex Kotlowitz's eye when he recounted recording the Bob and Margaret courtship story. In typical fashion, the interview featured large doses of humor as Bob explained how the corny rock tune "MacArthur Park" spoke to his soul during his moment of decision about whether to leave the priesthood and start a life with Margaret.)

For Bob's final book, he interviewed graduates of Most Pure Heart of Mary High School, the only Catholic high school available to black children in southern Alabama and Mississippi during the struggle to dismantle the Jim Crow South from the early 1940s to the end of the 1960s.

Like another former priest, James Carroll, Bob was an expert at finding and writing about the paths, often buried in hundreds of years of strayed directions and missed opportunities, that the church could have taken. His book As It Was In The Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church came directly from that impulse.

Bob never relinquished his bedrock conviction that the Catholic church could live true to the ideals on which it was based and never surrendered his commitment to witnessing, honoring and telling the stories of those who were working to make it so. He brought that same sense of mission, possibility, and empathy to each area of his life.

He brought tenacity, too -- a quality that was nowhere more on display than when he would leave the house every second day for his exercise. Bob grew more bent and walked more slowly as the years passed. But he never stopped doing it, just as he never stopped thinking, believing and conducting himself in a way that expressed his faith and his humanity.

Finally, the pain led to a knee replacement. About three weeks ago, a bacterial infection in the replaced knee after a fall began a chain of events that led on Good Friday to his passing in the arms of Margaret, the former nun who had enchanted him and with whom he spent the second half of his rich and contributory life.

I'm sorry I won't have more chats outside Bob's home about his latest story for National Catholic Reporter, conversations that extended longer and louder to the point that Dunreith said she could hear us from inside our house across the street.

I'll miss his straight-faced quips about the students who would tell him, "I didn't pay all this money to get a B+," his gentle encouragement through his questions, and how he treated me as a peer in my new chosen profession.

I'm sad that I'll never again see those wry, ironic yet hopeful eyes, the white hair that grew more sparse, but never fully left, his head.

But I'm oh-so-grateful for all that he gave our family and for all that his life teaches us, as a journalist, as a father, as a husband, as a man of faith, and as someone who lived with supreme humility, integrity and purpose.

[Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is a journalist and journalism lecturer at Columbia College Chicago.]

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