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Wednesday, April 18,2012

John Schneider's good streak

How Lansing's workaday knight took the city to heart

by Lawrence Cosentino

For 24 years, John Schneider woke Lansing up with a fanfare for the common man, in a voice as gentle and clear as a muted trumpet.

Let’s get this lady’s heat turned back on. Let’s get this child an operation. Schneider patted the back of good, kicked the ass of bad and took trenchant note of almost everything else in town, on a human scale, about 8,000 times. 

That note dropped out of the city’s morning chord when Schneider, 63, wrote his last Lansing State Journal column Sunday.

He could have pushed a mailbag or worked on an assembly line all those years, and nearly did. Instead, he combined the daily-grind work ethic of his Detroit roots with the knightly passion of the Watergate-era journalism he absorbed in the early 1970s.

He picked up the lance in one hand, the lunch bucket in the other, and went quietly to work.

“The collateral effects were to help people, and I guess I’ve got that streak,” he said last week, relaxing with a beer at his kitchen table “But it’s such fun to do, it doesn’t feel like this mission or anything.”

Schneider talks dry, but his trail is wet. Last week, I talked to a woman in California whose two deaf children got cochlear implants because of a column Schneider wrote in 1988. After 24 years, she cried at the mention of his name. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of similar stories.

How do you wrap your head around a career like that?

Schneider took a swig and flashed his Irish grin.

“I was just very lucky to have the ability to help people and get paid for it.”


‘I was a greaser’

John Schneider’s other voice, the one you hear when you’re sitting on his back porch, is more elusive than his print voice. His leathery rasp drifts past you, like wood smoke. He doesn’t raise his voice, but it somehow it carries, like an owl’s.

An avid hunter, Schneider is at home in the woods. His house, tucked into rural Alaiedon Township only 15 minutes from downtown Lansing, smells of burning logs he chopped on his thickly wooded property. He’s spent many hours, bow in hand, perched on a ladder stand on a tree behind his house. As we talked, he sat on his porch, wearing a flannel shirt, under a print of a forest scene.

“I don’t see all that much difference between that feeling I had in the 1970s and what I do now,” he said. “I wish we could help everybody, but if you can do it one person at a time, sometimes that’s all you can do.”

Schneider grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in northwest Detroit where his father, John Schneider Sr., was a mailman. On summer nights, he sat on the porch and listened to his father tell stories about the people and places on his route.

“He put some effort into it,” Schneider said. “Knowing how much information to withhold and how much to give, what sort of pace. There’s a gift to that.”

But John Schneider Jr. was far from destined to be a writer. Had he taken the path of least resistance, as he almost did several times, that morning note would never have sounded over Lansing. Hundreds of people might have been chewed up in the bureaucratic gears Schneider loved to spike with his pen.

Neither of his parents graduated from high school. All his uncles worked Detroit auto factories. The library was just a place to cool off during the summer.

“I was a greaser. All I cared about was my cool car, my cool clothes, my girlfriend and my job. My grades were abysmal in high school. It just wasn’t important to me.”

While still in high school, Schneider joined the Navy on a program that offered a one-year delay in deployment. His dad and uncle got him a job in the post office, where his years in the Navy would count as seniority.

“For a little while, it looked like I was going to deliver mail, get out of the Navy, marry Karen Coopersmith and that would be my life.”

He learned the job in two weeks.

“I thought, ‘Man, this is it? I don’t think so.’”

He got an inkling of another life from Mr. Nicek, an English teacher at Cody High School.

Nicek told his 11th grade English class to write a radio play.

“I didn’t want to do it. I waited until the night before it was due.”

Sitting at the kitchen table with the blank page in front of him, his mind kept drifting to the most vivid experience of his life so far: a hunting trip with his dad to Hillman, near Alpena, the year before. The city-bound father and son didn’t get a deer, but they saw one — Schneider’s first — and he loved the time in the woods with his dad.

“So I wrote this column — er, I wrote this radio play — about this father and son who go hunting,” he said, ignoring the slip. “I embellished a little bit. Despite myself, I started to enjoy writing it.”

The play got an honorable mention in a scholastic writing contest. The Detroit News printed the names of the winners. “I remember my dad cutting it out and carrying it in his wallet, showing it to his buddies.”

Mr. Nicek asked Schneider if he had ever thought about journalism.

“It might have been the first time I heard that word,” he said.

At 19, Schneider was stationed on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Forrestal in the Mediterranean. With a lot of time to spare at sea, he started reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, “all the classics I should have read in high school.” He explored ports of call in France, Italy and Spain, walking past the bars to see how people lived, and kept a journal almost every day.

Two days after he was discharged in fall 1969, he and a Navy buddy filled out job applications at GM Diesel on Telegraph Road. With labor in short supply, they were asked to start work the next Monday.

“That’s another step that might have doomed me,” he said. “My friend took it. He was rolling in money for a long time, working overtime.”

Schneider was tempted, but he balked, thinking again of Mr. Nicek and the play. Despite his high school grades, he enrolled in journalism at Wayne State University on the G.I. bill.


‘Colorful, manly’

In Detroit and across the country, journalists were covering world-shaking stories, from race riots to Vietnam to Watergate. Wayne State’s journalism department was packed with pros from the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, then awash in Pulitzers. Schneider snagged a part-time job as copy boy at the Free Press, under the stewardship of fabled editor Neal Shine, “when it was really a writer’s paper.”

“Journalism students were just aflame with this idealism,” he said. “I don’t see that so much in the younger journalists anymore.”

He also kindled a flame for a whip-smart classmate at Wayne State, Sharon Emery, his wife of 37 years this June. Emery also worked at the Free Press, in the advertising department.

When Emery’s former boyfriend moved to a farm in Alberta, city boy Schneider hustled into the picture. Meanwhile, he sent resumes to all the big papers and a lot of small ones.

“I was so eager to get to work that school seemed like an obstacle to getting out in the field and working,” he said.

He took the first offer he got: county reporter/farm editor at the Sidney  Daily News in Ohio, 12,000 circulation. Jeff Billiel, Schneider’s editor at the Daily News, is now the paper’s publisher.

“He was very good at telling a story in human terms so you really felt it,” Billiel said. “He was only here four years, and a lot of people here still remember him.”

But the learning curve was steep. “He knew absolutely nothing about rural life or agriculture,” Billiel recalled. “I remember him asking me, ‘What’s a hy-fer?’ (for ‘heifer.’) We had a lot of fun at his expense.”

On one of his first assignments, Schneider asked a farmer how many times a month he milked his cow. “Oh, about 60,” was the polite reply.

On a small-town paper, duties were various. A fashion shoot featured the reporter, in majestic blow-dried blond locks, modeling “colorful, many fall fashions” on Sidney’s courthouse square.

But Schneider made the most of the job, winning the farm community’s trust while seizing any chance to flex his investigative chops. When a local sheriff made a habit of buying groceries for himself, his dog and his horse on the county tab, a deputy tipped Schneider off.

“Due primarily to John’s reporting, the sheriff had to leave office,” Billiel said.

While Schneider worked at the Daily News, Emery wrote for a competing paper, the Troy Daily News.

One night, the couple found themselves in the middle of a labor riot in downtown Sidney.

“We were tear gassed together,” Schneider said.

It sounds romantic, but when Schneider got inside information on the riot from the sheriff, he refused to share it with his wife.


Rake Muck

All along, Schneider wanted to go back to Michigan. Soon after he became news editor, he fired off another round of resumes to the Michigan dailies. In January 1977, he was hired as assistant city editor at the Lansing State Journal.

He lasted two weeks in the job.

“The reporters were having all the fun,” he said. “I was sitting at a desk, making assignments, editing copy and laying out pages.”

Schneider found his editor, Hal Fielding, sympathetic. He took a cut in pay and jumped at the next opening for a writer — the East Lansing city beat, which was heating up. 

Just 10 days after Schneider started at the Journal, a young woman, Martha Sue Young, disappeared.

She was murdered by her former fiancÚ, Donald Miller, the only serial killer in East Lansing history. Soon Schneider joined a top Journal writer, Mark Nixon, to cover the fast-breaking story.

Well before Schneider took on his daily column, soulless institutions were his favorite target.

“He had a bumper sticker: Rake Muck,” Nixon recalled.

One day in the mid-1970s, a man walked into the Lansing State Journal newsroom carrying a packet of papers.

“He looked like a wild street person,” Schneider said. “All the reporters ducked. They didn’t want to talk to this guy. I guess I was the slowest to duck.”

The man introduced himself as Richard Prangley. He told Schneider that in 1956, at age 6, he was thrown into the Coldwater State Home and Training Center, where he was beaten and molested. His parents were advised to put him into an institution and told he could never live outside, even though his learning disability was mild by today’s lights.

“These were days when anybody who was the least bit challenged was closeted,” Schneider said. “It was a warehouse. No education or training at all.” When Prangley was released 15 years later, unable to read or write, he came to Lansing, determined to see the governor.

Impressed with Prangley’s pluck, Schneider smelled a major story. 

A front-page feature story and a series of follow-ups spurred Gov. William Milliken to create a new civil service classification just so Prangley could deliver mail for state offices.

Prangley worked 30 years, retired, and lives in Lansing. He became an advocate for the disabled and appeared on TV and visited the White House. In 1998, Schneider took a month sabbatical and expanded the series into a book for Grand Rapids’ Eerdmans Press, “Waiting for Home.” The Prangley story was a career high for Schneider, but he views it more as a life lesson. 

“He was called a low-grade imbecile with no chance of any learning anything, but in spite of all this, he was determined to carve out a decent life for himself,” Schneider marveled. “He wanted to become self-sufficient and he did it. I still don’t know how, and why he wasn’t totally bitter.”

Prangley and Schneider still see each other and go to movies together. “He’s helped me. Every time I think I got it hard, look at Richard.”


The cat was OK

“I always wanted to be a columnist,” Schneider said. “I thought pretty much everybody in journalism did.”

In 1988, popular “Onlooker” columnist Jim Hough retired, opening up a premier space at the Journal. Most staffers thought Nixon would be Hough’s successor in the daily column, but Nixon was more interested in moving up the editorial ladder.

Schneider was at another crossroads. He had a nemesis at the Journal, editor Tom Callinan, who canceled a weekly column by Schenider because he wrote too much about his family.

“Callinan damn near drove me out of the business,” Schneider said. “I was so frustrated at one point I actually went down and got a civil service test application. I never filled it out.”

The Journal’s publisher, Mel Applegate, was sympathetic. He ordered the column reinstated and lobbied for Schneider to take over The Onlooker.

But he still wasn’t sure he wanted the gig.

“I was fairly young, in my 30s, and I still felt I had something to prove,” he said. “I thought maybe I’d do that for a while and get a job with the Chicago Tribune or something.”

Schneider didn’t care much for Hough’s brighter-side triviality. “His style was kind of hambone folksy,” Schneider said. “Who’s got the oldest refrigerator in Lansing. Turnips that looked like Richard Nixon. Hell, they all do, don’t they?”

He told the editors he’d take on the column, but only if he could do it his way.

In his first column, June 1, Schneider announced he would write about “the comic-tragic consequences that often occur when self-important bureaucrats hide behind rules, policies and regulations to avoid behaving like human beings.”

He also wanted to praise do-gooders, as Hough did, offering a public nod to motorists who rescued ducklings and firemen who got cats out of trees.

“The cat was OK and everybody was happy,” was the closer of a June 1988 column.

“Later, I wrote columns about how that was a waste of taxpayer’s money,” he said with a grin.

As Schneider hit his stride and his family took root in Lansing, his thoughts of moving to a major market faded.

“I don’t know exactly when that dream sort of — I can’t really say it died, all of a sudden didn’t become all that important to me,” he said. “I felt like I was born to do this.”

Acknowledging all of John Schneider’s good deeds is no more feasible than writing a sonnet about all of Al Kaline’s base hits. To dip a spoon into the ocean, go back to 1988, Schneider’s first year as daily columnist. Two deaf East Lansing siblings, 4-year-old Mitchell Gingras and his 6-year-old sister, Leanna, needed cochlear implants. Insurance wouldn’t pay, but a sympathetic family friend brought the matter to Schneider.

The day after Schneider’s column ran, checks started to arrive. Soon there was enough for both children to have the operation. A third child in need was helped as well with the extra money.

“I had garbage bags full of letters in the basement,” Viki Keeton-Gingras, their mother, said last week. “I would sit down, read them and cry. I still have them.”

Right after Mitchell got his implant, his mother found him in the hospital bathroom, flushing the toilet and slamming the door over and over.

“He didn’t know what sound was,” Keeton said, crying. On the way home, Leanna started to sing.

One year after the column ran, Mitchell said “Mama” for the first time. He is now a student film-maker, living in Arizona, with a script in production. Leanna is a globe-trotting speaker and consultant.

Keeton had been told her kids would never talk and was advised to put them into an institution.

“We never forget him,” she said of Schneider. “We think of him all the time.”


Town meeting

Schneider took a journeyman’s approach to the writing game. Every morning, he went to his desk, rubbed his lucky baseball, checked his messages and planned the next day’s column. 

The 2012 edition of Who’s Who in Baseball, with Justin Verlander on the cover, sat on his desk last week. 

“You can’t get a base hit every time. Maybe one out of three, you feel proud of. One out of 10, you feel really proud of.”

Not every day brought a Richard Prangley into the room.

Seasonal nods to Christmas, Valentine’s Day and so on got harder and harder to freshen up as the years went by.

“The readers want it, so you have to do it,” he said. “Easter is especially hard because it’s so religious. And Mother’s Day is a real bitch.”

But Schneider was in the game for the long haul. Readers adopted him as a loyal companion, whether he curled up by the fire, jumped on a bone or growled at the screen door. Mickey Hirten, editor of the Lansing State Journal, was already a fan when he came to the paper in 2001.

“He was the voice of the paper, for all intents and purposes,” Hirten said. “To do that, you need a certain temperament and big helping of strong journalistic skills, and he’s got both.”

Nixon called Schneider’s column a “daily town meeting” where “a mechanic with no pull whatsoever at City Hall can stand up in the back of the room and have his voice heard.”

When Nixon left the Journal to become a spokesman for the Board of Water and Light, the time came for his ox to be gored.

“John would find out that one of our crews had butchered somebody’s tree. He was very polite, but it was ‘O.K., Nixon, what are you going to do?’ He relishes the role, but never tries to rub it in.”

Looking back, Schneider is amazed at the autonomy he had.

“There were times when an editor would try to insert themselves, but it never lasted and they would go away,” he said. He flatly declared that he was never asked to write, or not to write, anything because of pressure from advertisers.

“I was proud that nobody told me to ease up on Meijer or Shaheen Chevrolet, anybody.”

In a fall 2002 column, Schneider grabbed a “Citizen Kane” moment when he chided State Journal publisher Michael Kane for including a commemorative 9/11 supplement in the paper and requiring readers to opt out to avoid payment. 

Schneider told Kane the opt-out provision was illegal under state law, but Kane waffled.

“I think he said it was a gray area,” Schneider recalled. “It wasn’t.” Schneider printed Kane’s reply, and filled the next day’s column with irate letters from readers.

Schneider wondered how Kane would react. He even talked with Emery about what they would do if he were fired.

The next day, columnist and publisher had a talk.

“He told me he thought the second column was kind of piling it on,” Schneider said. “That was the end of it.”


Human touch

Schneider enjoyed writing about his own family, and readers eagerly sought a reflection of their own lives in his family’s ups and downs.

“Nobody wants to see home movies,” Schneider said, “but if I can come up with some sort of universal truths about how we live, I find that rewarding.”

In a 1988 column, he described his feelings as he cut his tie in half to outfit his 3-year-old son, Justin, for pre-school graduation. “In the time it took to draw the knot around his neck, he went from post-toddler to miniature baby-faced man,” he wrote.

13 years later, Justin no longer fit the description.

“I just happened to be driving past him and there he was with a cigarette,” Schneider said. The shock generated another column.

“He just hit the ceiling,” Schneider said. “I told him he was right, I apologized and that was the end of it.”

Schneider’s comfort with writing about himself and his family was put to a severe test when his daughter, Jessica, drowned in 2002 at age 25.

“It’s difficult to write about a subject like that without getting maudlin,” he said. “To me, that destroys it because I’ve read maudlin things, and that doesn’t appeal to me.”

His first thought after the accident was that he would never write a personal column again. “Soon afterward, there was an instant realization that I had to. It was a matter of hours. If I was a writer, there was no way I could avoid the subject.”

He pitched the columns perfectly, in prose as transparent as a window into his struggling mind. Readers responded more warmly than ever to his frankness and sincerity.

“I never thought it would turn into 15 or 20 columns,” he said. “It was a real catharsis for me.”

The series of columns following Jessica’s death burned with the human touch that lifted Schneider’s work above the average watchdog column. When Schneider and Nixon worked together at the Journal, Nixon recalls more conversations about the craft of writing than about the grind of reporting.

“We’d talk about sweating bullets looking for the right analogy, the right verb,” Nixon said. “John was, and is, a voracious reader. The beauty of the written word means a lot to him.”

In retirement, Schneider plans to work in shorter and longer forms than his accustomed 700-word straitjacket. He’ll keep up his blog (johnschneiderblog.com) and maybe “stare down that scary first blank page of the novel that’s been rattling around in my noggin.”

Just don’t confuse Schneider with Mitch Albom, the Detroit Free Press columnist who bedewed the best-seller lists with wet material like “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” 

“If I ever write a book like that, I hope you come up here and just shoot me,” Schneider said. “There’s a fine line between something that expresses emotion and something that just makes you want to brush your teeth.”

Schneider was also disappointed with a recent read, Char Harbach’s baseball bestseller, “The Art of Fielding” (too much love story and not enough baseball).

But a reference to “Moby-Dick” in Harbach’s book made Schneider prick up his eyes. The epic of the elusive white whale, the embodiment of life’s ultimate mysteries, is the first in a long list of books he plans to crack in the coming months.

“It really made me realized I hadn’t read it since high school,” he said. “I don’t think I appreciated it enough. I want to savor it.”

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