To Robert McClory (GJ71), Cory Elliott is one of lifes quiet heroes.
Elliott, an average guy, was standing outside his house in Gary, Ind.,
one day when the building across the street burst into flame. He rushed
in, sustaining severe burns over 70 percent of his body as he pulled three
members of a family outside to safety.
When McClory, now an associate professor in the Medill School of Journalisms
magazine department, was a staff writer for the Chicago Reader,
the citys largest weekly alternative newspaper, he wrote a story
about heroes and focused on Elliott. McClory took a look at what heroism
means and examined why ordinary people sometimes do extraordinary things.
"Bobs a guy whos always written about heroes," says
Mike Lenehan, executive editor of the Reader. "People fighting
the good fight but whom youd never heard of before. And he introduced
them to our readers one after another."
With his snowy white hair and lined face, McClory himself is hardly the
picture of a caped crusader. But under that exterior lies a keen intelligence
and a youthful abundance of energy. Through the years McClory has gone
from Catholic priest to prize-winning journalist to Medill academician.
But no matter what his profession, his mission remains the same: giving
a helping hand to those who need it.
At Medill McClory strives to teach his students not only the basics of
writing for a magazine but also how to survive in an often discouraging
field. By drawing on his own years of professional experience, he gives
them a clearer understanding of the obstacles they are likely to face,
including rejection letters, difficult interviews and cantankerous editors.
He doles out his wise advice with a sardonic wit but then gleefully
laughs at his own punchlines.
"He makes you feel very comfortable," explains Sofia Javed (J01),
who took McClorys magazine-writing class. "He makes the students
feel like they have so much potential, like you are already a good writer."
Alter ego Sgt. Smiley Wossek is a frequent visitor to McClorys Newswriting
and Reporting class. Surly and insulting, Wossek is the police information
officer who grudgingly briefs reporter/students on mythical crime cases.
McClory created the character as a composite of police officers he had
dealt with over the years. Sgt. Wosseks name plaque, a gift from
McClorys students, sits prominently on his desk, instilling either
fear or laughter in whoever sits across from it.
"I try to keep the atmosphere pretty light," he says. "This
is not rocket science!"
McClory came to the University as an adjunct professor in 1983, after
having taught at Columbia College in downtown Chicago since 1977. At Northwestern
he taught several classes a year while continuing as a freelance journalist
until 1987, when he was offered a full-time faculty position.
"I had to spend the first week teaching the kids grammar," he
recalls of the first graduate class he taught. "But then they started
turning in good stuff. Within a week Im thinking, What a genius
McClory had originally been reluctant to teach full time because he did
not want to give up freelancing. But over the years he has managed to
In his magazine-writing course McClory asks students to read and discuss
an article for each class, examining the style and content. He then has
the students write similar articles, whether essays, profiles or longer
features. McClory encourages his students to go beyond the obvious and
stretch themselves while giving them the guidance they need to take on
"Sometimes it was a burden to read all of those articles," says
junior Jennifer Su, another McClory student, "but it helped us learn
about magazine writing."
McClorys choice of reading material is invariably wide-ranging.
Su vividly recalls a piece from Sports Illustrated that focused
on a promising high school basketball player who was convicted of wrongdoing.
Instead of providing a dry recitation of the facts, the author analyzed
the situation from a variety of perspectives and used the chemical element
cesium as a recurring motif to highlight the storys explosiveness.
"It showed me that theres not just one way to organize a piece,"
Su says. "It doesnt necessarily need to be done chronologically
to make sense to the reader."
Beyond teaching the students to write well, McClory also teaches them
to sell their work. Students research which magazines to send articles
to and then learn how to craft effective query letters to them. McClory
also advises students on developing relationships with certain publications
But no matter how good the writer is, rejection is inevitable. So each
quarter McClory brings in a pile of his own rejection letters, laughingly
recounting them to his class and reminding them that he too had
to hang in there and keep trying. "He constantly puts himself in
it," Javed says. "He shows you that you can do it, too."
Yet, in his typically modest manner, McClory is not as keen on sharing
information on his own successes which are many.
While he may have only been a full-time professor since 1987, McClory
has long been educating the public as a journalist. The advice he gives
to his students is based on a long career that continues today.
He is respected by his colleagues and throughout the journalistic world
for his thought-provoking articles on civil rights and human experience.
Or, as he says, pieces about the "Great Truths."
The Great Truths? Yeah, he says, the Great Truths. Things like love and
hate, success and failure, loyalty and betrayal.
"What makes a good story is the ability to touch honestly
without phoniness on the great realities," McClory explains.
"You dont get those unless you really take the time to ask
the questions and listen.
"Deep down," he adds, "everyone wants to tell you his or
After receiving his Medill degree in 1971, McClory wanted to write long
magazine features as a freelancer but instead began his journalism career
with the Chicago Daily Defender, a newspaper with a historically
African American readership. He covered urban and racial issues in politics,
education and housing.
"I was like Joe Reporter at the Defender," McClory recalls.
"I thought Id be there for about a month, but I stayed for
seven years. I got to cover the same stories as the [Chicago] Tribune
and Sun-Times, and even some they werent covering
because then they didnt pay much attention to the black community.
Every day Id read the downtown dailies to see race relations stories
to see where I could get in and find a new angle."
During his time at the Defender McClory established connections
and gained an understanding of social justice issues that would become
indispensable to his writing.
He left the newspaper in 1978 to finally freelance full time for such
publications as Sepia, which was a competitor of Ebony,
and Chicago magazine. He also began what would become a 20-year
relationship with the Reader, first as a freelancer and then as
a staff member.
McClorys talent as a storyteller lends itself to good writing. "Hes
the maestro of the 7,000-word profile," Lenehan says. "He just
knows the trick how to anchor [the story] in action, how to focus
it. These kind of people are rare and the sort of writer we gravitate
"People always say to me, You must love to write!"
McClory says with a sigh. "No! I hate that part. Id rather
bang my head against the wall than try to write. What I really love is
to have written."
Lenehan exasperatedly recalls McClorys method of note taking on
tiny pieces of scrap paper that he pools together to construct a story.
"My wife hates it, too," McClory says, "because theyre
lying around the house, and Im always looking all over for one!"
His unconventional work habits notwithstanding, McClory blended his passion
for social issues with his writing talent and went on to author some of
the Readers most memorable pieces. His earlier work at the
Defender had acquainted him with a rising black politician by the
name of Harold Washington (L52).
"He was so friendly and such a good source," he remembers about
the late mayor of Chicago. "He was always good to go to for a quote."
In the fall of 1980 McClory used his familiarity with Washington ("We
were like buds," he says) to follow him around during the future
mayors first congressional race, which he won. The resulting story
made a big splash for the Reader. "Thanks to Bob, we probably
introduced Harold Washington to all of white Chicago," Lenehan says.
Sheepishly, McClory admits that Washingtons last words were actually
about him. In his book about Washington, Alton Miller, the mayors
aide, recalled Washington telling him on Nov. 25, 1987, that McClory was
coming in for an interview that afternoon. Seconds later Washington collapsed
and died soon after.
Lenehan also recalls the relationship between McClory and Renault Robinson,
an African American Chicago police officer who sued the department, citing
discrimination, in the early 1970s. The case dragged on, but Robinson
and his Afro-American Patrolmens League were eventually victorious.
McClory wrote his first book, The Man Who Beat Clout City (Swallow
Press, 1977), about Robinson, tracing the conflict from its origins in
the riots of 1968 that devastated the citys West Side.
Years later, in 1984, the embattled Robinson, who was under fire as the
recently appointed chair of the Chicago Housing Authority, refused to
speak to the press. But he made an exception for McClory, allowing him
to publish an interview in the Reader. The new chair spoke bitterly
about the state of public housing in Chicago, swearing he would never
again give an interview. And he has kept his word.
As for McClory, his path to a writing career hardly qualifies as ordinary.
Before going to journalism school, he was a Catholic priest.
He was raised in the Garfield Park neighborhood on Chicagos West
Side, growing up in an environment he describes as "middle-class
Catholic and lower-class Jewish." His father was a postal worker,
and young Robert attended a Catholic grammar school. From his childhood,
priests represented authority figures and leaders in the community. "They
were a sort of higher-up, something to aspire to," says McClory.
He entered Quigley Preparatory Seminary for high school and went on to
study at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill. McClory spent
seven years in the sequestered atmosphere, where students studied philosophy
and theology, mostly in Latin, and needed permission to leave the premises.
They were expected to remain in silence from 9 oclock in the evening
until breakfast the following morning. In 1958 he was ordained.
After leaving the seminary, McClory asked to be sent to an African American
parish in Chicago, where he felt he could do the most good. "I dont
know where the impulse came from, because my parents werent social
activists," he muses. "I always just wanted to help the underdog."
Instead of his hoped-for assignment in the city, he was sent to the North
Shore suburb of Winnetka, Ill., one of the richest parishes in the diocese.
McClory rolls his eyes at the irony. After six years he learned that he
was to be transferred to St. Sabina, a church in the South Side neighborhood
"I thought, heres my chance!" he says. It was then an
all-white parish, but in his nearly seven years at St. Sabina, McClory
learned some powerful lessons on race relations. The years saw an influx
of African Americans to the area, leading to widespread white flight.
The tensions erupted in a number of violent incidents, and while the church
leadership attempted to bring the two communities together, the rift would
not mend. By the time McClory left St. Sabina, Auburn-Gresham was 95 percent
And when he exited from St. Sabina, McClory not only left his position,
he also left the priesthood. "The reasons cant really be separated,"
"It was a combination of a few things."
He had come to disagree with some of the churchs positions and no
longer felt that he could be the voice of an organization with which he
didnt fully agree. He also met Margaret McComish, the St. Sabina
school principal with whom he had worked closely during the racial turmoil.
"We worked so well together that we decided to keep doing it,"
The two married in November 1971, after McClory had been officially "dispensed
by the pope" from his priestly obligations. In 1972 their daughter,
Jennifer, was born.
Seeking a new profession, McClory was unsure what his next step should
be. He had an avid interest in writing and literature and decided that
journalism would be a good fit.
In his early years of freelancing McClory stayed away from religious topics,
though he is quick to point out that he was still an active member of
the church. In the late 1970s he began to write for the National Catholic
Reporter, an independent lay-edited weekly.
Arthur Jones, McClorys editor at the time and currently the papers
West Coast correspondent, says McClory was at the forefront on issues
of Catholic urban ministry. "Bob knows his way around," Jones
says, "around the church, around society and around journalism. Thats
a hell of a mix for any editor. He had the necessary flair to go out and
grapple with the big topics."
"Hes a journalist with a conscience," agrees Tom Fox,
another of McClorys editors at the National Catholic Reporter
and now the papers publisher. "He was drawn to want to give
voices to people who would otherwise not have one. Thats the mark
of a truly courageous journalist."
McClory continues to write on Catholic issues for National Catholic
Reporter and U.S. Catholic magazine and has authored three
books on these subjects since 1994. His most recent, Faithful Dissenters
(Orbis Books, 2000), is a look at Catholics who tackled serious and controversial
issues within the church, successfully brought about reform and still
maintained their religious ties. Two prominent examples are Galileo and
Catherine of Siena. Once again, McClory is showing how people who question
the status quo are capable of bringing about real change.
Both McClory and his wife are active members of Call to Action, a Catholic
activist group devoted to spreading the social justice message to church
members and not just to the leadership. McClory is co-founder and editor
of the groups publication, Call to Action News.
And of course he is still in the classroom, teaching a new generation
of writers how to find the stories that matter and how to tell them well.
"Its more than just magazine writing," says Javed. "He
showed us what writing was for him. My most vivid memories are some of
the stories he told of his life and of his life as a reporter."
"Its too bad Bob wouldnt write a story about himself,"
Lenehan says, "because hes just like the people he writes about,
showing readers what we as citizens are capable of. I thought he always
saw that as his mission shining the spotlight on people who were
quietly doing the right thing. And that is his heroic work."
Geeta Kharkar of Bloomington, Ind., worked as a summer editorial intern
for Northwestern magazine. A senior in the Medill School of Journalism,
she is the managing producer of the 2002 Dolphin Show.
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