Bob McClory

photo by Andrew Campbell






Robert McClory with Patty Crowley in 1995 when Turning Point, his book on the papal birth control commission, was published. Crowley, a commission member, urged repeal of the church's contraception ban.

photo courtesy of Bob McClory











To Robert McClory (GJ71), Cory Elliott is one of life’s 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 Journalism’s magazine department, was a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, the city’s 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.

"Bob’s a guy who’s always written about heroes," says Mike Lenehan, executive editor of the Reader. "People fighting the good fight but whom you’d 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 McClory’s 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 McClory’s 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. Wossek’s name plaque, a gift from McClory’s 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 I’m thinking, ‘What a genius I am!’"

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 balance both.

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 the task.

"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."

McClory’s 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 story’s explosiveness.

"It showed me that there’s not just one way to organize a piece," Su says. "It doesn’t 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 over time.

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 don’t 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 her story."

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 I’d 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 weren’t covering — because then they didn’t pay much attention to the black community. Every day I’d 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.

McClory’s talent as a storyteller lends itself to good writing. "He’s 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 toward."

"People always say to me, ‘You must love to write!’" McClory says with a sigh. "No! I hate that part. I’d rather bang my head against the wall than try to write. What I really love is to have written."

Lenehan exasperatedly recalls McClory’s 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 they’re lying around the house, and I’m 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 Reader’s 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 mayor’s 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 Washington’s last words were actually about him. In his book about Washington, Alton Miller, the mayor’s 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 Patrolmen’s 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 city’s 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 Chicago’s 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 o’clock 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 don’t know where the impulse came from, because my parents weren’t 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 of Auburn-Gresham.

"I thought, here’s 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 African American.

And when he exited from St. Sabina, McClory not only left his position, he also left the priesthood. "The reasons can’t really be separated," he explains.
"It was a combination of a few things."

He had come to disagree with some of the church’s positions and no longer felt that he could be the voice of an organization with which he didn’t 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," he says.

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, McClory’s editor at the time and currently the paper’s 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. That’s a hell of a mix for any editor. He had the necessary flair to go out and grapple with the big topics."

"He’s a journalist with a conscience," agrees Tom Fox, another of McClory’s editors at the National Catholic Reporter and now the paper’s publisher. "He was drawn to want to give voices to people who would otherwise not have one. That’s 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 group’s 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.

"It’s 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."

"It’s too bad Bob wouldn’t write a story about himself," Lenehan says, "because he’s 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.