originally appeared in Shore magazine.
This is a true story but the names have been changed to protect the benevolent.
The missive ended up on my desk at the Better Government Association's
Chicago office with the rest of the daily mail, and the halting
quality of the lettering on the envelope suggested a slightly
diminished fine motor coordination that often bedevils seniors.
So my first thought was a complaint from an irate oldster about a
perceived failure of government. But I was pleasantly surprised to
find a check inside that implied the sender was supporting our
anti-corruption watchdog activities.
And that, the sender wrote, was indeed the case. She explained her
husband heard me on the radio discussing our mission and methods in
the fight against waste, fraud, corruption and inefficiency, and he
apparently liked the message. He also appreciated my years as the ABC
7 political reporter, so he asked the Mrs. to send me a check.
Which she did, and at first glance I assumed it was another $50
donation. Great, I thought -- another 999 of those and we'll hire a new
But as I examined the numbers more closely a few more zeroes appeared,
and the line with the written amount jolted me like an electric shock:
$50,000. From people I'd never met.
Some of our BGA staffers thought it was a prank perpetrated by kooks,
but our investigators quickly determined that (a) the check was real
and (b) our new angels were a wealthy and interesting elderly couple
from a rural town 50 miles from Chicago.
So I called to say thank you, and the husband explained that he, like
so many other Illinois residents, was fed up with public officials who
run government wastefully, inefficiently and dishonestly, treating our
tax dollars like it's their money. He liked my explanation of a BGA
that "shines a light on government and holds public officials
accountable," so he decided to step up in a big way and support the
effort to make better government a reality.
He and the Mrs. accepted my offer to drive out and say thank you in
person, which I did at the end of the summer. And after I heard their
life stories, and thought about their unique contributions to their
community and Illinois in general, I decided to write about them.
But they didn't want me to use their names, because that could subject
them to a long line of solicitors, so I'll call them Bill and Melinda.
They're 88-year-old liberal Democrats who live in a predominantly
Republican collar county. Bill started an electronics firm after World
War II that's grown into a successful family-run worldwide
manufacturer of specialty coils. Bill recalls that 40 years ago he
hired (Illinois Governor) Pat Quinn as an aide after Quinn left a
government job. Quinn resigned a year later
to attend law school, and the rest is history.
Melinda, who describes herself as a "bleeding heart liberal," teamed
up with a younger friend a few years ago to launch a website dedicated
to the proposition that rich people should pay higher taxes, and
that's generated a lot of buzz in political circles.
She also wrote an article in a woman's magazine half a century ago
suggesting the concept of year-round schooling for young students,
which was finally embraced by the reform movement decades later.
Chicago now has more than 200 year-round schools, so Melinda was
clearly a visionary.
She and Bill live in a country home that's modest with one spectacular
exception -- an art collection of portraits of famous historical figures,
including artists, scientists, musicians, politicians and inventers.
Many are on loan to galleries, and several hundred decorate the
library at a nearby community college. Freud, Michelangelo, Galileo,
Van Gogh, Roosevelt, Sitting Bull and Babe Ruth, to name a few.
Bill and Melinda are also characters who've lived long, relatively
healthy lives, but still chain-smoke cigarettes. When I ask why, Bill
simply says, "We've lived this long, so why stop now?" They even have
matching ashtrays and lighters on the dining room table.
Bill tells me at the end of my visit that he was originally planning
to send a check for $100,000, but when he heard that another wealthy
donor had agreed to match every contribution, he decided that fifty
was enough because I'd end up with the hundred anyway.
"You mean I left fifty on the table?" I ask incredulously. "I'm afraid
so," Bill answered mischievously. But the optimist in me says I'll
eventually get it. And I actually feel fortunate to have received
anything, because the radio show Bill heard me on was hosted by an
ultra-conservative who embraces the Tea Party.
I didn't ask Bill why he was listening to that station, but luckily he
was. Because that "senior moment" will pay for two more investigators.
And now I look for a similar letter in every day's mail. The
scragglier the handwriting, the better.
Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: www.twitter.com/andyshawchicago