Stories from Walt Harrington's journalism class

Stories from Walt Harrington's journalism class

Updated March 18, 2013.

Here are stories from University of Illinois journalism Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.

From Samantha Kiesel, a profile of University of Illinois jazz Professor Chip McNeill.

Chip McNeill walks down the hall in his black sneakers as jazz music floods the basement of Smith Hall. He waves with his left hand to a couple of students and clutches a soprano saxophone in his right.

He looks at his watch and picks up his pace, realizing he's late. In Room 11, a small space with a set of drums, a piano and an old organ, he gently places his instrument on the organ bench as he greets the students preparing for the day's jazz rehearsal.

The drummer tunes his instruments, the guitarist adjusts the volume on his amplifier, the vocalist tinkers with her mic, the saxophonist fixes his reed, and the piano player sits patiently. Chip, a 51-year-old University of Illinois jazz professor in his 11th year, adjusts his Levis and rolls up the sleeves of his black turtleneck.

Find the story here.

From Thomas Bruch, a story about a woman's entry into the world of boxing.


Jessie Bushman's back grazes the top rope of the ring, making it vibrate gently in contrast to the violence all around. Her hands, mummy-wrapped and fitted with two red gloves, are pinned to her abdomen. She's trying to breathe.


Jessie is in a cavernous shed next to Ruth Lake Country Club west of Chicago — her first round in her first fight as an amateur boxer. Tall lights shine in four corners of the shed lighting the ring, elevated just above the ground-level chairs.

Her opponent has been ordered to the opposite side of the ring by a referee with a crew cut and thick mustache. Jessie's inhales and exhales are short, terse.

Not enough.

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From Claire Benjamin, a reflection on a farming family and a father soldiering on.

I'm a farmer's daughter, but I can't navigate the grain elevator, grease the combine or repair fence lines. I have never mucked a hog pen or delivered a stillborn lamb. My children will not build hay forts on my family farm or dams in the creek down the road. They will not tame herds of kittens or rescue baby birds from fallen nests. No more rotten apple wars. No more evenings of catching lightning bugs to feed to pet toads — their bellies flickering.

I'm the end of the line, the end of an era. After my dad retires, our land will be rented out until one day it is gobbled up by Bloomington's urban sprawl.

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From Emily Siner, the reminiscences of longtime rabbi Isaac Neuman, who used "sparks of holiness" to help him survive the Nazi death camps in World War II.

Some things he wants to remember; some things he tries to forget.

Isaac Neuman remembers a pretty woman who prepared the meals for the supervisors at St. Martin's cemetery, an early Nazi camp in Poland. She took a liking to Isaac. "Stomarek," she called him, a reference to the "one hundred marks" he had tried to hide from his captors. When they found the money, he had received a vicious beating.

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From Samantha Bakall, a look at Willie Summerville and his continuing involvement in the community's music:

Willie T. Summerville sits behind the church organ, his fingers dancing on the keys and his lips slightly pursed at the microphone, ready to sing. He does not need his hands to conduct. His elbows, shoulders and upper body serve as the signaling baton. His close-cropped hair is sprinkled salt and pepper, showing his 67 years against his dark skin. His large, grandfather-esque bifocal glasses overshadow the rest of his face, but through the thick lenses, his eyes are smiling.

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From Jordan Sward, the story of a woman as she embarks on a venture that risks everything she has:

One o'clock cannot come fast enough.

It's 8:30 on an autumn Wednesday morning and Heather Smith has a decaf pot in one hand and regular in the other. The five-stool bar at Merry Ann's Diner on Neil Street is occupied by men in Carhartts and camo hats, all of whom Heather addresses by name as she tops off their ceramic coffee mugs.

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From News-Gazette staff writer Tracy Moss, the story of a woman who is frustrated with some of the obstacles of aging, but who finds joy in simple pleasures.

Eleanor Rome is running out of air.

Just 25 minutes of oxygen left, and the checkout line is long. Three people are ahead with quite a few items. And then there's the drive home. It's not far, but that's several more minutes of oxygen, maybe more.

Where's another cashier? she thinks.

Her heart, the one that sent her to the emergency room, beats a little faster. Her breaths are getting shorter, despite the tube feeding her oxygen from the canister slung over her shoulder. She can feel the panic coming. Eleanor nervously glances around, looking for another drugstore employee.

There should be a second cashier.

Find the story here.

From Marisa Gwidt, the tale of a man who keeps himself occupied while missing his wife of 36 years: 

"Oh, boy," Charlie High sighs as he watches a college student drag in four heaping bags of laundry. "She won't finish in time."

It's 9:50 on a Monday night at Starcrest Cleaners in Champaign. Charlie's supposed to lock the doors at 11. Yet here is this young woman, opening a silver front-loader and preparing to toss in a load of darks. Charlie, 67 years old, hobbles over in cuffed, faded jeans and intervenes.

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From Phil Johnson, a profile of entrepreneur Seon Williams, who has risen well above the expectations of others in his younger days.

Cutting hair in the barbershop no one ever expected him to own, Seon Williams entertains in frenzied, fluid motions. In front of him rests a client, to the left a ringing phone he will not answer, to the right one of 30 or so visitors who stops by every day to show love.

The 42-year-old's 2008 black Mercedes-Benz SL 550 convertible, visible through the window behind him, sits parked out front of The Whip Hair Designs in Champaign. Newspaper clippings, plaques, neighborhood event fliers and funeral programs paint his walls. Photos of friends and family frame his faded mirror. A scissor cut here, a close shave there, and Williams steps back to admire his work.

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News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli recounts her travels, which are much more than going from one place to another, with her mom.

I perch on the large limestone ledge, 225 feet above the Ohio River, meditating on it and the countryside stretched out before me. I like to think of it as my secret place. But my mother knows I'm there even though she's never ventured to the spot. When I descend to my place, she sits in a wrought-iron chair on the back deck of our rented duplex watching — tirelessly — the barges go back and forth. A steep, rugged ravine separates us, but only physically.

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From Christian Gollayan, the story of a young man who likes making people feel uncomfortable.

He's 6 feet tall barefoot, 6-feet-5 in his Jeffrey Campbell heels. He loves Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol and beautiful women who don't care about what other people think.

He loves vodka. He takes it straight up, pursing his lips, keeping a composed face. It makes him feel as if he's made of plastic; it's reassuring. If he can keep a strong face after a shot, he can keep a strong face after anything.

Find the story here.

From Megan Graham, the tale of a young man who does daily battle with a genetic disorder.

In his old room in his parents' home, a pretty house in the Cherry Hills subdivision of Champaign, Chike Coleman is poking through his shelves. He wants to find a Blu-ray disc, one of the beloved movies he bought in a half-off online sale from a site that sells independent films.

He moves aside tens of his prized jazz CDs, the Soapbox Derby trophies and the Hardy Boys books. The shelves are filled with 25 years of memories: books he has loved, model cars done in candy-colored lacquer, his University of Illinois diploma.

His high school and college friends — most 25-year-olds, for that matter — no longer live in the dust of their boyhood belongings. But after his fleeting years of collegiate freedom, Chike moved right back into this room, with its boxes of waterproof dressing and nonstick pads and bandages, bottles of hydrogen peroxide, soap-free cleanser and Clindamycin gel.

Find the story here.

From Jessica Bourque, a profile of a Danville woman who shelters birds in her Champaign office.

Cindy Eaglen — that's eagle with an 'n' — sits in her computer chair, a bird in one hand, a mouse in the other. The mouse is of the computer variety, but the bird is an African grey, one of the smartest avian breeds in the animal kingdom. Cindy carefully holds the two, kissing one on the beak and using the other to scroll through YouTube videos; she is searching for one of her favorites.

"It's amazing!" she says. "They put on some NSYNC song or something (it's actually Backstreet Boys) and this bird starts dancing — just bobbing his head and moving his feet perfectly in line with the beat!"

She finds the video, and soon a cockatoo named Snowball appears on the screen.

"Look at him! Isn't he ?" she seems about to finish that thought with "amazing" or "incredible," but she's interrupted.


Find the story here.

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