Tom's #Mailbag, Nov. 17, 2017

Tom's #Mailbag, Nov. 17, 2017

Got a question for our veteran columnist? Ask it by clicking here

First up: we have two tickets and a parking pass to Sunday's Illinois-Marshall men's basketball game at the State Farm Center. Everyone who shoots me an email by 3:30 p.m. (at gets their name entered in the drawing. We'll pull names out of a hat, or something similar, at 3:35 p.m. Be sure to include your name and phone number so we can contact you.

Next, it's Urbana Week in the mailbag, and not just because next Thursday is the 50th running of the great Urbana Turkey Trot (free registration at 8 a.m., race start at 9 a.m. Thanksgiving Day at Crystal Lake Park).

We have mailbag questions about the late Urbana native and News-Gazette journalist Roger Ebert, the mileage between Philo and Urbana, the Urbana "gateway" on University Avenue, and Urbana's historic district.

Also, whether to clear storm intakes of leaves and other debris, whatever happened to "Prairie Home Companion" and National Weather Service radio, complaints about The News-Gazette and MCORE, more about Clark Park in Champaign and where to learn about the history of Illini sports.

Roger Ebert and baseball

"Was the late Roger Ebert a White Sox fan? I heard someone say this and wasn't sure if it was true.

"If so, what were the Urbana native's ties to Chicago's south side team? Why didn't he root for the Cubbies?"

Roger never wrote about being a White Sox fan and one of his childhood friends, Chuck Shaw of Urbana, said he didn't recall Ebert being a fan of any particular baseball team.

In his wonderful — especially for anyone who grew up or lived in 1950s-1970s Urbana — autobiography, "Life Itself: A Memoir," Ebert remembers listening at home to the 50,000-watt, clear channel radio stations. In Chicago there were WBBM, WLS, WMAQ and WGN and the Cubs, he wrote.

And in St. Louis there was KMOX and Harry Caray and the Cardinals, he writes, and repeats the great urban legend that "Augie Busch caught (Caray) in bed with his wife and threw him out of town."

This gives me an opportunity to mention my absolutely favorite sports-related Roger Ebert story. Ebert could write about certain sports — he did terrific Urbana High School football game coverage for The News-Gazette in the 1960s — but he was a rube about hockey. Here's a tale from Ebert's book about a wintry night that he spent 50 years ago with the great Chicago columnist Mike Royko:


"At about 8 p.m. on New Year's Day of 1967, only two lights on the floor were burning — mine, and Royko's. It was too early for the graveyard shift to come in. Royko walked over to see who else was working. A historic snowstorm was beginning. He asked me how I was getting home. I said I'd take the train. He said he had his old man's Checker car and would drop me at a train station. He had to make a stop at a 24-hour drugstore right where the L crossed North Avenue.

The pharmacist was backed up. "Come on, kid," Royko said. "Let's have a drink at the eye-opener place." It was a bar under the tracks so cramped the bartender could serve everyone without leaving his stool. "Two blackberry brandies and short beers," he said. He told me, "Blackberry brandy is good for hangovers. You never get charged for a beer chaser." I sipped the brandy, and a warm place began to glow in my stomach. I had been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in an eye-opener place. A Blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio. The team scored, and again, and again. This at last was life.

"The Blackhawks are really hot tonight," I observed to Royko.

He studied me. "Where you from, kid? Downstate?"

"Urbana," I said.

"Ever seen a hockey game?"


"That's what I thought, you asshole. Those are the game highlights."

University & Lincoln fixes

"What can be done about the corner of University and Lincoln in Urbana? The empty car lot has been there for a long time and now the locksmith is gone. It is the gateway to Urbana. Can't it be cleaned up somehow? It is an eyesore."

This reply comes from Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin, with assistance from the city's community development services and public works departments.

"Your Mailbag reader is correct — the Lincoln and University intersection should be a much more welcoming gateway to Urbana and the University of Illinois campus. We expect to see some changes there soon. There are multiple properties for sale near there that are suitable for redevelopment, including the recently cleared 8-acre Illinois American Water site. Most of these sites are within the Urbana Enterprise Zone and are eligible for incentives. The city is looking forward to working with potential new owners on transformative redevelopment projects in this area.

"The proposed (Illinois Department of Transportation) safety improvements to University Avenue (west of Lincoln Avenue along the north side) planned for fall of 2018 and spring 2019 will not affect the driveway for the former locksmith location at 1002 W. University Ave. However, the work does include the closure of the eastern two driveway aprons at 902 W. University Ave., the former gas station, and the west driveway will remain open.

"The city also will continue to resurface Lincoln Avenue so that by the end of next year, this street will have been resurfaced or rebuilt from Green Street all the way up to the intersection with Olympian Drive. It will make a much better first impression."

Urbana's historic district

"What's up with the historic district on Main Street in Urbana? It is one block and about half of the houses are newer construction. There are some fine old houses on that block, but is that area really worthy of special designation?

"If I were to hand-pick a historic district in Urbana, it wouldn't be that block. Even if I were to pick a block on Main Street in Urbana, it would be one of the blocks further east where the historic integrity is more intact."

Again, Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin helps out with the background information courtesy of the community development services department.

"The area from 300 block of West Main west to Lincoln Avenue was once nominated for historic designation. In 2002, an application was submitted to the Urbana Historic Preservation Commission for designation of the West Main Historic District consisting of approximately 57 properties from the 300 block of West Main Street west to Lincoln Avenue. The Historic Preservation Commission determined the application did not meet minimum requirements because the signatures of property owners in support of the nomination fell short of the 25 percent required.

"On Oct. 11, 2007, the Urbana City Council approved the designation of the 800 block of West Main Street an Historic District, finding that a significant number of buildings, structures, sites or objects met the criteria for designation as individual local landmarks. More than 25 percent of the property owners were in support of the nomination. The Urbana Historic Preservation Commission considered 11 properties in this block as contributing to the historical character and four properties non-contributing."

Distance to Urbana

"Why does the mileage sign north of Philo say it's 9 miles to Urbana? It's 5 miles. It's never been 9 miles. Who measured it?"

We answered a question similar to this about a year ago. The Illinois Department of Transportation measures mileage to the center of the destination town, not to its borders.

This is from our friend Kensil Garnett at IDOT: "Chapter 2D-41.03 of the MUTCD covers this issue. From the manual: 'The distance

displayed should be selected on a case-by-case basis by the jurisdiction that owns the road or by statewide policy. A well-defined central area or central business district should be used where one exists. In other cases, the layout of the community should be considered in relation to the highway being signed and the decision based on where it appears that most drivers would feel that they are in the center of the community in question.'"

Prairie Home Companion

"We used to be able to listen to 'A Prairie Home Companion' on one of the local public broadcast channels, but it appears to no longer be offered as programming in the area. Do you know what channel that was on and why they dropped it?"

I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't know that "PHC" is no longer on WILL-FM, and has not been for more than a year.

WILL stopped carrying it when longtime host Garrison Keiller left the show in July 2016.

Here's how the station's Patterns magazine described the change: "The time has come to wish a fond farewell to Garrison Keillor and our friends at Lake Wobegon. Last year, Keillor announced that this season of A Prairie Home Companion would be his last, and his final show airs at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 2 on WILL-FM, almost 42 years to the day after its first broadcast in St. Paul, Minn."

"Regarding his retirement, Keillor said, 'When you're 73, you really are aware of how you are changing, the good and the bad. And you don't want to stay doing something past the point where you feel confident and presentable.'"

"In light of this significant change, Illinois Public Media announces that a new show will be added to the weekend lineup on WILL-FM. American Public Media's Performance Today Weekend will now air at 5 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays on WILL-FM 90.9. This two-hour weekly program hosted by Fred Child features classical music in concert from the American Public Media studios and sites across the nation and around the world, as well as classical music news, interviews, and features."

But "Prairie Home Companion" still exists. It's hosted by versatile musician Chris Thile and although the show has changed significantly it's still entertaining.

I hear it on SiriusXM at 5 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday. You can also hear a live stream or past shows at

And there are FM stations in the area that still carry it and that you may be able to hear, depending where you live. Here are their call letters and times they present the show: WUIS-FM, Springfield, 91.9, 5 p.m. Saturday; WUSI-FM, Olney, 90.3, 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday; WBEK-FM, 91.1, Kankakee, 5 p.m. Saturday; and WNDY, Crawfordsville, Ind., 91.3, 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday.

National Weather Service radio

"Champaign-Urbana's NOAA Weather Radio, WXJ-76 (162.550) has been in a severely degraded condition since late October, only able to broadcast programming for a few miles, versus its normal range that covers all or part of 10 counties. A failed component has been identified, but updated information about the time frame for repairs hasn't been provided for several days. Can you start asking some questions about the status here? Maybe Ed Bond might be able to help."

Ed Bond was a great help and so was Ed Shimon at the National Weather Service office in Lincoln.

Bottom line: relief is near.Shimon said the replacement component — an antenna power divider — is on hand and that it could be installed as early as Monday, weather and Ed Bond permitting.

Ed has to be there because he has to turn down the heat — also known as lowering the power — so some lucky person can safely climb to the top of the WDWS tower in south Champaign and install the new piece of equipment.

Right now, Bond said, WXJ-76 is operating at about 50 percent power.

News-Gazette complaints

"So what's up with the Amazing Shrinking News-Gazette? It seems to be getting smaller in every dimension — in size, content and service. It's apparently too much trouble to actually deliver it to my porch (as it was for years), the print area is smaller and you keep dropping features (Wumo and now Laurence Kotlikoff seems to have been dropped), E3 is gone, arts and entertainemnt is shrinking fast and the Commentary section of Sunday is withering away. Thank goodness we still get exhaustive coverage of the girl's tiddlywinks team from Mira."

From Jim Rossow, the vice president of news at The News-Gazette:

"'E3 is gone' ... in name only. It's now called 'On The Go' with as much space as e3, just not in tabloid form. We've pushed some of our calendar items — published for free — to to free up space for fresher arts and entertainment coverage.

"'Arts and entertainment is shrinking fast and the Commentary section of Sunday is withering away' ... Again, re-sectioning can do tricks on the eyes. In Sunday's paper, we combined our Business and Commentary sections as well as Living and Entertaining (now called A&E). In doing that, however, we didn't eliminate any of our regular features other than stocks pages (which still run online).

"'Thank goodness we still get exhaustive coverage of the girl's tiddlywinks team from Mira' ... we're very proud of our hyper-local Sports section, which since the late 1990s has been annually recognized as a Top 10 section — nationally — in the Associated Press Sports Editor contest (APSE). There's not another section in the Midwest that can claim the same.

"I can say the same — now — about the 'Amazing Shrinking News-Gazette' front to back. For the last three years, we've been named the top newspaper in our circulation category in Illinois and working hard to make it four in a row. It's an unprecedented run that everyone in the newsroom takes much pride in."

As for Wumo and Kotlikoff, here's News-Gazette news editor George Dobrik:

Wumo: "That comic strip was replaced by a different comic strip more than a year ago, part of a continuing effort to provide fresh, funny strips."

Kotlikoff: "Finance columnist Scott Burns stopped writing his columns in February 2017. His replacement, Laurence Kotlikoff, stopped providing columns in August. But the features syndicate has not provided a replacement columnist."

MCORE again

"Why is the Champaign portion of the MCORE project so far behind schedule? I understood the project would be completely finished by Dec. 17, 2017, and that there was a monetary daily penalty if it wasn't And when will MTD bus service be reinstated east on Green Street from Neil Street?"

"The project is not off schedule by much, as I mentioned last week," said Kris Koester at the Champaign Public Works Department. "This year the only contractual obligation is to have Green Street between First Street and Neil Street open to traffic by Dec. 17, 2017. The remaining contractual obligations remain with the date of Nov. 8, 2018."

As for MTD service, Managing Director Karl Gnadt wrote: "Thanks for the question. Understand that these plans are tentative and somewhat based on weather and other variables. But in general, the Urbana side of Green Street will be open to us on Dec. 4 while the Champaign side is scheduled for mid-December when the construction season ends."

Clear those storm drains

"I have a question regarding leaves and storm drains. I thought to contact the city of Champaign directly, but I believe their response may be of public interest and worth publishing, so I figured I would run it past you first.

"I live on a corner lot near Central High School in Champaign. During rainy seasons, it is common for the intersection's storm drains to become blocked by leaves, grass clippings, etc., causing the intersection to flood. I've developed a habit of manually clearing the drains with a rake, but after reading comments from Chicago's water commissioner advising Chicago residents to not clear their drains, I'm having my doubts. What do the cities of Champaign and Urbana recommend for their residents? Is it OK to clear the street's storm drains, or does doing so increase the risk of overloading our sewer systems?"

Yes, go ahead and clear those storm intakes.

First Kris Koester in Champaign: "Residents are welcome to clear storm drains and dispose of the debris properly. If water is present, residents are encouraged to stand on the curb and use a rake or some other item to clear the drain. To my knowledge the sanitary district has never mentioned anything to us about not allowing water into the storm drains."

Bill Gray, Urbana Public Works director: "The city of Urbana does not have a policy/program per se; the Public Works Department does encourage residents to informally 'adopt' a stormwater inlet and keep it clear. Public Works crews will, when notified, be happy to remove the offending leaves, etc. left in the parkway. The city greatly appreciates those residents that clear the inlets particularly this time of the year."

More on Clark Park

"Re the Nov. 11 Clark Park mention (in the mailbag), we live in the 'Clark House' built by John S. Clark in 1915. We purchased the historic home in 1994 and the previous owner, Greg Langan, indicated that Mr. Clark was a wealthy fellow and philanthropist who donated the land for Clark Park, and that our home was the first home built west of Prospect Avenue in 1915. Neighborhood folklore has it that there was a winding driveway to our home and that the entrance on the south is now Green Street and at the north end what is now Healey, marked by brick and stone pillars, one of which remains at Green and Prospect. Our home was equipped with not only gas lighting but also the new incandescent lighting."I'm sorry I don't know more about the Clarks, but they only lived here for several years then built a new home/a showplace on

Hill Street, and sold this home to the Johnstons, who owned Champaign County Abstract Company, who later sold to the Jorgensen Family, who owned Twin City Creamery, who sold to the Langans, who sold to the Prillamans. Thought I'd share some more info."

— Roger Prillaman

Illini sports

"Having just moved to the region, I am quite unfamiliar with Illini sports. I look forward to rooting for the school's teams, especially in football and basketball. However, I wanted to know if there are any good resources to get me accustomed with UIUC sports history. Any book and/or documentary recommendations would be great."


"Does a gallery of Illini basketball jerseys from years past exist anywhere on the internet? It would be cool to see how the design has evolved over time."

Is that you Loren Tate?

Because first of all there's Mr. Tate's "A Century of Orange and Blue: Celebrating 100 Years of Fighting Illini Basketball," written in 2004 with Jared Gelfond. There are lots of vintage photos of basketball players in uniforms from 1905 on.

For Illini football history there's Bob Asmussen's 2008 book, "University of Illinois Football Vault: The History of the Fighting Illini."

Sections (2):News, Local
Topics (1):Tom's Mailbag

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
rsp wrote on November 17, 2017 at 2:11 pm

Clear those storm drains

I'm surprised they didn't mention that it's illegal to put leaves in the street or the drains.