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The Braille Monitor – November, 2000 Edition


Takin' a Chance

by Stephen O. Benson


From the Editor: How does any one of us get from wherewe began to where we are today? It is interesting to consider what small incidents sometimes shape our lives forever after. I remember walking to the telephone the day someone called to ask if I had ever heard of the National Federation of the Blind. I never dreamed what a profound change that call would make in my life. In 1976 Steve Benson was a rising young leader in the Illinois affiliate. I think he and I had met at the 1975 convention, but I can't be sure now. At any rate we got to know each other much better at the seminar he speaks about in the following story. That weekend changed his life.Today he writes for a living. He also interviews authorson a television program. You know Steve as a state president and Member of the NFB Board of Directors. Now learn something about his professional life as well. This is what he says:

Steve Benson
Steve Benson

Tom McGowen and Charles Dickinson are Chicago authors who've written some pretty interesting stuff. McGowen writes mostly for young adults; however, three of his books, collectively called the Magician Series, are equally appealing to adults who enjoy fantasy and science fiction. Seven of his books are available from the National Library Service.

One of Charles Dickinson's four books, The Widows' Adventures, is also available from NLS. The widows, one of whom is blind, drive from Chicago to California, with the blind woman doing some of the driving. It's actually a pretty good book, and his treatment of blindness is quite positive.

I had the pleasure of interviewing these two authors on "Write Stuff," an hour-long interview program on Chicago's municipal cable television station. It is part of the publicity effort of the Chicago Public Library in which I play a part. Since June of 1991 I have worked in the Library's communications office. I've written news releases, public service announcements, and articles that were pitched to the press in the hope that they would be run verbatim. Fortunately, all of my articles were attractive enough that the papers carried them, however, not without some editorial massaging to suit the agenda of the reporters assigned to the stories.

One of the things I have learned about writing in this setting is that, once a release or article has been written and turned over to an editor, I can no longer claim exclusive right of authorship. It is likely a piece will get edited, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was poorly written. Differences in style and language, dates, time, spelling of names, and other details certainly get editorial attention, and often the piece is strengthened under the hand of another writer. Another certainty is that I have become a much better, more creative editor through nine years of writing exercise.

Recently my responsibilities have changed. The library commissioner has reassigned me from doing press releases for general programs conducted at the central library and more than thirty branches to doing publicity for the Chicago Talking Book Center. I issue news releases, edit a quarterly newsletter, and do interviews to promote programs and services as part of the library's outreach effort to build patron use of the Talking Book Center.

All of this is the result of events that took place nearly a quarter century ago. In March, 1976, I was one of a group of Federationists Dr. Jernigan selected to attend an intensive three-day public relations seminar to learn all aspects of a PR campaign, including how to write a good news release. Though I had taught English composition and the theme paper at Chicago's Gordon Technical High School a decade earlier, I had never tackled the kind of writing require in a good release. At that seminar I first began to learn how to write, and not just news releases.

I am certainly a much better writer today than I was then, and I'm still learning. By 1991 my writing skills had developed to a marketable level, and I started writing press professionally for the largest free lending municipal library in the country. It is a job I probably would not have considered had it not been for the NFB and Dr. Jernigan.

In the Spring of 1994 the communications office supervisor announced that the library would launch a new program on municipal cable called "Write Stuff." It was to be an author interview program. She asked whether any of the staff was interested in hosting the program. The room was silent for a moment; then I said, "I'll take a chance and try it." By that time I had been the guest on countless radio and television interview programs representing the NFB, but I had never hosted a program.

It has turned out to be the most challenging, interesting, fun, and rewarding part of my job. My first guest was a Holocaust survivor, Judith Magyar Isaacson. She wrote a book called Seed of Sarah that chronicled her experience in, and survival of, Auschwitz. Following her liberation, she married an American army officer, moved to Maine, and became a math teacher. One of her daughters once asked why her stories about her experience were all so upbeat. Mrs. Isaacson replied: "I survived." She is a fascinating and brilliant woman.

Other guests have included Lieutenant Hugh Holton, a Chicago Police Department watch commander who writes detective thrillers; Sylvia McNair, a travel writer; Elmer Gertz, a prominent civil rights attorney in the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies; Brian Muldoon, an expert on conflict resolution and mediation; James Flamang, an automotive writer who has written extensively about cars and the automotive industry in the Chicago Tribune and other publications; Paula Roeske, a college professor and award-winning poet; Tim Unsworth, a nationally known writer on Catholic issues; Kathleen Thompson, co-author of A Shining Thread of Hope: A History of Black Women in America; Deborah Kent Stein, author of numerous fiction and nonfiction titles for young adults and writer of articles related to women's issues and blindness issues; and Mary Edsey, who wrote The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland.

I try to use graphics as often as possible to hold viewer interest; for example, in my most recent interview with John Domini, who teaches creative writing at Northwestern University and has written two short story collections, I presented him with a photograph and asked him to discuss how to build a story around its content. He did. Afterward he said that had been one of the most interesting exercises he had ever done; he liked it. James Flamang, an automotive writer, and Mitchell Frumkin, a photo researcher and writer, co-authored A History of the Chicago Auto Show. Twenty of the book's photographs of the show and antique cars were included in the production. Our conversation about the cars was an integral part of the historical perspective of one of the country's largest automobile shows.

Perhaps the most interesting interview, from a political angle, was with Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, who with Craig Sautter, a DePaul University history professor, wrote a book called Inside the Wigwam, a fascinating history of political conventions in Chicago.

The most challenging interview was of Henry Kaisor, a book editor with the Chicago Sun-Times, and author of Zephyr: Training Across America, and What's That Pig Outdoors: Autobiography of a Deaf Person. Kaisor is totally deaf. A mutual friend asserted that Henry is aural and easily understood and that my lips are very easy to read. Henry Kaisor is an excellent writer, but I must admit that interview took every ounce of energy and concentration I could muster. Maybe Kaisor feels the same way.

As I prepare for my program, I make a serious attempt to invite guests whose books are available in Braille or on cassette. That, of course, makes it easier for me to read as much of their writing as I can; however, sometimes it just isn't possible. In those cases I rely on readers to acquire information and insight into my guests' writing. Prior to the program I meet with the production staff to put material into the character generator or onto what is called still-store. That is the device that allows photos and other graphics to be displayed on the TV screen. I always ask guests to come to the studio early so that I can get acquainted and alleviate any qualms they might have about working with a blind person. As I said earlier, it has been interesting, challenging, rewarding, and fun.

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