I just wish I could talk to him one more time.
No, that’s not right.
I wish I could talk to him 100 more times, listen to his stories, hear him sing, ask him for some more advice, soak up more knowledge, laugh at his wonderful self-deprecating humor.
I wish I had known John Callaway when I first broke into the business so I had more years to benefit from our friendship. But I know I couldn’t miss him any more than I do today.
Callaway’s passing Tuesday night is a loss for Chicago, a loss for journalism and a loss for anyone who ever experienced, either in person or via his work, his professionalism and the decency of the man.
There are going to be plenty of obits and tributes in the coming days and I can imagine him shaking his head and deflecting all the wonderful words of praise that will be heaped upon his memory. They will say that he was the best interviewer around and they still won’t do him justice.
I had the honor of being on his panel on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight over the years, and being interviewed by him twice on Friday Night. The first time was a year and a half ago, when he talked to me about the Tribune Magazine piece I had written about my parents’ battle with Alzheimer’s, and just hearing his voice speak the names of my parents in that beautiful baritone of his to open the show was like stepping into another dimension for me.
The final time was last month, when I came on to promote my biography of Lou Piniella. Mostly, however, we talked about my layoff from the Tribune after 19 years just a couple weeks earlier. Like the first interview, it was obviously a very personal and emotional topic for me, and one that I know I couldn’t have spoken about publicly at that point with anyone other than John Callaway.
I felt warm and protected, not because I considered him a friend, but because I knew his preparation was, as always, meticulous. I knew he would lead me in a direction I didn’t even know I was going but would naturally follow because he was so incredibly good at what he did.
There were no great secrets to what made Callaway so good. Certainly no shortcuts. We spent no more than five or six minutes talking about my book but he had read every word of it, his questions reflected it and his audience, as always, benefitted from it.
In an interview with the Tribune, Callaway explained his craft and revealed why he was so masterful at it.
“A good interview,” he said, “at a really deep level just requires preparation beyond anything that I can tell you. When I was doing the old `John Callaway Interviews,’ the national series that we did for a couple of years, when I interviewed Updike, I think I read everything that he wrote. And I want to tell you, pal, that’s a lot. That’s a lot. And you want to know something? He knew it about 12 seconds into that interview. He knew it. And he came to play, and I came to play.”
You can’t fool most interview subjects and Callaway knew that and lived that. There is no cheating. To be a good interviewer, he said, is to be truly engaged.
When you lose a John Callaway, there is just simply a void. His was a voice unlike any another. He had an authenticity unlike any other. Work ethic is, unfortunately, a concept his generation did not subscribe to as if it was an option. They just held to it. But more than that was his generosity.
When I lost my job at the Tribune, I made a list of people of the smartest people I knew, those whose advice I wanted and needed. He was among the first people I called and the first who responded. And he continued to keep in touch even after I stopped, offering ideas for me, encouragement, giving recommendations to people he thought could help me, signing each e-mail with warmest best wishes, love and hugs.
I suspect I was not the only journalist he ever helped.
With all my heart, I will try to return that generosity.
He was a dear man. And I miss him already.