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At gathering of readers, neighbors made a bad week better

Jake Hartford's passing marked with those who invited him into their homes

John Kass

January 16, 2013

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It's been a terrible week, not a week to entertain, or be cute or flip about anything.

But a Chicago Tribune event had been planned months ago for my readers at the beautiful campus at Elmhurst College on Tuesday.

And so, bad week or no, I was going.

It was full to capacity. Some 250 people attended. I have the flu — and brought my box of tissues up to the lectern. You don't cancel out on loyal readers who get up out of their beds at 5 a.m. on a cold morning to drive to the western suburbs to have eggs and bacon with you at 7. And they brought something too, something I needed: their time.

Readers wanted to know how to give a proper Moutza and whether former Gov. Rod Blagojevich will do all his federal time, although Blago should do twice his sentence just for having read "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and then admitting it. They asked about President Barack Obama and Boss Michael Madigan. And, they wondered, who'll be the last member of our Chumbolone Nation to leave Illinois once the political class spends us into complete ruin?

There were moms and dads and grandparents and even a few teenagers, including journalist and Lyons Township soccer player Gabbie Gresge, who woke before dawn to make the event.

"I got up early," Gresge said.

Thanks Gabbie. And go LT!

And there was one thing most readers wanted to know.

They wanted to know about Jake Hartford.

"He had a nice voice," said a woman from Aurora. "It was like a neighbor's voice."

That's what so many people in our business seem to forget. Listeners and readers don't invite imperious strangers into their homes. They invite neighbors into their homes. And now, we've lost one.

You probably know by now that WLS-AM 890 radio personality Jim Edwards — who went by the radio name of Jake Hartford — died over the weekend. We were partners, doing the Jake & John show midmornings from 9 to 11.

He'd have hated all this attention. He'd have insisted that the conversation turn to those 18 mysterious embalmed human heads held up by customs officials at O'Hare. I can just see him now, asking a medical examiner, "Doctor? Just how long does it take to defrost a head?"

They weren't frozen. They were cured. But he'd have pushed the frozen head angle anyway.

Many Tribune readers at the event had read the fine obituary written about him by reporter Ellen Jean Hirst. And there was a nice tribute by his friend and media critic Robert Feder in Time Out Chicago.

Edwards is survived by his wife, Marsha, and sons Jameson and Graham. Condolences, prayers and good wishes may be sent to the family at JakeWillBeMissed@gmail.com.

But when asked about him up at that lectern Tuesday, I didn't say what I wanted to say, including that the one thing he'd have hated was anyone talking about him in mournful tones. He'd have given us all a Moutza.

Going to work with him was like taking a master class in radio. He was patient, and I hoped that we were becoming friends. He'd been a news producer and had won numerous Emmys for hard news reporting as a legman for Walter Jacobson. And I think of myself as a reporter first, a columnist second. We had that together: We knew how the news worked, and we understood the interests that pull at the strings of the news. And this made the show better.

Jim had an absolutely killer wit, and he loved hoisting me on it like a speared fish. He pulled his famous spring-back/fall-forward routine and let me flop in the boat for everyone to hear. And I'd drive him crazy by swirling iced coffee too near the microphone, or by missing a break for traffic and weather.

"The clock is your friend, John!" he'd say. "The clock is your friend!"

Listeners would call and I'd whine that he was picking on me and that if Jim were a nun he would have whipped out a ruler and rapped me on the knuckles.

"Will you stop with the iced coffee?" he'd hiss at me during a break. "They can hear it. I can hear it. It's driving me crazy."

And then I'd slowly reach for the glass and swirl it.

Jeffrey Carlin, the producer, would run in and we'd pretend that we were fighting. It was a gag.

Jim was 63, older than I thought. He had that successful "Awake with Jake" program on Saturday mornings, and he read one of my first columns on the air, about a cut-rate coffin store where you could walk up, get a cheap coffin and keep it in your garage until you needed it. I'll never forget calling my brothers telling them to listen to him.

Jim Edwards should have had a regular weekday show much earlier in his career. But that's the way it worked out.

So there at Elmhurst College on Tuesday, in the middle of a bad week, the flu in my chest, I don't mind telling you I was feeling low.

But when you're down, sometimes neighbors see you through, like all the readers who showed up Tuesday. It was like chicken soup, and tea with honey and lemon, only better.

And I just wanted to say: Thanks, everybody.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass