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Opinion

Rettke: To Barry Schrader, for passing the baton

I spoke to Barry Schrader for the last time 10 days before he died.

In typical coronavirus-fashion, it was via email. Barry was a former Daily Chronicle editor, a historian, an author, a community advocate, a lifelong journalist, an all around good guy. He died Tuesday at age 79 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

I regret I didn't know him better, or longer, but since I took over as the 17th editor of the Daily Chronicle (Barry served as editor from 1969 to 1972) in April, he made a very welcomed effort to connect me with the 141-year legacy I'd taken over.

In the days since, I've been moved to see tributes about Barry from his friends and former colleagues across social media and in our newspaper.

He provided especially grounding support to me during my time of transition, a time exacerbated by a (only then beginning) global pandemic and significant changes in our own newsroom.

On April 2, he emailed to congratulate me on the appointment.

"You are stepping in at the most critical time in recent history for our country," Barry said. "Wish I could volunteer at the paper as I can imagine everyone is frantic trying to keep printing daily."

He was dying, and he knew it. But his commitment to his community remained until the end.

At the start of this year, Barry sent letters to those around him -- including many of us in the Daily Chronicle newsroom -- to let us know his time was coming to a close. He spent the months that followed tying up lose ends, organizing and donating his impressive, preciously-curated collection of DeKalb County history, and, selflessly, always making time for us fellow newspaper folks.

It's been Barry's way, the last few years (and few Daily Chronicle editors), to reach out to us, establish a rapport, keep up communication and provide a helping hand, a calming presence, a gracious guide in addition to his regular Daily Chronicle columns, "DeKalb County Life."

"Keep up the good work," he'd say to me.

On June 7, he emailed me with a surprise: he'd found an old pica pole -- a special ruler once a regular component of newsrooms long gone, used to help lay out newspaper pages for the printing press before the digital age. He said he'd brought it over in the spring of 1970 to our Barber Greene office from the Chronicle's old home on East Locust Street.

In Barry's own words: "They served several purposes—measuring columns of type, always in picas not inches, to fit the type into the page forms, measuring width and length of columns, measuring cuts and engravings to make sure they fit into the page, and even for tightening loose screws. Most were wood or aluminum but this one was brass which made it special and more rare."

I'd never heard of such a device, nor a pica, of course. I never knew the newsrooms of old. Even in college, when I ran the Beloit College Round Table, we used InDesign to lay out the pages, as easy as memorizing keyboard shortcuts on a Mac, fingertips free of ink.

Barry had hatched a nostalgic plan. He called it "passing the baton."

"I have decided to make it a tradition for Chronicle editors to pass on," he said. "I am a strong believer in traditions and hope this somehow ties all the Chronicle editors together from the Greenaway and Raymond days up to you. Please carry on with pride."

Days later, he sent me a history of the pica pole written by Texas syndicated columnist Mike Cole.

"Just for fun," Barry said. "Read it when you have time."

In chatting about Barry earlier this week with another former editor (No. 15) and mentor, Eric Olson, I was reminded what it means to be at the helm of something as important as a newspaper, and how, at the heart of all the work we do is tell stories.

There's a labor of love that goes into that mission, one that Barry could never let go of: news gathering, late nights, early mornings, weekends, phone calls, writing about happy things, writing about sad things, enduring global chaos, measuring column lengths with a brass pica pole at 3 in the morning in a dusty newsroom with nothing but coffee to keep you company.

I haven't yet seen the engraved pica pole, and in the midst of my chaotic new days as editor, I didn't get a chance to properly thank Barry for it before he died, something I've been ruminating on all week.

I wanted him to know that, even though we met only briefly in person, his correspondence with me over the months (and even before I became editor) touched me.

It's like he couldn't stop being an editor even to the very end, making sure I understood the importance of the work we do, and how honored I should be to be a part of this chain of command.

"It will be your generation that will have to take the lead in bringing change to our country," is the last thing Barry said to me.

It's a charge I take seriously in his honor and for all who've come before. I'm touched by how his life's work tell its own story: of what it means to remember those who came before us and how they shape our future, one pica pole at a time.

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