Jim Sulski, the veteran Columbia journalism educator under whose benevolent but tough-minded tutelage The Chronicle gained national recognition among college newspapers, died on Thursday, Jan. 7.
Sulski, 52, an associate professor in the Journalism Department and Chronicle adviser for 15 years, passed away in his South Side home after a long struggle with cancer.
An easy-going man whose amiable nature masked a keen devotion to journalistic standards, Sulski ran a shop that has turned out a cadre of Columbia graduates who have gone on to successful media careers in Chicago and elsewhere.
Columbia President Warrick L. Carter issued the following statement on Sulski’s death: “Jim was a wonderful teacher and mentor who took special pride in his work with The Columbia Chronicle newspaper and in his interactions with the many students who served on The Chronicle over the years. Much of The Chronicle’s success is a result of Jim’s efforts. It is a testament to both his character and love of the profession that Jim remained in close contact with so many of those students long after their graduations and into their careers. He will be incredibly missed by his colleagues, students and those whose lives he touched.”
Said Doreen Bartoni, dean of Columbia’s School of Media Arts: “He was hugely devoted to The Chronicle and so proud of his students’ attainments. He continued to mentor his former students even after they had embarked on their professional careers.”
Amanda Maurer, a former editor-in-chief of The Chronicle, recalled Sulski as a man who never balked at sharing his time with both undergraduates and graduates.
“Jim always made time for his students,” said Maurer, Chronicle editor-in-chief during the 2007-08 academic year and now a digital news editor at the Chicago Tribune Media Group. “When I first joined the Chronicle, I sat near Jim’s office. I was amazed at how many students—from his class and those he advised at the Chronicle—would wander in his door throughout the day. He would always give you his time, even if he was about to leave the office for class or home.”
Maurer said Sulski’s counsel was even available while he was out doing personal errands.
“I can even remember Jim calling me at The Chronicle with a story idea or tip while he was out running around. He was always thinking about us—and we’ll always remember him.”
Said Jessica Galliart, editor-in-chief during the 2008-09 academic year: “I couldn’t be where I am today without Jim Sulski. He built The Chronicle as it is from the ground up and instilled the values of hard work, undying passion and independence into its staff from the very beginning.
“I can’t explain how important it was to have someone on the side of the staff, no matter the situation. Though he never once influenced the opinions or directions of the paper, he always managed to give me, as the editor, the confidence and encouragement to dig into my work fully and for my own thoughts, which I have carried with me post-graduation.”
Said Galliart, an editorial intern with Playboy.com who also freelances, “Though I know he would vehemently suggest otherwise and say we earned them all on our own, The Chronicle’s awards really were because of him.”
Sulski himself was a Columbia success story. He graduated from the college with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1984, and went on to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he earned his master’s degree in communications.
He helped pay his way through school while working as a reporter and editor at the Daily Calumet and later at Keycom Electronic Publishing in Schaumburg, where he was desk editor. He also had a thriving career as a freelancer, writing for such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business, Consumer’s Digest and Exito.
Sulski joined Columbia as a part-time journalism professor in 1991. In 1995, he became an artist-in-residence and was appointed Chronicle adviser. Teaching everything from Introduction to Writing and Reporting to Interpretive Reporting, he became a full-time faculty member in 1999, earning tenure and eventually becoming associate chair of the department in 2006, a post in which he served for two years.
But as he would freely admit, The Chronicle was his baby. And under his guidance, the publication began to flourish. In 2000, The Chronicle won five first places in the non-daily category from the Illinois College Press Association, for General Excellence, Editorial Writing, Photo Essay, General News Photo and Sports Photo.
The plaudits from such groups as the Society of Professional Journalists and the Columbia (University) Scholastic Press Association have continued over the years. This past fall, the newspaper won a coveted Pacemaker Award from the Associated Collegiate Press. From 270 entrants, The Chronicle was named one of the top ten collegiate weekly newspapers in the U.S., the highest honor that organization can bestow.
But Sulski always made sure his students kept their eyes on the bigger prize—their professional lives after college.
“Jim was the catalyst for many of our student’s post-Columbia careers,” said Len Strazewski, acting chairman of the Journalism Department. “As their advisor, he always made sure that they came away from their Chronicle experience with excellent training and story clips, something to show prospective employers. As a result, most of his students have been hired in great places.”
Nancy Day, Journalism Department chair who is away on sabbatical for the spring Semester, said that since Sulski’s death she has been monitoring social networking sites “and the tributes to Jim have been flowing in, such as this one on Facebook from a former student: ‘Jim was a really great guy and a fantastic teacher.’”
Day said Jim’s stature with his students grew from the way he treated them. “Jim believed in encouraging students, prodding, suggesting, never dictating, but letting them find their own way so they were proud of what they had accomplished.”
Day’s comments were echoed by Sulski’s friend and fellow Chronicle administrator Chris Richert, The Chronicle’s general manager.
“Jim was always filled with ideas and passion for the newspaper,” Richert said. “He was always found mentoring and advising student editors with story and source problems, and making sure they always produced their best work. He truly will be missed, not only as one of my colleagues, but also as a close friend.”
For all his bonhomie, there was one thing Sulski was fierce about—his roots on Chicago’s South Side. He was a longtime resident of the city’s Beverly neighborhood, and when finally he moved it was to …where else, Bridgeport, incubator of Chicago mayors.
Sulski’s relationship with Columbia was also a family one. He is survived by his wife, Jo Cates, associate vice president for academic research and dean of the school’s library, who said of him:
“Jim Sulski was a fighter to the very end. I never appreciated his intelligence, humor, strength and dignity more than when he was struggling during these last few weeks.
“I want everyone to know that he was home and surrounded by his loving family when he left us on Thursday at 6:42 a.m. What a loss for his family, friends, colleagues and students. But what an enduring gift of love and friendship he leaves behind.”
In addition to his wife, Sulski is survived by his daughter, Hannah, a student at Columbia, a teenage son, Jake, and a younger daughter, Emma.