Saying goodbye to journalism legend

By TaylorGleason

The journalism community at Columbia and throughout Chicago lost a beloved member on the morning of Jan. 7. Jim Sulski was 52 years old, a husband, father, Chronicle adviser, working reporter and fervid teacher. Sulski’s natural inclination to teach reached beyond classroom walls when he was here and it continues after his sad departure.

Sulski passed away after a nearly three-year battle with cancer, which started in his kidney and spread to his lungs and brain. He is survived by his wife, Jo Cates, his children, Hannah, Jake and Emma, and his stepchildren, Jacob and Mabel.

Cates, dean of Columbia’s library and associate vice president for academic research, told The Chronicle on Jan.15: “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.”

It is important to Cates that everyone knows Sulski was “surrounded by his loving family when he left us on Thursday at 6:42 a.m.” in their Bridgeport home.

Sulski most certainly fought for his life and maintained the qualities his wife admired, according to those around him.

“He handled his sickness with great courage,” said Steve Kapelke, Columbia’s provost and senior vice president. “I saw Jim a number of times while he was fighting cancer and I think he handled it with grace and courage in ways that I thought spoke very highly of him.”

Sulski’s daughter Hannah, who attends Columbia, told The Chicago Tribune that her father was always the “rock” in the family.

Kapelke said he knows Sulski was well respected by his students and co-workers, and when news of Sulski’s death spread, he received “scores” of phone calls from people showing their remorse. It is appropriate that Sulski, a family man with strong roots in Chicago’s South Side, spent his last vital moments at home with family.

As reported by The Chronicle on Jan. 9, Sulski was “fierce” about his South Side heritage, having been raised in  and living in Beverly and Bridgeport during his adult years.

“Jim made it very clear he was from the South Side,” said Mick Dumke, friend and co-worker of Sulski’s. “He was from a steel neighborhood on the South Side and he loved the place.”

Dumke said that Sulski loved the entire city of Chicago and he was “endlessly fascinated” with what made it tick. He also believed it was “critically important” to train others on how the city worked and to keep a close eye out for corruption.

Sulski’s teaching was effective because he transmitted this passion to his students. He loved Chicago and he loved news. It was apparent in his classes and how he reinforced the student-heavy structure of The Chronicle.

“I don’t know exactly how he did it, but by the time I came in [to The Chronicle], there was already a tradition in place of this being a truly student-run place,” Dumke said, citing the guidance that was still provided to students by the “so-called grown-ups,” or staff advisers, at The Chronicle.

In 2000, five years after Sulski began advising The Chronicle, the Illinois College Press Association awarded the paper first place among non-daily publications in General Excellence, Editorial Writing, Photo Essay, General News Photo and Sports Photo.

In addition to the work Sulski did for The Chronicle, he also practiced his craft at numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business, Consumers Digest, Keycom Electronic Publishing and his South Chicago neighborhood publication, the Daily Calumet.

A Columbia graduate himself, Sulski earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1984 and went on to receive a master’s degree in communications from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I’m not sure there was a clear line [between professional and personal life] with Jim,” Dumke said, adding that Sulski was not the kind of professor or co-worker who kept a lot of distance.

Amanda Maurer worked with Sulski at The Chronicle as editor-in-chief. During the 2007 – 08 academic year, she said Sulski always made time to see his students and he thought about The Chronicle constantly.

“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,” Maurer said, as reported by The Chronicle on Jan. 9.

Dumke described Sulski as so passionate about good journalism that he didn’t get hung-up on details like grading his students and he often gave an “A for effort.”

According to Dumke, the Journalism Department at Columbia was always slightly skeptical of Sulski’s grading, and even he admits to originally writing Sulski off as lazy. But Dumke said he eventually realized Sulski’s true passion was for a connection with his students so he could inspire them, and students appreciated that Sulski “got” them. More important than the number of articles he produced, Dumke said Sulski’s legacy lies in the “legions of disciples

he generated.”

As Dumke remembered in a Chicago Reader blog post, Columbia students spoke of Sulski “with an unusual mix of reverence and headshaking laughter.”

In honor of Sulski’s famed relationship with his students, the School of Media Arts, Journalism Department, Columbia and his family are currently working to establish a memorial scholarship.

Services were held in celebration of Sulski’s life on Jan. 11 at Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church,  700 W.  Adams St.

The lasting and loving memories held by those who knew him paint the portrait of the strong, poised and joyful man Sulski was. But perhaps he said it best himself in his final words, “It’s all good.”