Legendary journalist Bill Recktenwald honored with celebration at SIUC

Bill Recktenwald had a list of accolades to his name, including finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. After a storied career in journalism, he went on to teach future journalists as a senior lecturer at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Recktenwald, or Reck as he was known, eventually became president of the Faculty Senate.

He did all of this in spite of never earning a college degree himself. 

The recreation of the Mirage Bar is thanks to SIU School of Theater and Dance and Director, Mark Varns. Items, like the neon sign and beer tap, are from the original Mirage, said Jan Thompson, Director of the School of Journalism.

“They have said time and time again that Reck did not have a degree from a university,” said Phil Greer, a retired photojournalism instructor at SIU and a colleague of Recktenwald’s at the Chicago Tribune. “I’m going to reverse it, I’m going to say yes he did. He had a degree in humanity.”

Recktenwald died Aug. 20 in Evansville, Indiana, at the age of 79 after a short illness unrelated to COVID-19. He had just retired from SIUC.

To celebrate his life, faculty, staff, students and friends of Recktenwald came together Oct. 1 at the SIU Student Center Ballrooms.

Those who attended the event in person were given a book by Geoff Ritter, a graduate of the SIUC School of Journalism. The book, “Reck Undercover, The Many Lives of William A. Recktenwald,” details Recktenwald’s life.

“I first met Bill 20 years ago when I walked into his classroom,” said Mike Pettit, a former student of Recktenwald. “When I saw what I presumed to be the instructor in front of the class wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cracking jokes for the other students, I thought ‘well this is different. This is going to be interesting.’ Interesting it was.” 

Recktenwald taught his students how to find the right information and people along with how and when to ask the right questions, Pettit said. 

“Bill had a sharp wit about him, and he helped us sharpen our own wits,” he said. 

Recktenwald would tell journalism students the importance of the final question, William Freivogel, colleague of Recktenwald and professor of School of Journalism, said. 

“He would tell wide-eyed journalism students about the importance of asking sort of that final question:” is there anything else you would like to add, he said.  

Recktenwald was one of a kind, truly an original, Freivogel said. 

“The death of promising young Ryan Rendleman was a blow to the whole school and especially for Reck,” he said. 

Later a tree was planted in memory of Rendleman, Freivogel said. 

“Reck tended to it,” he said. “When the first tree died, he made sure the next one was better, and he arranged for Ryan’s name to be entered in the museum on the list of journalists who had died doing journalism work.” 

Recktenwald stood for the best in journalism in education, Freivogel said. 

“He stood for journalists getting the facts right,” he said. “And for students from less privileged backgrounds getting the opportunity that they deserve.” 

The event’s speakers emphasized, in their own accounts, Recktenwald’s degree in humanity stemmed from his care for others, especially his students.  

What mattered to Recktenwald was people. He always wanted to help them, Pettit said. 

“So, I’m happy to be here today to help Bill, to help honor him as a teacher, as a mentor, as a friend, above all, as a kind, good person that he was,” Pettit said.

As a member of the Southern Illinois Chapter of the United Nations Association, a grassroots organization of the United Nations Foundation, Recktenwald expanded his impact on international students. 

Recktenwald “was a treasure to SIU and the entire southern Illinois region” said Olga Weidner, former President of the United Nations Association Southern Illinois chapter.  

Reck was a great ambassador for the US and our university, she added.

“He was always actively engaged and helping those in need, and especially international students involved in journalism,” she said. 

Recktenwald made an impact on the future of his students as they were his highest priority. He measured his success by the degree of his student’s success, Weidner said  

Though he did not complete college, Recktenwald was a big believer in the impact of education, she said. He wanted his students to have the opportunities and experiences he did not have. 

Recktenwald often mentored and guided many students, over the years, to help them grow as a person and as an individual, Weidner said. He remained connected to them, making a difference in their lives, she said. 

“His students came from the U.S. and all over the world,” Weidner said. “They regarded him as a citizen of the world.” 

Recktenwald, on his many travels to visit former students, went to Sri Lanka in 2004 where he survived the tsunami, Weidner said. In 2005, Recktenwald shared his experiences with UNA and the university community. He completed his presentation by encouraging all in attendance to help the survivors recover. 

“He thought globally, and acted locally,” she said. 

Recktenwald was a man of quiet integrity, Olusegun Ojewuyi, Dean of College of Arts and Media, said.

“It is the being in the phrase human being that marks the memories we share after a loved one is gone” Ojewuyi said. “Bill was always human, always about being better, being caring, being available, being a human.”

Ojewuyi said Recktenwald will be missed.  

“He exhibited interest in my being human,” Ojewuyi said. “And in doing so, he shared his own humanity.” 

Recktenwald was not superficial, Mike Lawrence, former Director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said. 

“He had a genuine interest in other human beings,” he said. “When he asked how you were doing, he actually listened.” 

Greer and Recktenwald worked together for 44 years, 24 at the Tribune and 20 at SIU, Greer said. 

“Bill Recktenwald cared about people,” he said. “That’s the best thing I could possibly say.”

Recktenwald, beyond SIU, helped the Southern Illinois School Press Association in their annual competitions. 

Each year the School of Journalism hosts Southern Illinois School Press Association where high school students compete in various journalism categories, Jan Thompson, Director of the School of Journalism, said.

“Reck was always a powerful force during this event,” Thompson said. 

Recktenwald was awarded a major accomplishment this past year, and because of COVID, the School of Journalism was not allowed to give him a ceremony, Thompson said. 

SISPA is a group of middle school and high school student journalists and their advisors, Cathy Wall, news media production teacher at Harrisburg High School and current Director of SISPA, said. 

“What you know about Reck was his work with the public, the work with college students, works as a legendary reporter, what you may not know is that the work also extended in middle school and high school kids,” Wall said. 

Wall said she has had the great privilege to work closely with Recktenwald, where he worked with SISPA as the presenter and a contest judge. 

“As the current director, I sometimes would find myself pretty frazzled the morning of the conference,” Wall said. “Reck was one of those people who I counted on to put it all in perspective for me. He would laugh, tell me a joke, make sure I knew that what really mattered was that the kids were there.” 

Wall said Recktenwald’s consistent presence was what made him a key player in SISPA’s success. 

Recktenwald identified students who he saw had potential and contacted their advisor personally, she said. 

“You can’t imagine how much that means unless you have been one of those kids or their advisors,” Wall said. “I know several of my own students ended up here at SIUc as a result of his interest in them.” 

Recktenwald was also involved behind the scenes with SISPA’s mail-in contests, Wall said. 

“In 2020, when we were all moving toward quarantine, Reck read and scored every entry, that’s over 350 pieces of student journalism,” Wall said. “No complaints, just a smile and a positive comment about the good work that our students do.” 

In honor of his contribution to the organization, SISPA submitted Recktenwald to the Illinois Journalism Education Association, last spring, for the IJEA Friend of Scholastic Journalism Award in which he won, Wall said. 

Though the ceremony was not able to take place, SISPA voted to create a new award in honor of Recktenwald, Wall said. 

“This year we will award for the first time the William Recktenwald Friend of Scholastic Journalism Award, after the one he received from the state affiliate,” Wall said. “It will recognize and encourage others to exemplify his kind of commitment to our students and advisors.” 

Recktenwald’s life is paradoxical, Freivogel said.

“He did not graduate from college because he had undiagnosed dyslexia, yet he rose to be president of the SIU Faculty Senate,” Freivogel said. “He was a storied reporter even though he couldn’t write or type very well. He didn’t have a close family life, but kept up with dozens and dozens of students and former colleagues. He didn’t have children but he mentored you all. He stayed in touch.”

Before his time at SIU, Reck was an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  

“[Lawrence] introduced me to Bill Recktenwald who I had heard about,” Freivogel said, “because he was a legend.”

At the Tribune, Recktenwald had a storied career, with the Mirage being one of his most well-known projects, one he shared with his students often.  

“Bill regaled students with tales as an investigator and reporter,” Pettit said. “Telling us, to capture some of the good stories you may have to get a second job as a prison guard or buy a bar with your colleagues and operate it. He even had the 60-minute clips to prove it, wheeling a TV into the classroom and playing the Mirage segment for us all.” 

The Mirage was the longest, most complicated, but most rewarding story Zekman and Recktenwald had ever worked on together, Zekman, a former colleague of Recktenwald in the Mirage, said via Zoom.

“It was Reck who came up with the perfect name for the bar because it was a mirage,” she said. 

Recktenwald, who used his prior success, partnered with 60 minutes to bring Mike Wallace to the Mirage, Zekman said. That was what got national attention for the project. However, that came with severe security complications, she said. 

“It was Reck’s quick-thinking that rescued us,” Zekman said. 

Someone from their staff, who did not know this was an undercover project, wandered down into the basement. It was after Wallace had left, but his producers and camera were still there, Zekman said. 

“Without skipping a beat, Reck answered his questions and told the employee that the producer was an architect and that the camera was there because we were going to be doing a remodeling project to the Mirage and they needed the video to start the project.”

Zekman said Recktenwald was incredibly skilled at undercover techniques.

“He could blend in to almost any situation,” she said. 

To expose voter registration and irregularities, Recktenwald would register to vote under other names like Henry David Thoreau and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zekman said. 

“That should have raised some suspicions by the registrars, but no,” Zekman said. “All of those names appeared in the poll sheets for that precinct for the next election.” 

Reck also went under cover for the Tribune to expose dangerous conditions at the Pontiac Prison, Zekman said. 

“He had to quit after an inmate yelled out at him in the hallway calling him ‘Mr. Mirage,” Zekman said. “A clue that Reck’s undercover role in that particular project was coming to an end.” 

Ojewuyi said the passing of Recktenwald is very sad news and a major loss to the School of Journalism, CAM, and SIU as a whole. 

“This event is not one of those you were told about when you applied for the job,” Ojewuyi said. “It is one of those things that you have to handle, have to embrace it. That’s the reality of the situation.” 

Ojewuyi and Thompson drove three hours for Recktenwald’s funeral, which was held on Aug. 23, near Elizabethtown. After getting lost, they ended up in the Shawnee National Forest, Ojewuyi said. “I told Jan we need to look up in the trees, perhaps Bill was hiding up there. May his soul rest in peace.” 

“Despite all the reforms that Reck’s stories created, I think he got the most gratification at SIU helping to prepare students to become competent, responsible journalists, lessons you learned from one of the best,” Zekman said. “He will be greatly missed by the journalistic community. He worked with so many reporters on so many successful projects and made them happen, made them work, got the results.” 

Emily Cooper is a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she studies Professional Media and Media Management. You can follow her Twitter @coopscoopp

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