Twenty five years ago today, I discovered that Leanita McClain, my friend and colleague, was dead. It was a suicide that came as no surprise to me. For more hours than I care to remember, I sat in her office at the Chicago Tribune joking, cajoling and questioning her repeated proclamation that she was going to kill herself.
During these discussions, I'd asked why. "There are black women who'd give their right arm to be where you are," I'd argue.
"But, I'm not happy," she'd counter.
Although a young 32, Leanita was the first black and second woman on the editorial board at the Trib. She had her own signed op-ed page Perspective column and a loyal following of readers. She'd written a My Turn piece for Newsweek magazine, about the complications of being a middle class black, that launched her star as a journalist. Her 1983 freelance commentary for the Washington Post, "How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites," about the racially polarized mayor's race in Chicago, is a classic. Professionally, she was on top of the world. In the year of her death, she'd been named by Glamour, magazine as one of America's Top 10 career women.
None of that seemed to matter. Personally, she was in a lot of pain. She suffered from clinical depression. And, sometime during the Memorial Day weekend, it got the best of her.
I'd hoped it wouldn't have come to such a tragic end. I'd convinced her to get professional help and nearly convinced myself that the psychiatrist was making a difference.
But on that fateful Memorial Day weekend, I knew something was wrong. I hadn't heard from Lea at all over the holiday weekend. This was out of character. For more than a year leading up to her suicide, we talked every day. I'd occasionally get a 3 o'clock in the morning call when she was stressed out.
That weekend, I didn't hear from her and when I called her home, she didn't answer. The Tuesday after Memorial Day, I dropped by her office only to see it empty, with lights out and newspaper stacked in front of the doors.
I called Clarence Page, her ex-husband, to see if he'd heard from her. He hadn't. Then I called one of our colleagues who lived in Hyde Park not far from her. Within a couple of hours, he called me with the bad news. She was gone. An overdose of pills.
Our editor, Jack Fuller, asked me to write my next Perspective column eulogizing her. It was the most difficult piece I've ever written on deadline. At the time, I thought it was far too inadequate. After it ran, many of my readers called or wrote to tell me how much it had moved them.
This is the first time I've read it in nearly 25 years. It's not as bad as I thought, although it could have been better. I'd like to share my bittersweet Memorial Day memory with you. Here's the column I wrote which ran on Friday, June 1, 1984.
A life cut short, a loss deeply felt
Whenever I had trouble saying what I wanted in a column, Leanita McClain came to my rescue.
"Let me see," Leanita, whose passion was collecting owls, the bird of wisdom, would say. Then she'd give a critical eye to what I'd written. "You're always too hard on yourself. The column's fine."
In short order, with a slight change of a sentence here and a quick word of encouragement there, she'd help me breathe verve into what had been a still life.
I wish she were here to help me with this one. I don't know what I want to say or how I should say whatever I should be saying. I'm not even sure of how I feel except for one thing: a deep loss.
On the day after Memorial Day was observed, the day Leanita, 32, was found in her Hyde Park home, an apparent suicide, I lost a friend, a colleague and a confidante. In addition to being a personal loss for me, Leanita's death was an irreplaceable loss for the profession of journalism and a tragic loss for the voice of reason in Chicago.
Over the last 11 years, both our social and professional lives repeatedly crossed paths as we went through one change after another. Although I first met Leanita at a meeting for black journalists held in the South Side apartment where I lived at the time, our friendship got its start when I left Ebony magazine to come to The Tribune in 1974.
Leanita and my first wife were close friends. Looking back, those days seem so carefree. She and her husband and my wife and I went to restaurants, discos, movies together. We even took a dream vacation to Acapulco together.
As fate would have it, though, it took the deaths of our marriages to change my friendship with Leanita into what if was to become. Leanita, who had been like a sister to my estranged wife, began acting like a mother hen to me.
"Are you eating properly?" she'd ask, by way of looking after my welfare. And that question was just one manifestation of her gentle concern for how I was coping.
Leanita's caring and giving, of course, extended far beyond me. She became involved in such charitable pursuits as tutoring children from the Cabrini-Green public housing project. She helped friends through this or that personal crisis.
At all times, she was concerned about the plight of black journalists in general and those at The Tribune in particular. She'd complain, in her own quiet way, about how few blacks there were in the business, and virtually none in management.
"Are things ever going to really change?" she'd ask during discussions about the lack of black editors at one newspaper, or the problems of a black reporter at another.
Finally, things did change for her. Leanita had worked as a reporter, a copy editor, a picture editor and Perspective editor before going on to become the first black and second woman appointed to The Tribune's editorial board.
As editor of Perspective, a section of opinion and analysis, one of her first acts was to recruit black writers to integrate thought. Her dream, like Dr. Martin Luther King's, was to see the Perspective section, the newsroom, the corporate offices, the city, the state, the nation all integrated. Ironically, many of her critics in recent months unwittingly attacked her as a racist, based on her Washington Post article about white resistance to Harold Washington's election as mayor.
Her writing, whether in the "My Turn" column she did for Newsweek magazine on "The Middle-Class Black's Burden," or her columns in The Tribune, consistently addressed the problems of race relations in this nation with fairness and compassion, offering an idealistic vision of how they might be worked out.
Whenever she came to me with a problem column of her own that she needed my advice on, I'd tell her, "Lea, you're equivocating too much on this one. Choose one side or the other."
Most of the time, though, she'd stick with both views, suggesting a moderating, mediating approach even though neither side seemed to listen.
Ending this was as hard as it was starting it or getting through the middle. If Leanita were around, we might be smoothing out some of the rough edges.
This column was cross-posted on the African American Opinion.com website.