Interview with Roger Badesch: author of "The Unplanned Life"

Roger Badesch, who I interviewed almost a decade ago for my podcast (when WGN Radio was still in the Tribune Tower), has written a really good autobiography called The Unplanned Life that is descriptive and interesting, and really got me choked up towards the end; I'm still thinking about how his busy life has included incredible challenges, including his cancer and his wife's health issues as well. He's worked in media, communications, and education, and taught in one of the toughest areas of Chicago, where he obviously made a huge impact, despite difficult circumstances and unfair workplace politics (and that was after he'd already worked in a toxic company and other drama-filled schools). 
Below is an interview I did with him about writing, and he elaborates about the experiences he described in his book:
  • How did you get the book done?
I had a lot of difficulty with motivation. As I mentioned in the beginning of the book, I never thought my story was interesting enough to tell, let alone write in book form. I’m no one special. My only claim to any sort of recognition is that I’m on the radio. I still feel that without that, my story, like so many million other life stories, would go untold. 
Everyone has a different motivation. Given my belief that I was on a fool’s mission trying to write the book, my motivation had to exist in near perfectno interruptions, no computer issues, no guilt that I had more important things to do. It was a serious struggle for me. Normally I only found those conditions right one or two days a week for only about three or four hours a day.
And it became more difficult to finish sooner than later when I’d run into an issue with memory. Often I remembered the incident but I couldn’t verify the situation or condition or even the time of day.  
For example, I spent several days at the Evanston Library looking through old issues of the Evanston Review from the early 60s trying to find mention of the accident where I was hit by a VW bus on Asbury. The memory of the accident is still so vividly etched in my mind but I wanted to be accurate on the date and time to give it contextand to fill in those bits of memory lacking in my recollection of the event.
I never did find the information as those issues of the Review were not on microfiche or easily searchable. I’d already gone to the Evanston Police to ask, but they said records from back then don’t exist. 
  • How did you figure out what to cut from the original manuscript?
Much of what I cut was easy to doa lengthy detailed description of every inch of our home in Evanston being one.
Plus, now that the book was finished, I felt I now had a focus for the bookit wasn’t about me. It’s about a regular person who has gone through things everyone else has gone through.  
The only difference, as I’ve mentioned, is that I’m on a pretty big radio station and more people know of me than they would some regular, everyday guy from Chicago.
That put the purpose of the book in perspective for me. So anything in the first draft that didn’t enhance that feeling, that emotion, that experience, had to go. 
  • Why did you decide to include Facebook posts instead of just writing a narrative? 
Putting my Facebook posts in book form was my original idea after I was approached to write my book.
I’ve used Facebook over the years to write lengthy expressions of my feelings and experiences and I felt I’d already written a book.
But when I had to actually sit down and start putting a book together, I felt that much of the context for those posts was missing. Plus, my publisher encouraged me to tell a fuller story than what I’d hinted at with those Facebook posts. 
That’s why you see so many of them starting in the teaching chapter. I didn’t join Facebook until about 2009 and didn’t start posting on Facebook recollections of my earlier life until much later.
  • I noticed that your writing style for much of the book is factual (recounting facts) more than reflecting or giving an assessment of the experiences; was that intentional?
Good question. Not really intentional. Again, for much of the first part of the book, I still lacked focus of the overarching purpose of the book.  
I felt that the publisher wanted me to write about what I’d done in life”you’ve had a very interesting life” is something he said and that I’ve heard from others over the years.
Again, I wasn’t convinced that it was anything more than interesting conversation. But then I went back and read the comments to many of my Facebook posts, especially those from when I was going through my cancer. And I think the tone of the book hits its peak in that sectionI’d started to come in touch with my humanity, my purpose in life when I became a teacher.  
That period of time found me suddenly learning more about myself than any other time of my life. I was using so much more of my experiences and thoughts about life with my students than I had in any other job.
I’m not sure if I adequately conveyed in the earlier chapters about how alone I felt growing up because I feel I embraced my “aloneness,” I accepted it, and learned how to live within it.
So, opening myself up to examination and judgement as a teacher as I tried to motivate my students was a huge moment in my growth as an individual. I think that’s why you notice a shift in tone in the book.
  • Why did you feel alone? 
I think that many more people than we think have grown up "alone." There’s a distinction between growing up alone and feeling lonely.
In my case, as the youngest, with both parents working, with my brother being six years older than me, I always felt left to my own devices. Thinking about it now, all three of the kids were pretty much left "alone"but not in a bad way.
Both of our parents worked after we moved to Evanston. To make sure the kids could carry on without constant supervision, we were taught (read: made to do) how to do everyday things: cook, clean, sew, yard work, fix things, and so on. I think (without any scientific evidence at all) that most of the "boomer" generation went through thisour parents wanted us to be able to be self-sufficient in order to better make our way in the world. 
But I think being the youngest and with few friends, I felt more comfortable being alonereading, hitting rocks in the alley with my White Sox baseball bat, skating at the neighborhood outdoor ice rink by myself instead of joining neighborhood kids in a hockey game, going to movies by myself instead of meeting up with friends. It was kind of a conscious choice as opposed to circumstances.
Those times when I was in groups I felt awkward, lacked self-confidenceto be able to carry on a conversation, share similar likes and dislikes, dance (if there was a dance party), speak my mind. 
I think that for many young people those feelings exist as they make their way through life. But their feelings of "alone" may be triggered by other circumstances than what I experienced. Maybe my having gone through such feelings made me more empathetic to students I felt were going through similar things. While I had to teach an approved curriculum, I found it more important to make sure the student was in the right frame of mind to want to learn.  
  • What's your writing advice? 
Oh, I’m not one to give advice on writing. Seriously. I can give advice on writing a news report for radio. But for writing a bookI’m still clueless. Honestly. 
I know I can write, and I have a bunch of ideas. I have a couple of stories from several decades ago that I started, but I’ve lacked the confidence to complete them. Maybe in a few years, if I’m still alive, I’ll feel like I’m in a place in my life where I CAN just sit down anytime, anyplace and just write without self-judgement.
  • Why weren't you a good student?
Probably several reasonsmost of which never got analyzed. The main reason I think was not being able to read long passages because I probably needed glasses early on. I kept falling asleep from what was later diagnosed as eye strain. And, to be honest, not everything interested me in school. I think, without understanding it, I learned that I wasn’t going to need to use a lot of what was being taught. I tried to learn what I needed to learn in order to pass. And I had “test-phobia”probably from a fear of being judged, being compared to my older brother, who was brilliant. I wasn’t a good test-taker.
  • Why did you feel like your dad didn't respect you?
It took me a long time to understand my father. He was a very strong-willed person, even as a boy, and that carried through his war years and afterwards. He was always in charge and required everyone to do their part. It wasn’t until after I got married that I realized I was the same waylike father, like son? I think it was more of me emotionally pulling away from him, to search for and set my own course, that caused much of the difficulties between us over the years. But when I became a teacher and, even more so, when I got the job at WGN Radio, I sensed an opening up on his part and a sense of pride that he allowed to show publicly. Plus, I think that he saw my brother, Rick, in me when I went to work at the radio stationsomething Rick really loved doing at SIU [Southern Illinois University] before he was killed. 
  • Sounds like you went with the flow in your life, in terms of career, and it worked out. Did you "plan" to go about work that way, or did you have professional goals?
Honestly, I didn’t have a plan at all. There were things I wanted to dokind of like a bucket listbut it changed with the wind. It would even change day to day sometimes. Often I’d get a feeling at a job that either I didn’t have anything else to prove, or to make better, or that the winds of change were coming through and it was time to move on. Mix into that was my commitment to my family which changed the longer we were married. At first I felt I had to be a workaholic, again taking after my dad, I guess. But as our relationship and family grew, my views of family and personal life changed, so, often, my jobs changed. Unfortunately, since graduating college I’ve never had a job where you clock in and out and don’t take the job home with you. The majority of my responsibilities at these jobs were middle-management requiring outside hours of supervision or preparationand that cut into family time. 
  • How did you get all those jobs? Seems like you went from one thing to another easily (eventually).
There were a few gaps, one that had us literally going without for weeks at a time because we had no money until the first of the monththis was the period between leaving Gloria Jean’s and going back to school. I had started my own public relations company and only had a couple of clients. But I was pretty much a stay-at-home dad at that point. I remember having to run over to drop stuff off for a client one night and had both kids with me as Bridget was working nights. I asked the doorman of the building to watch the kids while I ran in. He did, and the kids were fine. I think maybe they were 11 and 1. It was very stressful during that time. But, for the most part, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right timemight even call it dumb luck. I’ll also add to that the following: having a good reputation and knowing the right people at the right time. 
  • Was there corruption in the City of Chicago departments when you worked there? Sounds like CPS (Chicago Public Schools) was more corrupt than the mayor's office. 
I never knew of any corruption at City Hall. I was too involved in doing my job and trying to serve the public. I know that sounds “pie-in-the-sky,” but I actually believed that. There were a lot of people like me working for the city government trying to do their jobs and provide for their families, AND do good for the public. It’s the somewhat jaded reporter in me (and the political science minor college student) who tries to “follow the money” and has come to the belief that governments always seem to have more money than they know what to do with but always seem to be broke. Makes me go “hunh?” And I’m not sure about CPS and corruption, though there are more than enough news stories about such things. 
One of my jobs teaching Radio-TV at Vocational [Chicago Vocational Career Academy] (as was the job of all vocational teachers throughout the system) was to put together a shopping list of equipment we needed each year. The funds for equipment came from the federal government jobs training programs. We had to use the “approved” CPS vendors unless what we wanted was only available through a sole source vendor. You’ve heard stories about things like a $1,000 screw that the military buys? I had to deal with the same thing with the approved vendors. But instead of playing their game, I was like Captain Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru exerciseI figured legal ways around the requirements and was able to get a “bigger bang for the buck” in equipment and other needs in building the best equipped Radio-TV program in the system. 
  • What was Mayor Washington's "kitchen cabinet;" what does that mean?
I think every “leader,” be it local, national, or internationally, has a small group of friends or family that helps the leader with advice and maybe even helping to “move mountains.” This small group stays behind the scenes, usually out of the public view, and is often not elected officials, though they do get in the mix at times. That’s a kitchen cabinetnamed so, I imagine, for their private meetings at someone’s home sitting around a kitchen table eating, having drinks, whatever. When Mayor Washington was in office, I’d read news stories or watch the TV news and sometimes read about or see pictures or video of some of the members of his “kitchen cabinet.” The names escape me now, but I do remember that I recognized about half of those sitting in the front room the night I put together the stereo system as being among the “kitchen cabinet.”
  • Why did you still keep working for a toxic company and toxic school? Or was that common in your career?
Yeah, I’ve noticed that too over the years. I think it was because I was so focused on doing the best job I could, doing the right thing, that I was able to excuse the atmosphere and work for little successes. But over the years, in nearly each job I left, the “atmosphere” became too overwhelmingaffecting my job performance, my family life, my mental health. I still haven’t analyzed myself for an answer to that character trait.  
  • Did having cancer make you believe in God more? How have you stayed strong, including your wife's ordeal? She sounds incredible.
Now you’ve hit a really deep subject. I continue to try to analyze how I reacted to that phase (which I still consider myself to be in). Bridget comes from a fairly religious Irish Catholic family. One of her close aunts was a nun (and a very cool person!). So, though she hasn’t gone to church in quite a while, the beliefs and ways to live one’s life are firmly ingrained in her. And my upbringing reflects that too, as I wrote at the beginning of the book, about knowing the difference between right and wrong. 
No, having cancer didn’t make me believe in God any more than I already did. I believed, had to believe, in my doctors and the love of my family. Some would say that God was working through the doctors and the love I felt is God’s loveI’m okay with that. But that’s not what I was thinking. I spent a lot of time asking tons of questions, doing lots of research, and trying to “get my head straight” for the treatment and life after. I’ll be honest, I was scared. Scared I wouldn’t see anyone anymore. Scared that things would end on the operating table. But I didn’t, couldn’t, let it overwhelm me. 
It was in my nature to stay positive. It may have harkened back to my childhood where I was pretty much left to my own devices. I had to learn how to take care of myself to survive. I learned early on how to analyze situations and figure out the best course of actionI think that mindset really helped me through the treatment, surgery, and now afterwards. Did I, do I, like it?? He’ll no! Who in their right mind would like to go through thatto go through what I have to now, with an ostomy system that needs replacement every four days. But, just like all those jobs where I’ve had to get used to the “normal,” I’ve gotten used to this normal.  
You’ve asked about Bridgetwe’re a good team because I like taking care of people and she likes being taken care of. But don’t let that fool youshe’s got that country can-do spirit in her (she was born in rural Illinois and spent summers on family farms). And she’s always looking on the bright side of life. I know it sounds “hokey,” but it’s true. Both of us keep plugging throughhelping each other as best we can and accepting help from our family and friends when needed. 
  • How could you eat all the rich food when you were battling illness? 
Well, on certain days going through chemo, I had to be really careful about what I ate. Early on, I didn’t fully understand how the drugs would affect me physiologically, but I learned quickly. And when I could “stomach” richer foods, it was out of comfort that I’d eat themcomfort foods that would cheer me up, make me feel good. Even Jello.
Unfortunately, I don’t eat well naturallyvery few, if any, vegetables and fruitsmainly what would be classified as junk food. Over the years our bodies change, and some foods we couldn’t stand as kids we eat now, and some foods we couldn’t get enough of as kids we can’t eat now. For example, I grew up on hamburgersany chance I had I’d eat a hamburger. If not hamburgers then steakssirloin, skirt, tenderloin, whatever. Nowadays, my body tells me it doesn’t handle meat very well. When I splurge on skirt steak (a comfort food), I do it fully, accepting the consequences. Being raised on rich Jewish cooking as a kid, I now welcome them as comfort foodso while I was recovering each week from a chemo treatment, a bowl of chicken soup with kreplach or a matzo ball was very comforting, filling and, shall we say, non-invasive.

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