Tagged: university of chicago

What are the odds?


LUNCHTIME. POURING RAIN HAS TURNED my vertical office window into a water sculpture. I’m working my way through some cafeteria beef chili and a backstack of university magazines. The chili is a bit generic, but not bad, especially with a bag of pita chips. The magazines are numbingly mundane. By luck of the draw I’ve pulled a selection that features one uninspired, predictable issue after another. Lead paragraphs flat and uninviting. Pallid attempts to brag about negligible sports triumphs. (“We finished 20th! Best ever!”) Stories that tell me nothing beyond what I already know, in lifeless prose. Boring photography. Design cliches.

Just a bad stack.

Then, on pg. 54 of the Sept/Oct ’13 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine, a two-pager by associate editor Jason Kelly. (Associate editors make the best writers. It’s a rule.) Every issue of Chicago contains a “legacy” piece about some alum and his or her lasting contribution. Kelly’s legacy piece is about Charles K. McNeil, and it’s a beauty. McNeil was a gambler. Not the sort of gambler who is revered for taking the big chance on an entrepreneurial venture or going for it on fourth down in the Rose Bowl or pinning his whole career on a scientific theory that seemed to make no sense at the time. No, McNeil was the gambling sort of gambler. He bet on sports. For a living and really well. So well that one of Chicago’s biggest sports books limited how much he could wager and McNeil attracted unwanted attention from mobsters. He may or may not have invented the points spread; whoever did should have gotten the Nobel.

The story is great for several reasons. First, there’s its unlikelihood as an alumni magazine story. Our magazines brag about all those dedicated scholars and earnest undergraduates and winning coaches (“20th place!”) and benefactors who just want to pay it forward. They don’t often brag about bookies from the Class of 1925. But McNeil’s a great story, and let’s give Chicago a round of applause for recognizing that.

Then there’s Kelly’s prose. Man can write. I love the lead graphs:

Charles K. McNeil, PhB’25, would bet on anything. An afternoon at Wrigley Field involved not only a wager on the outcome but an array of side bets about the game and beyond, like whether a stumbling drunk in the bleachers would fall down. During the depths of the Depression, McNeil even laid odds on the next person to be fired at the bank where he worked as a securities analyst.

Successful beyond the wildest dreams of most gamblers, McNeil lost on that one. He put the bank president at 3 to 1 to be ousted, but the boss got wind of it and canned McNeil instead. “I had myself at 8 to 1,” he told William Barry Furlong in a 1977 New York Times Magazine story that recounted McNeil’s influence on the pastime that became his profession: sports gambling.

My that’s good. Just the right selection of details. Just the right diction: “the boss got wind of it and canned McNeil instead.” The dry wit. The great quote: “I had myself at 8 to 1.” The rest of the piece works just as well. (So does the clever illustration by Daniel Hertzberg.) Two pages in the magazine that light it up. Good stuff.

Eight questions for Laura Demanski

uchicoverLaura Demanski is coming up on her first anniversary as editor of The University of Chicago Magazine. We celebrate the occasion by getting her answers to the UMagazinology questionnaire, which she completed from her sickbed. Now that’s an alumni magazine trooper.

How long have you been in your job?

I’m a month shy of one year at the magazine. For seven years before that, I worked as a writer and editor of other alumni communications for the University of Chicago, including our twice-yearly college supplement, The Core.

What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

Remembering to stop and think. On an eight-week cycle, the issue on deadline demands so much, and it’s tempting to give it every second you have. It feels like every five minutes of work you can put in will make it better in some concrete, measurable way. Meanwhile time spent chasing down a story idea for an issue to be published months away may be a dead end, but it has to be done. I’ve had to train myself to borrow time from the most immediate tasks to research potential story leads, read the alumni and faculty books that come in, and, sometimes, just sit and think.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

No question, it’s coming in every day to work with a staff that’s highly invested in the publication and in each other. Everyone who works on the magazine is imaginative, smart, hard-working, and funny. We crack each other up. I love that.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

I’d like to write more. I’m hoping that the better I learn the job and the more stories we can lay in for future issues, the more I can contribute as a writer, especially features—and hoping I remember how. I also dislike turning down good work that isn’t right for us.

What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everyone’s best effort?

I’m not sure there’s any one section that consistently vexes us. I’d like to find more of a groove with the editor’s notes, which can be so inviting when done well. Tina Hay’s notes in The Penn Stater and our executive editor Mary Ruth Yoe’s notes when she edited the magazine are both models for me—poignant without hitting you over the head with it, easy to read, and funny. I always remember a line from Mary Ruth’s notes on jigsaw puzzles: “Some people—my younger daughter and I, for example—like to do jigsaws. Other people—my older daughter and the dog—don’t. ” How could you stop reading after that?

What story are you proudest to have published?

That’s a tough one, even with just five issues under my belt. I’m always proud to publish anything by our talented associate editors, Jason Kelly and Lydia Gibson—Jason’s profile of Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor Benjamin Mays and Lydia’s story about investor William Browder and the murder of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky stand out. I was also delighted with freelancer Michael Washburn’s profile of Caitlin Doughty and the attention it received, including on UMagazinology. But since I commissioned it, I’ll say an alumni essay by Jessica Burstein, “Academic Envy,” her first and hopefully not last piece for us. It struck a chord with many academics, among our alumni and beyond, and has a voice all its own.

If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

I’m drawn to writers who glory in the details. John McPhee and Lawrence Weschler spring to mind.

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

Something with more numbers, but still with words too. I was a member of the National Puzzlers League for years, which trades mainly in word puzzles but is full of mathematicians. Since I can’t say editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle within the bounds of your question, I’ll go with puzzle constructor or formalist poet.