A decade ago, the longtime chairman of the Oak Park/River Forest Seniors Services Committee, Jim Flanagan, launched the Celebrating Seniors Coalition. Its mission: honoring, recognizing and serving seniors in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park, Illinois.
From the outset, I have served as the group’s publicist.
Although Celebrating Seniors Week, held each May for a week, was nixed this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has made strides with an updated, upgraded website.
In addition to providing more details and a better experience for visitors, the revamped website spotlights several key volunteers who have been especially active over the years. They include Flanagan, as well as Dr. Lydia Manning, Richard Harrison and Nick Preys.
Among these leading volunteers has been Pat Koko, who has received the organization’s Volunteer of the Year Award on multiple occasions.
In fact, I see Pat as the Oprah Winfrey of Celebrating Seniors. An explanation: while still a talk show host, Oprah took herself out of the running for Emmy Awards. Likewise, Pat could at least be a co-recipient of the award every year, and I would not be surprised if we eventually name the award in her honor. With energy, humor and steadfastness that are a powerful force, Pat is truly a volunteer extraordinaire.
A little more background about Pat:
Along with her husband, Paul, and their daughter, Marie, Pat moved to Oak Park in 1967. After she graduated from Dominican University (Rosary College at the time) with a degree in History, Pat volunteered to deliver meals to home-bound seniors for Oak Park Township. Thus began a dedicated 45-plus years of working with and for older adults in our communities.
For 20 years, Pat ran a home-care agency to provide assistance to seniors while she also served as a key volunteer with the Oak Park and River Forest Food Pantry (now known as Beyond Hunger) for 17 years. Her community involvement has also included being among the founders of a networking group, the Senior Citizens’ Services Coordinating Council. The SCSCC still meets monthly to gather those who serve seniors to strengthen their professional development.
In addition, Pat served as Administrative Secretary of The Community of Congregations, and was Executive Director of the Senior Citizens Center before being reappointed to the Oak Park-River Forest Senior Citizens Advisory Council.
Since Celebrating Seniors’ inception, Pat has been Treasurer and Resource Coordinator for the organization–but I think “Volunteer Extraordinaire” captures it pretty well, too.
Before President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa this past Saturday evening, I predicted that 2 percent of those in attendance would be wearing masks as a precaution against catching the COVID-19 coronavirus. (You can find my forecast here, on my “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” page.)
Having heard that the capacity was 20,000 at the BOK Center (it’s actually 19,200), I computed that 2 percent figure to amount to 400 folks. After all, the Trump team was trumpeting a crowd so packed that it was going to require Agent Orange to share remarks outdoors in addition to his indoor rally, so that he could acknowledge those who couldn’t get inside the arena.
Turns out, I was wrong on both counts—massively overestimating Trump’s drawing power and, to my happy surprise, underestimating his followers’ sense of caution.
The Trump camp disputes those figures, saying that it was at least 12,000 people who came. At any rate, let’s move onto my masking estimate. It’s derived from a cross-section of 20 photographs that I took of my television when C-SPAN panned to the audience during the last hour of Trump’s nearly two-hour talk.
Of the roughly 375 people in the still images that I reviewed, 28 appear to have been wearing masks. It would have been 30, but one couple (below, to Trump’s left) had their masks dangling below their chins—there’s no telling whether they were masked for most of the event.
Those 28 (to 30) represent a roughly 7- to 8-percent masked rate. Even accounting for a margin of error from this unscientific sampling, it’s hard to imagine the figure dropping below 5 percent for the entire arena, let alone going as low as my pre-event 2 percent projection.
To mask or not to mask? Who cares, anyway?
Well, for one thing, it was one of the questions that served as a hot, controversial topic in the days leading up to Trump’s visit to Oklahoma, his first rally in 110 days. Public health officials urged the President not to hold the rally. Indeed, in the context of all sorts of daily life spaces, wearing a mask (or not) is a subject of intense interest and debate across the country.
Consequently, I would have expected that news media accounts would have gone beyond the cursory general observations about the proportion of people who wore masks.
Instead, we got this hazy accounting from The New York Times: “Many of the thousands of Trump supporters at the rally did not wear masks or stand six feet apart — health precautions that Mr. Trump himself has ignored.”
And an equally unambitious excerpt from USA Today: “Most of the attendees at the rally were not wearing masks, nor were social distancing guidelines observed.”
“Many” and “most” fall far short of painting the picture: by my count, more than 9 out of 10, and perhaps as many as 19 out of every 20 individuals, was mask-less. But I was watching on TV—these publications had people on the scene.
To be clear, wearing a mask is no guarantee of safety. But there is broad medical consensus that doing so lowers the likelihood of transmission, particularly from the mask wearers to those around them. So, for as long as it is a public-health matter, enterprising journalists or other observers should take the effort to provide a more precise estimate of these gatherings as the Election 2020 campaign unfolds.
Vague phrasings such as “many” or “most” going without masks—or whatever the case may be at future Trump rallies—is just sloppy, lazy reporting. The same, simple arithmetical assignment goes for journalists covering presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign gatherings, whenever those may occur.
For over a decade, I have had the honor of interviewing some of the most fascinating, accomplished, all-around cool people who hail from Oak Park, Illinois, the community that has been my home for over 25 years.
Some guests I had the pleasure of knowing already; others–thanks to the show–I have been fortunate to get to know.
Lord willing, there are more rounds of interviews to come. Meantime, tonight at 7 p.m. local cable Channel 6 (which produces the show) is broadcasting a “Beer With Baron Marathon”–along with an “Oak Park’s Own” chaser featuring my Scoville Park interview of cartoonist Marc Stopeck.
Thank you, Village of Oak Park, Illinois, for this opportunity–especially VOP-TV Manager Joe Kreml, who conceived the show, makes all the magic happen and has scheduled this BWB Marathon.
You don’t need to get local Oak Park cable to see the clips, either. Below, in chronological order, are the 11 rounds of “A Beer With Baron” so far, plus the “Oak Park’s Own” segment with Marc Stopeck.
1.Chris Neville When the beer began flowing, in July 2015, my first guest was the talented and thoughtful Chris Neville. My only regret is that he was clean-shaven at this point in his life–he’s got some of the best facial hair around these days as he rocks the world via Tributosaurus and other endeavors.
The Beer Clip:
Of all my BWB guests, the one I have known the longest is Dave Revsine, going back to our time together in college.
We were only acquainted then, but it’s been a pleasure to get to know Dave more in recent years, since his family moved to Oak Park after he became the studio anchor for the Big Ten Network.
For this segment, I learned enough Italian to introduce the show in that beautiful language. Why? Because OPRF grad Matthew James Collins had lived in Italy for two decades by the time we bellied up to the BeerShop bar.
A world-renowned artist, Mr. Collins has been the only fellow Matt I have thus far welcomed onto the show.
The Beer Clip:
4. Donna Peel
One of my favorite people — and one of my favorite organizations, Pro Bono Network, which steps up and serves people who do not have the financial means to navigate the often-expensive legal system.
The Beer Clip:
5. Stephen Green
Before Spring Training 2017, Chicago Cubs team photographer Steve Green shared from his 2016 World Series experiences, along with many other anecdotes going back to the 1980s. Steve is my only “repeat” guest, as I interviewed him for “Oak Park’s Own” in 2009 when he had an exhibit at the Oak Park Public Library.
The Beer Clip:
Robert K. Elder
For this one, I sported a little Hemingway-esque facial hair, honoring my guest’s work on Hidden Hemingway. It’s one of many projects by Robert K. Elder, my ultimate Side Hustle inspiration.
And I promise this is just a coincidence and not any bias against other parental types: like two other early guests (Chris Neville and Dave Revsine), Rob is, like me, the dad of twins.
7. Jamael “Isaiah Makar” Clark With the one and only Isaiah Makar, an Oak Park and River Forest graduate and “artrepreneur” who is blazing a trail as a speaker, trainer, and mentor, among other roles.
The Beer Clip
8.Kelly Richmond Pope:
The Renaissance Woman: Kelly Richmond Pope, who is a forensic accountant, DePaul professor, and director of All the Queen’s Horses. It’s a must-see—her documentary and, perhaps, even my Q & A with her.
The group does great work, and Ginger came to mind as a guest after I was blown away by the “Prisms of Winter” concert at OPRF a few years back. I knew that some of those musicians had benefited from PING’s support, and it was my small way of paying homage to the organization.
From 2009 to 2015, I interviewed several Oak Parkers under the “Oak Park’s Own” banner, including author / journalist David Mendell, Cubs photographer Stephen Green (my only two-time guest), the remarkable Jeanette Fields, Obama 2008 campaign photographer Todd Bannor, and viaForensics co-founders Andrew and Chee-Young Kim.
Below is my chat with Shrubtown cartoonist Marc Stopeck in 2011.
To this day, Marc claims, he has never seen the segment. I guess he doesn’t need to, right? He knows what we talked about.
You are passionate about an issue. You inspire and organize others who are likewise passionate. To spark change, you need to persuade someone else—an individual or a group of people—to see things your way.
What do you next?
If you confuse “like-minded” with “carbon copy,” you may make the mistake of committing cut-and-paste activism. That’s where you tell all your followers: “Do exactly as I do, communicate precisely as I communicate. There’s power in flooding e-mail in boxes with the same message!”
Alas, there is far more impact in personalization, as when each supporter takes the time to put their own “signature” on the communication. They customize it with.
*A detail about what life experiences bring them to the issue; *A recent event that prompted their action; *Something as simple as an opening line that acknowledges the individuality of the message’s recipient.
If all anyone does is cut-and-paste a template, then they will be demonstrating only one thing for certain: their ability to cut-and-paste. Might they may have much more insight and passion and, thereby, value to bring to the lobbying effort? Sure thing. However, there’s no evidence of it.
How is the object of your lobbying to know that you have sufficient knowledge about the issue so that they can take your input seriously? The recipients of your cut-and-paste communication won’t confidently draw that conclusion. And to the extent that your campaign appears to be a cut-and-paste, impersonal assault on someone’s in-box, that’s the degree to which you jeopardize undermining your own cause.
E-mails are easy to send. Then again, deleting them is even easier.
If you want to wage a more effective lobbying campaign via e-mail, whether your outreach is to a corporate leader, someone in elected office, or anyone else, then make your message tougher to delete. Don’t treat them as a “target.”
On a platform that so easily lends itself to impersonal tactics, take a few moments to provide the personal touch that only you can offer.
The question: “What is the most surreal experience I have ever experienced?”
The answer: Competing in May 2015 on Sports Jeopardy!, an offshoot of the immensely successful Jeopardy! television game show.
Of course, in the inside-out world of the program, the art is coming up with the question to an answer that is already, if cryptically, provided. The steps that I took to compete on the since-discontinued show can be traced to a friend’s heads-up, several months earlier, about how to get on Sports Jeopardy!
But in a broader sense, my appearance five Memorial Day Weekends ago marked the culmination of a journey that began when I was conceived in Fall 1967. That was around the time the St. Louis Cardinals were edging my beloved Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Given that is how I choose to describe my origin story, is there any doubt that I got multiple doses of “sports-obsessed” in my DNA?
Here’s a recap of the surreal experience, followed by video clips of the segment that first aired in August 2015, the 49th of Season 1’s 52 segments. (The show was on Crackle at the time, then shifted to NBCSN in Spring 2016 before ending that December after 116 episodes, in the midst of its third season.)
Tipped off to the existence of Sports Jeopardy! by a high school friend (thank you very much, Mike Hammitt!), I went to the show’s website and filled out a form expressing my interest in being a contestant, as well as some of my credentials for being considered.
A few months later, an e-mail arrived, inviting me to audition on March 27, 2015 at the Hotel Westin in Chicago. There, after a half-hour “el” ride into the city, I encountered a throng of people who had descended on the Windy City from all over the Midwest: Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids. We numbered roughly 100, at least 90 percent men, and we were ushered into a large conference room.
I took a seat in the front row because I didn’t just want to be noticed—I wanted to be remembered, and maybe even memorable. Competitive much?
The Sports Jeopardy! crew, led by an enthusiastic, high-volume bundle of energy named Maggie, worked to infuse the room with energy. For our part, we did our best to create a pep rally atmosphere, if only to please Maggie and her cohorts and to burn off some nervous energy.
Then Maggie, bedecked in a baseball cap and casual attire, introduced a 30-question written test spanning a variety of sports. Some of the ground rules:
–Don’t look at anyone else’s paper –Don’t worry about writing the wrong answer—it’s worth taking a guess, since all that matters are your number of correct answers.
(In fact, Maggie said, she had been telling people to guess “Guy” if they had no idea what to write and on a recent Sports Jeopardy! episode, that had actually been the correct “Final Jeopardy” answer: Ray Guy, the punter who had become the first at that position to gain induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)
-Don’t give only a last name, if you know the first name as well—for some questions, a last name won’t be enough. -Keep moving forward. If you don’t know an answer to one question, turn your focus to the next one
A few moments later, the test began: a pre-recorded audio, and written scroll, of those trademark Jeopardy! blue slides. Every 15 seconds, unrelenting and unforgiving, the clues came. No time to rest on the laurels of nailing one, or to dwell in the land of self-recrimination for flubbing one.
The first five questions, I was confident that I got ‘em all. Then things got tricky, murky, and, in some cases, all but impossible: a clue about a golfer’s nickname that was beyond my reach; I was stumped by a clue about a 1960s soccer player—clearly not Pele, about the only player of that generation whose name I knew; and a question about a Japanese baseball team’s nickname.
I was beginning to feel pretty clueless when a question about an NBA Most Valuable Player revived my spirit. Then a baseball question that I knocked out of the park. And, finally, another NBA question—about another perennial MVP—that wrapped it all up. I got it right, and by my estimate, it was the 20th clue out of 30 given that I had deciphered.
But would it be enough? Was batting .667 Hall of Fame caliber or bush league, particularly when stacked up against this group of fellow sports fanatics?.
The Sports Jeopardy! clue crew retreated to another room to tally the results. About 20 minutes later, they returned. With Maggie again stoking us up, the “Rocky” theme began blaring from the speakers. A stack of papers in her hands, she began reading the names of qualifiers. With each name, someone stood up and the rest of us cheered—each, like a bench-warmer straining to make eye contact with the coach, pining for our own turn.
It became clear very quickly that Maggie wasn’t reading these in alphabetical order. As the song neared its conclusion, though, something else was apparent: she hadn’t called my name among the more than dozen that had been announced. As the last strains of the theme sounded, my heart began to sink. Then came the sweetest sound from Maggie’s lips:
“We’ve got more!” she declared. “We’ve got more!”
They struck up the song again and my hope stirred anew, even in the face of the dwindling stack of sheets in Maggie’s hands. Nearly another agonizing minute into the song’s second round, I heard what I had been straining—had almost been willing—to hear from the get-go: “Matt Baron!”
With a mixture of joy, gratitude and relief, I rose to my feet and threw a flurry of shadow punches to my cohorts. Alive to fight another round!
When the winnowing of contestants was complete, there were 22 of us—all men, ranging from a few in their early 20s to one guy who looked to be about 60. At this point, I felt all the pressure of performing lift from my shoulders. From here on, I resolved that it was going to be all fun, all icing-on-the-cake adventure.
For the next phase of the audition, I was the first one called to the front. Two others joined me and we played a shortened mock game of Sports Jeopardy! Whereas I felt I had qualified this far by the skin of my teeth, during this stage I sensed that I did about as well as anyone else—and much better than most.
I “buzzed in” consistently ahead of my two competitors, scored the most points, and then began answering questions from Maggie. This was the part where she was probing for personality.
I shamelessly name-dropped LeBron James too, since I had interviewed him a few times many years ago. To use the sports cliché, I “left it all on the field.”
About an hour later, after all 22 qualifiers had gone through the paces, we were told that we’d all be considered for the show. But there were no guarantees. If we were going to be on the show’s first season, already nearing its midway mark, we’d get a call by the end of April for a taping sometime in late May.
Waiting for the Call
Over the next five weeks, I was in limbo. Would I get the call? If not, would I get a call to come out for an episode in the second season? Would there even be a second season?
I had kept friends and family abreast of the process, mostly through Facebook, and I’d get questions along the way. Did you get the call? Do you think you’ll get the call?
“I’m holding it all loosely,” I’d tell people. Deep down, though, it was a battle between not letting my hopes get too high and holding out fervent hope.
By the afternoon of Thursday, April 30th, the program had fallen off my radar. Immersed in my day, the phone rang with a 310 area code displayed on my screen. I picked up, expecting to hear a sales pitch or maybe a call related to one of my PR clients.
“Hi Matt,” a young woman’s voice declared. “This is Aimee from Sports Jeopardy! Do you have a minute?”
My heart leapt. At that moment, there was nobody in the world who could compete with Aimee for my time or attention. No close family member, no world leader, nobody at all.
Descending into Trivia Madness
My episode date was set: Saturday, May 23rd. The first few weeks after getting The Call, when friends would ask what I was doing to get ready, I affected a nonchalant air: “I’ve been preparing my whole life. I’m not doing anything different than usual.”
That calm, cool and collected front lasted until around May 15th. For the next week, I found myself up late at night, looking up NCAA men’s hockey champions, reviewing the list of Heisman Trophy winners, bolstering my knowledge of tennis, golf, Olympic history, league leaders in various categories, and on and on.
It became a full-on free-fall into Sports Jeopardy! paranoia: what if I miss a question that I could have answered, if only I’d snagged that one nugget of trivia? The day before taping, as I packed for my trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, I seriously contemplated lugging along a 10-pound behemoth, Sports Illustrated’s The Baseball Book. It is a treasure trove of stories and decade-by-decade statistics encompassing more than a century of the national pastime’s Major League history.
I even placed it in my luggage for a few minutes before regaining a measure of my senses: in its place I stashed four recent issues of Sports Illustrated. Much lighter, and much more contemporary stuff.
On the four-hour flight to Los Angeles, I devoured all the issues, cover-to-cover—just like I used to do when I was a 10-year-old kid and had plenty of time on my hands. Only, this was panic-cramming, my lifelong “amateur” passion now thrust into the realm of money-making pursuit. Littered throughout every photo caption, every “Face in the Crowd” honoree, every story were, in my mind, an assortment of Sports Jeopardy! bread crumbs.
Fueling my descent into sports-show preparation madness was the fact that host Dan Patrick, at the time, was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. His “Just My Type,” a Q & A with luminaries in the sports world, appeared in every issue.
As I began to take on a sports-obsessed variation of Colonel Kurtz’s “Apocalypse Now” madness, I solicited trivia questions from friends. (A related confession: the Marlon Brando character from that 1979 film was my memory device to “lock in” the name of one of the top American divers from the 1936 Olympics, Frank Kurtz. He was featured in one of those Sports Illustrated stories that I combed for clues.)
Of the five waking hours in my Culver City hotel room, I consumed two delicious cookies provided by the front desk—and four hours in frenzied online sports research. Careening from one subject to the next, I even took a cyber-detour to the stats of Gary Allenson, the former Boston Red Sox backup catcher who I knew was born in Culver City.
Any rational observer would have seen that I had gone as certifiably nuts as the pecans in my Doubletree Hotel treats.
`Remember to Breathe’
The next morning, on the Sports Jeopardy! set at the Sony lot, I was among eight sports fanatics who walked into the Green Room to prep for the show. Our group was slotted for the final two episodes of the season to be shot over the next several hours. We consisted of six scheduled players, as well as two alternates ready if one of us succumbed to a last-second calamity.
We were shown our mini-bios to review for accuracy, given W-9s to fill out for our payday, and told to sign legal documents that admonished us that we would be committing a felony if we conspired or colluded to rig our match.
Next, we took turns in the makeup chair—a reminder that we would soon be under the bright lights of an actual game show. It was more than surreal to me. It was a blast, a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I reminded myself to savor. And there was also this reminder, one that my wife had conveyed in a text: “Have fun and remember to breathe.”
I said the phrase softly aloud, as my makeup artist applied the last few touches on my face.
We marched into the studio shortly after 10 a.m. and began a practice round, to get the hang of using our buzzers and going up against a few other contestants.
The Math Behind an Aggressive Strategy
Ever since getting the call to appear on the show, I had professed a “go for it!” game plan. I told people that I would “go for broke,” doubling down if I got a shot at the Daily Double. It may knock me back down to zero, but it was perhaps even more likely to send me into the lead—or even the rarefied air of the Top 3 point-getters from the entire season.
As a numbers-oriented guy, it was simple math: there was much more to gain than there was to lose by implementing this aggressive strategy.
The most I could win by playing it safe and aiming only for enough points to win my match: $5,000, versus $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third. So, the maximum potential “loss” (we were all playing with “house money” anyway) was $4,000.
But if I got lucky and had a crack at clues that may just be in my wheelhouse? I stood to win upwards of $55,000: $5,000 for the match win and another $50,000 for winning the season-ending tournament of champions being held in the afternoon.
Already in the audience were two of the top three point-getters—the ones who had tallied the 50,500 (and slightly higher) points that taunted and tantalized us from the leader board directly across from our playing positions.
I wasn’t opposed to having one of them watch me later on—if he could bear the sight of seeing me play twice.
Before I could play, though, I needed to rehearse with the others. One of the Clue Crew members, Jimmy, came out and played host as all eight of us (including the alternates, still ready in case of emergency) rotated in and out of the three positions.
This was a prime chance to fine-tune our timing: just when to “buzz in” ahead of our counterparts. On any given clue, there is a good chance that at least two, if not all three, of the contestants know the question that would spark the answer appearing on the screen before us. Success or failure, then, hinged largely on my sense of timing.
Buzz in too early and I would be “locked out” for a quarter-second, which might as well be an eternity when going up against fellow sports nuts. Depress the button with my thumb or index finger prematurely and my only hope for racking up these particular points would come if someone else answered incorrectly and opened the door to a subsequent buzz-in.
On the other hand (so to speak), if I buzzed in a fraction of a second too slowly, then I had to endure the frustration of hearing someone else proclaim the words that were on my lips.
Does that sound just a wee bit stressful?
A kinder, gentler approach would be to allow each contestant to fill out his or her answer on a sheet, then hand it in for evaluation. Just like taking a test at school—or the initial screening test to see if I had the baseline knowledge to be considered for Sports Jeopardy!
Alas, the visuals of watching someone hunched over a piece of paper, scrawling answers, is not nearly compelling or dramatic enough for our fast-paced entertainment culture. Competitive stress is the undeniable price to be paid in exchange for testing my sports knowledge against a few other guys. What a great country…welcome to the big leagues…suck it up and buzz in faster (but not too much faster)!
By the end of the rehearsal, after starting out tentatively and getting shut out of most of the play, I had grown more comfortable with buzzing in. I began staking out timing turf.
Meantime, we all knocked out promotional spots in which we stated our name and hometown, along with an exhortation to future viewers to watch us on Sports Jeopardy! “only on Crackle.”
Also by this point, I knew that I would face another balancing act: consuming enough water to avoid being parched, but not so much water that I’d be hampered by a full bladder. In the 20 minutes between retreating back to the Green Room and returning to the studio with a live audience, I used the bathroom twice.
I resolved to take small sips of the bottled water that a crew member offered during breaks in the game.
Once on stage, emotions intensified. I peered out at my four guests—a brother-in-law and three friends, all of whom reside in Southern California—and, much to my alarm, nearly broke into tears. I nodded my head, gave a slight wave, then barely looked back at them the rest of my time on stage.
“Remember to breathe,” I told myself.
Meanwhile, Dan Patrick had begun his introductory remarks. Moments later, the board lit up with our categories. Game on!