By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Mike Konrad never realized when he volunteered to work on a college newspaper that it would turn into a career that took him across the country.
The Effingham High School alumnus retired last fall from his job as an editor with the Tampa Bay Times after many years as bureau chief with the Hernando County Bureau in the Tampa Bay region. During his time in the Sunshine State, he has covered less sunny subjects like huge alligators, devastating hurricanes and a house-eating sinkhole.
“Two summers ago, we covered a big sinkhole where two houses were lost in it. Seven other homes were abandoned, too,” recalled Konrad.
His work in journalism also sent him to the Rose Garden of the White House, where he met President Jimmy Carter. He was also “grilled” by Bob Woodard, part of the journalism team that caused President Richard Nixon to exit the White House 44 years ago.
That intense interview by Woodard involved vouching for a young journalist, who was going to help on a book project. Konrad helped groom some talented journalists during his years in Tampa Bay, including a future Pulitzer Prize winner.
“Jeffrey Gettleman was a cops and courts reporter in Hernando County on my staff there. Now he’s a foreign correspondent with the New York Times and working in India. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. The fun thing about my job was working with some of the best young reporters in the country,” Konrad said.
Gettleman is a good example of that talented pool. He went to Cornell and later Oxford.
When he was in college, Konrad had to decide on his future. It came down to committing to the Marching Illini Band or the Daily Illini newspaper.
Konrad and other band members were part of the frenzied moments when Chief Illiniwek appeared and started his dance that fired up the Illini fans at halftimes. The Chief is no more, but the memories linger for Konrad and other Illini fans.
“I played the clarinet at Effingham High and was a drum major, too. At the U of I, I was in the Marching Illini and with the basketball band, too. Chief Illiniwek used to come by me when he was dancing. As band members, we got to know the kids playing the Chief. Many people don’t realize the Chief was part of the band and rehearsed with us. I loved music, but I was torn between the band and journalism in college. Back then, journalism majors didn’t have to declare their major until their second year,” Konrad said.
With a long love for reading newspapers cover to cover and an interest in writing, Konrad finally walked into the Daily Illini office and asked what he could do for the student newspaper. His first story told of misuse of the university campus mail system with gifts and food being sent across campus on the public dime.
“That story got a lot of response. I didn’t end up with a news beat. I was just a general assignment reporter. Then I helped out as a copy editor,” he said.
Konrad’s concentration on the facts and the world around him came from his parents in Effingham. His father, Keith Konrad, was a State Farm Insurance agent, and his mother, Helen, was a homemaker who made sure there were newspapers in the house. So there was plenty of reading material for Mike and his younger brothers, Kurt and Scott.
“I remember reading newspapers cover to cover. I enjoyed knowing what was going on in the world,” Konrad said. One of Konrad’s EHS classmates also had a nose for news. His name is Greg Sapp.
Some work with the Effingham Daily News convinced Konrad he could make a career out of his love for writing, which was encouraged by some EHS teachers. Working in a printing company also convinced him he didn’t want to work in an oven-like workplace.
So his expectations of a music career in education went flat.
“I ended up not herding band members as a high school band director. But I did herd some reporters through the years,” he said.
Ironically, his work as a journalist in Illinois – his work took him from Effingham and then Decatur and Carbondale before he landed in Florida – through 20 years had him meet legendary Newton High School band director Carolyn Dominick, known as Miss D. He covered the Marching Eagles when they traveled via train to perform in the 1984 Rose Bowl Parade. Everything went fine on the rails except for the unlucky cow in Nevada. The Newton band drew national attention with their train trip.
“I spent a lot of time with her. I admired her for what she did with that band. I loved the passion for what she was doing with those kids,” Konrad said of Miss D., who died in 2012.
It was a connection with education that sent Konrad to the White House to meet President Carter. He was covering the National Spelling Bee with a contestant from Central Illinois.
“I was a reporter and Jimmy Carter shook my hand in the Rose Garden during a ceremony for the Spelling Bee. I guess that was my true brush with fame,” Konrad said.
He was glad his interview with Woodard, a noted investigative reporter and part of the team that broke that Watergate story in 1972, did not lead to personal infamy. Konrad quickly learned that Woodard is very thorough when checking on qualifications of journalists wanting to help on his projects.
“I just thought it was going to be a reference check. But he was grilling me on how the reporter I worked with writes and thinks. Before it was over, it felt like a deposition for a court case,” Konrad recalled.
The lifelong journalist realizes his profession is facing a lot of heat nowadays mainly because it is caught between two camps.
“The country is now separated into two camps. And people don’t realize issues are not just black and white, but heavily gray. That has driven a lot of this hostility. And we might not be doing a good enough job of explaining the issues. Reporters are trying to verify the facts all the time. But people look at our editorial page and think our news coverage is tainted. People confuse facts with opinions. Real reporters let the facts take them where they should go,” Konrad said.
The retired editor takes pride in the fact that the Tampa Bay Times is considered one of the top metro regional papers in the United States. That’s why 20 of the top journalism interns work there each summer, and Konrad has been in on their training.
Living in Florida helped him watch over some other training. He loves baseball and has watched many Major League teams competing in spring training games. He has also visited ballparks across the country during his lifetime.
“I’m a huge Major League baseball fan. I’ve been to all 30 major league parks. During the month of March, I would go see 15 to 20 spring training games. I love the Cardinals, but I now have season tickets to the Tampa Bay Rays and the Buccaneers. I get to Lightning hockey games, too,” he said.
Earlier this year, Konrad enjoyed some ballgames while vacationing in Cuba. He described the look of that country as entering into a time warp with the older cars and its venues.
With retirement, he might be making more trips back to Illinois to visit his brother, Kurt, or longtime friends like Sapp and others. He might also travel up the East Coast to visit his brother, Scott, an educator in Brooklyn. You might see them talking about sports or catching up. That’s the best thing about coming home or visiting family.
Konrad is definitely off deadline now. He still plays the clarinet with a local musical group and he is loving it.