‘Tribune Bookends’ retire after 42 years combined teaching

By Nicolas Galindo, Managing Editor

With a combined 59 years of journalism experience and 42 years of teaching, the ‘Tribune Bookends’ are retiring from Southern Illinois University.

Photojournalist and Journalist in Residence, Phill Greer and William Recktenwald, respectively, are set to enjoy their retirements after illustrious journalism and teaching careers.

Recktenwald came to the School of Journalism in 1998 after 20 years of working at the Chicago Tribune.

During his time as a reporter, Recktenwald was a Pulitzer prize finalist multiple times. The largest story he contributed to was during his time with the Better Government Association aiding in investigating corrupt city of Chicago building inspectors. 

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The Chicago Sun-Times purchased a building with numerous violations, installed cameras and posed as the tavern’s owners as inspector after inspector came to the bar expecting to be paid-off to keep the place ‘in business.’ The investigation detailed how corrupt some city officials were and resulted in numerous charges and firings from the city level all the way up to the state level. 

After a close friend at the Tribune died unexpectedly, Recktenwald decided he was going to retire on his 58th birthday later that year.

“I came in the next day, said I wanted to talk to the City Editor,” Recktenwald said. “I said, I feel bad about Jim Gallagher. One of the things I want you to know about Jim is that I am six months younger than he is and come my birthday, I’m out of here.”

Shortly after that meeting, Recktenwald returned to his desk and his phone rang on the other end was his next job opportunity and the voice of Mike Lawrence, who was with the Southern Illinois University Public Policy Institute, later renamed to the Paul Simon Institute.

“Mike says, ‘we’ve got some money here at SIU and I understand that you want to bail out and retire in six months,’” Recktenwald said. “Have you ever thought about teaching?”

Recktenwald had been on Lawrence’s radar since he was working at the Tribune, where he was known as the ‘Patron Saint of Interns’ since Recktenwald mentored so many interns who came to work at the Tribune.

“They said it was pretty easy work, not really work work,” Recktenwald said. After numerous interviews and trips from Chicago to Carbondale, Recktenwald accepted a teaching position at the university.

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“On my last day at the Tribune, they threw me a party and I said ‘where’s the cake? I got to get going, I start my new job tomorrow,’” Recktenwald said.

 Recktenwald recalls his first day of teaching young journalists.

“I went for my first class and somebody suggested a textbook. I looked at the textbook and saw how it was structured out and I said ‘well, I’ll just tell them war stories,” Recktenwald said. “I had a 50 minute class and after 40 minutes, I ran out of things to say, so I said ‘dismissed.’”

During the class, Recktenwald noticed the attentiveness of the students and how enamored they were to know they had a professor who has actually worked in the industry, doing the things he was teaching about.

Looking back on his teaching career, Recktenwald said “it was fun. I genuinely enjoyed dealing with students. I should spray paint ‘Reck was here’”

Phil Greer started his teaching career at SIU in 2000 after 24 years of also working at the Chicago Tribune and 15 years previously working at various newspapers in Illinois.

Greer was the Director of Photography at the Tribune and before that he was Chief Photographer. During his time with the Tribune, Greer was able to be on the ground covering the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, the Nicaraguan Revolution, and various other news events. 

Greer grew up in Southern Illinois and graduated from El Dorado High, shortly after he was drafted into the Air Force and sent to Vietnam. He learned photography through the Air Force until his enlistment expired.

Recktenwald was able to help recruit Greer to teach at SIU where he was able to educate numerous talented photojournalists through the program.

“I enjoyed, immensely, working with young people. There were some really great relationships formed,” Greer said. “A lot of them still stay in touch with me over social media.”

Greer didn’t plan on teaching for a full 20 years when he first started in 2000.

“When I started teaching here, I said I was only going to stay five years. five years turned into ten. ten turned into fifteen. fifteen turned into 20,” Greer said. “I always saw when I looked at the students, just another year. One more year and maybe we can get this done or we can achieve this or do that.”

Greer was able to accomplish quite a bit with his classes, since he was able to bring photojournalism students to work on The Cairo Project, a hardcover book detailing the everyday living in Cairo, Ill. He was also able to publish Illinois’ Hidden Gem, another hardcover book detailing the Shawnee National Forest. 

Greer has been instrumental in helping SIU achieve the notoriety as one the best photojournalism programs in the Midwest.  

Despite the joy both had teaching, they agreed one of the worst days for their teaching careers was the death of student Ryan Rendleman.

“That was a down moment,” Greer said. “I watched the students that night, good grief. I stood outside in a circle and said ‘now we have to go put out a paper.’ And they put out a paper.”

Recktenwald recalls the death as “the worst day in my life.”

“I walked into the DE office and it’s busy, they’re right on deadline,” Recktenwald said. “A couple of people looked up. One girl looks up and says, ‘something bad has happened.’ Phil says ‘look, Ryan Rendleman was killed in an automobile accident.’ The whole newsroom wept. It was an awful day.”

Shortly after the accident, Recktenwald requested a tree, with a plaque be planted near the entrance to the School of Journalism in memory of Rendleman.

Despite that low point, both professors took immense pride watching students grow and become successful working in the journalism industry.

“I always said with Southern, ‘we’re the little engine that could,’” Greer said. “We didn’t have the resources that Illinois had, or Northwestern had. But we had heart and desire. We had students here who had work ethic and that’s how we achieved the things we achieved. I’ve taught at Northwestern and I’ve taught at Illinois and I would rather teach at SIU.”

Recktenwald’s plan for retirement is he hopes to get vaccinated against COVID-19 so he can once again go travelling. Those that know ‘Reck’ knows he loves to travel and he has been to over 75 countries.

“I’m not the same as I used to be,” Recktenwald said. “I’m getting old.”

Greer would like to get back into doing photography.

“I’m not dead yet! There’s some things I’d like to do,” Greer said. “I think my health is pretty good, my knees are shot. I’d like to go back and do photography. I’d like to stay in touch with my former students and help where I can.”

The halls of the journalism department are going to feel a bit sadder now without these two fixtures being around anymore.

Stay in flight and thank you for your 42 years of teaching and touching as many lives as you have. 

Managing Editor Nicolas Galindo can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter & Instagram @ngalindophoto. 

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