Copyright David Heitz
The lead story on my going-away page of June 6, 1991, said it all.
“BELCH, BELCH, BELCH: Dave Heitz answers his last phone call at the Quad-City Times.”
Indeed, the headline referenced my already well-established drinking problem. What’s worse? I wasn’t even old enough to drink yet. But I’d certainly had lots of practice working at the Quad-City Times during the previous five years.
Going out with Times staffers post-deadline in the 1980s and 1990s, I never got carded even once.
Nope. Not even once. Pat McGuire’s had been great fun for me since my freshman year of Augustana College.
Augustana College is another chapter of this book altogether.
No institution has shaped who I am today more than the Quad-City Times newspaper in Davenport, Iowa. No place even comes close.
And I’m proud of that. I don’t really have a choice!
Strange and chuckle-able as its name may be (what’s a Quad-City?), the community the newspaper serves is anything but a laughing matter.
Q-C already has caught Hollywood’s eye
Few people have heard of the Quad-Cities. A few have heard of Davenport, the largest city in the Quad-Cities, and where the Quad-City Times is located.
The community comprises four cities that straddle the Mississippi River on both the Illinois and Iowa sides, and many smaller, outlying burgs. Eventually, the metropolitan area trickles off into cornfields in all directions, although Des Moines and Chicago both are within a three-hour drive.
What goes on in this town is the stuff Hollywood films are made of. Indeed, “Road to Perdition” starring Tom Hanks, based on the novel about notorious Rock Island gangster John Looney, already was a blockbuster hit.
From Lexa Luther, to Billy Blowhard, to Lois Lush, our cast of characters knows how to make news, even if it usually never gets covered. We’ve got dirty politics, what certainly appears to look and smell like organized crime, and a drunken news reporter on duty somewhere, 24/7.
And it’s always been this way, even if the players in the various roles have changed through the years.
Check out excerpts from Chapter One: Dad and I reclaim the property
Lord knows I filled the role of Lush for many years. And Lord knows I have known the Lexas and the Billies. Smart reporters do their time here and get out, or move on to some other profession locally.
Smart reporters do not get sucked into the swamp.
Problem is, I used to get so drunk I didn’t even care about the things I saw and heard. I wasn’t the first Quad-City reporter to ever get to that point and I won’t be the last.
From Milan skunks to skunk weed in Milan
The most disturbing part about the news media in the Quad-Cities, at least every time I was a part of it (which spanned 25 years on and off), is how everyone looks the other way about official things gone awry.
I certainly got that impression throughout every tenure I had at the Quad-City Times. The commandments were clear: Doth not question authority, doth not protest too much, and doth never take a competitor’s name in vain.
Consider the tertiary headline on my going-away page, after the “BELCH, BELCH, BELCH” banner and the secondary head, which referenced my poor driving skills.
“When things reek bad, call on Times reporter, skunk expert, Heitz” may have secured my place in Quad-City Times lore even more than the Klindt interview.
From the story on my going-away page, which sadly has some true parts to it:
“When the skunks stormed Milan, Dave Heitz scooped the competition and sniffed out a front-page story. He basked in the glory of his story. Job offers flowed in from around the globe. Even Geraldo called.”
But then the smart-aleck author takes a turn for the true. “Next day came the call that would threaten his job security and make him sorry he ever uncovered that skunk scam. ‘Hey is this the skunk reporter?’ sneered a disc jockey.”
Indeed, 97X, I believe it was, had called me while I still was in bed wanting to talk about a story I had written about skunks terrorizing a Milan neighborhood. I apparently didn’t handle it properly on the air or represent the Quad-City Times well.
I was in college, remember. Augustana College. Another chapter.
“After several high-level meetings, it was decided that Dave could keep his job,” the author of the story on the faux front page pictured with this chapter wrote. “But sadly, his career never rebounded.
“That’s why he’s fleeing the skunk-infested Milan beat. He’s heading to the L.A., where the freeways are free of the varmints that ruined his reputation.”
I never realized until I wrote this how ironic it is that now I go to Milan for “skunk” weed. As a qualifying medical cannabis patient in Illinois, my dispensary is in Milan.
Read more: I legally bought weed today in Milan, Ill. Thank you, Lord
The notorious James Klindt ‘killer tacos’ interview
Always take no for an answer from public officials, and then politely run along. That’s the message I always got while working as a reporter for the Quad-City Times, at least if you wanted to keep your job.
My problem was, I always had a very difficult time doing that. And I still do. And I got to where I decided that unemployment was better than going in every day and pounding out happy stories all the while drowning in the community cesspool.
That’s not to say the newspaper doesn’t produce some fine scoops now and then. For sure, it does, and I am forever grateful for every community newspaper that exists. I know how badly they are needed, even if the days of doing impactful journalism are few and far between. Everywhere.
The biggest feather in my cap during my tenure at the Quad-City Times probably was landing the only post-prison interview convicted killer and former Davenport chiropractor James Klindt ever gave.
Years of warming the bar stool at Mary’s on 2nd Street paid off when a sizzling tip led to my explosive story: “Klindt finds new life, career in taco stand.”
I interviewed Klindt in my Ford Taurus. You can check it out by clicking right here.
The story ended up going out on the wire and even was translated into Japanese. Jay Leno had a ball with it, too.
Klindt killed his wife before dismembering her body with a chainsaw and then dumping it in the Mississippi River.
The Halloween party featuring Clarence Thomas – in black face
Through the years, the Quad-City Times has seen characters aplenty come and go. Newsroom alumni I have worked with through the years have gone on to become members of Congress, a mixed martial arts tycoon convicted of tax evasion, multiple healthcare PR divas, a spokesman for a far-right think tank, porn stars, clergy, an assistant district attorney, and much, much more.
Lots of people leave the news business, but stick around and do different things.
Most of the time that’s fine and dandy, but sometimes it gets “icky sticky makes me sicky.”
But then, newspaper people are known for their shenanigans.
At one Times party in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a staffer came dressed as Clarence Thomas – in black face – with pubic hair taped atop a Coke can.
At another, everyone was drunk at a going away party for an editor. There was marijuana, booze, rifles, and bows and arrows everywhere. No harm no foul, right? Everyone was having a grand old time. A hunter was showing off his hunting tools like hunters do.
Still, what a scene. I was driven home (I think) by a photographer who still works at the Times. I threw up on the way to my apartment, just as I had thrown up at the party.
The editor was the coolest guy on earth. I called and offered to clean up his apartment the next day, and he totally laughed the entire incident off. Very gracious.
Burning it at both ends has been a hallmark of the news business for many years. Drugs and alcohol have claimed thousands of journalists’ lives and careers.
It’s important to remember how these sorts of stories typify the fraternity that exists among news people. In this same context, it’s very important to remember that mainstream news people are still people. For me, it’s why the current “holier than thou” and “fake news” narrative is aggravating.
Nobody is completely objective. Nobody. You can strive for it, sure. But it’s not part of the human condition, and I never have felt comfortable with the Fourth Estate making that claim.
Do you want to get your news from a person or organization who admits their slant (and knows your objectives in terms of information seeking), or do you want it from organizations that claims “objectivity” when it’s not even humanly possible?
We find out when staffers leave the Times who they really are. Sometimes it’s rather startling.
My first ‘stakeout’ at Moline mayor’s house
For me, the Quad-City Times was a grand escape from a miserable life. My mother and father had just divorced, and I had moved in with my cousin (and was paying rent) my senior year of high school.
At the time, everyone marveled at how I held my head high. I performed in all the plays and the musical my senior year on top of editing the student newspaper, working on the yearbook, and working part-time at the Quad-City Times.
In reality, this overachievement was a quest to be affirmed by someone, someplace, something. The Quad-City Times gave me that, and there is no way I ever can be anything but eternally grateful.
I was the biggest little suck-up on earth during my first two tours of duty at the Quad-City Times. It served me well.
I remember being sent to my first “stakeout.” One editor in particular had a fascination with the Moline mayor. One night, she sent me to his house to take down all the license plate numbers of the cars parked outside. She said she wanted to know if he was violating the open meetings act by having council members meeting at his house.
Other staffers say she may have had other intentions.
I didn’t care. It was a stakeout, and it was exciting. And I figured I must be very, very trustworthy and important to be sent on such an assignment.
In retrospect, I wonder if I was being used. It’s sad that I feel that way. But things have happened since I left the Quad-City Times that make me look at the place a lot differently. It will forever be an incredibly strong trigger.
I realized this when I got a car for the first time in three years. Seldom do I ever venture to the Iowa side of the river anymore, but when I have, just driving past the building makes me start to have physical symptoms of anxiety.
It’s too bad, but it is what it is.
Read excerpts from Chapter 5: My dad’s bizarre brain disease
Me and Sioux See had so much fun
One of my best friends at the Times during the early days was Sioux See. Sioux See and I had great fun.
We were about the same age, and found the Quad-City Times a fascinating place to work part-time. We would gossip and giggle about all the different personalities. Sioux See was incredibly insightful and smart. She picked up on realities about the Quad-City Times long before I did.
And she was right about so many things. Things that still hold true.
Book coming fall 2018!
Sioux See and I would giggle uncontrollably at times. We all did.
For a while, there was an editor in charge at night who would write up a note at the end of the shift. She kicked butt and named names and then she slid the note under the editor’s door.
Sioux See and I figured out that when she printed out the note, it briefly became visible in the system for anyone to see. We would type in “FE, AmCity” – oh yes, I have worked on newspaper systems that old, even VDT terminals prior to the birth of the PC – and we would find the file and read it.
We were true journalists. We still are. Even when you’re not fully feeding the fire, it never goes away. It always keeps burning.