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CHAMPAIGN — She was thrown into the deep end right away. Forty years later, Mary Schenk is still swimming like a champ.
Schenk, The News-Gazette’s venerable police, fire and courts beat writer, is calling it a career. Her final day is Halloween. No more dressing up as a reporter.
The Alton native moved to Champaign-Urbana in 1976 to attend the University of Illinois. She never left.
Schenk met husband Nate here. Had daughter Natalie here. Built a career here with a legion of admirers among readers, justice system employees and law enforcement.
Schenk’s first journalism job was at WDWS in the fall of her senior year at the UI in 1979. She was hired to handle weekend radio reports, splitting duties with her roommate, Kate McBride.
“We had to get up at 3 (a.m.) to go run the cop shops, go to Champaign and Urbana cops, county if we had time, read the overnight reports, get as much information as we could, get back to the station and write up that news and be ready to be on the air at 6,” Schenk said.
Sounds dreadful. Not to Schenk.
“Boy, it was great training,” she said.
She also covered meetings throughout the week: park district boards or city councils, for example.
Schenk graduated from the UI in May 1980 and was hired on full time at WDWS, where she worked for three years.
Her time at the radio station gave Schenk a chance to get to know future News-Gazette hot shots Tom Kacich and Jim Dey.
They covered meetings together, though for different outlets.
“Very competitive, even though the radio and newspaper were owned by Mrs. (Marajen Stevick) Chinigo,” Schenk said. “We looked at the newspaper to see what they had, and the newspaper guys listened to the news in the morning to see what we had.
“It was a good, friendly competition.”
Pretty soon, there was an opening at The News-Gazette for a general assignment reporter. Dey and Kacich urged her to apply.
“I had to go through the most grueling interview,” Schenk said.
The late editor John Foreman made the final call. Schenk had her pitch ready.
“I remember saying to Foreman, ‘Look, I know how to write a complete sentence. I just have to do it differently for radio. The advantage of hiring me is I already know where all the streets are in Champaign-Urbana. I’ve been here for seven years for school and work,’” Schenk said. “For whatever reason, he took a chance on me, and the rest was a tall learning curve, but great fun.”
Schenk remembers her first day at The News-Gazette: Monday, Nov. 14, 1983. The Illinois football team had just clinched the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl bid with a win against Indiana. C-U was up for grabs, in a good way.
“It was pretty crazy,” she said. “I come into the newsroom nervous as a cat, even though I had been a reporter in this town for three years.”
Foreman came up with a feature idea for the newbie: Call local florists and find out how the sale of roses was going.
Brilliant. The story ended up on the front page — with a “minor” error, not of her doing.
“John Foreman misspelled my last name,” she said.
So, if you are searching the library for the historic first byline, check under the name “Shenk.”
“In those days, we were not allowed to put our own bylines on stories,” Schenk said. “The bosses decided which stories were worthy of bylines.”
Schenk gently let her new boss know her name needed a “c.”
Schenk didn’t jump directly into courts coverage.
She worked the state desk, making daily calls to area sheriffs’ offices and state police posts and dealing with county meetings. A lot of phone work.
“That was great training for learning to chit-chat with people, draw information out,” she said. “I had tons of sources that I considered trustworthy, good sources that I had never met in person.”
After working on the state desk, she was assigned to cover the city of Urbana.
“I’m going directly to heaven when I die because I have done my purgatory by covering the Urbana City Council for three years,” Schenk said.
How bad could it have been?
“This was in the days when they had no time limits on their meetings,” she said. “The meetings would go to 11:30, sometimes past midnight. I had to come back and write my story to hit that morning deadline. That was tough.”
In the mid-1980s, Tom Redmond, who had been on the courthouse beat, decided to switch to the copy desk. Schenk happily took over covering courts.
Though she didn’t have any formal legal training, Schenk went to school at the courthouse, absorbing the process.
She got help, including from Judge Robert Steigmann.
“He would let me and Jim (Dey) come sit in his chambers in the morning, and we’d drink coffee and we’d just gab for about a half an hour, then court would start,” she said. “I learned a ton just listening. I learned a lot about the law.”
There were others who helped her, including then-State’s Attorney and now retired Judge Tom Difanis.
“He was just happy to give you information about a guy arrested for murder,” Schenk said. “It developed over the years. He’d let me read the police reports. It got to the point where I spent more time in the state’s attorney’s office and in the courtroom than I ever did in The News-Gazette office.”
Schenk built trust with her sources, which led to better stories. She got to know all the attorneys, who went on to become judges in many cases.
Schenk has many of them in her 40 years on the job, but a couple stand out.
In May 2014, Schenk got a tip from Dan Coile of the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office about an unusual home invasion.
A woman named Patty Ebeling was caring for her sister, who had dementia, at her nephews’ home when she heard a knock at the door. Thinking it was a delivery, she answered. Instead, it was an intruder.
“He said, ‘I am the son of Satan and I’m here to kill you,’” Schenk said. “He was having a psychotic episode.”
He chased her around the house and tried to choke her. Ebeling fought for her life.
“She ends up getting out of the house and into the yard,” Schenk said.
Her sister eventually distracted the intruder. But when law enforcement arrived, the intruder and the sister “are just sitting on the deck chatting like they are having coffee.”
The intruder was later found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Schenk has written about her share of heroic actions. In 2013, Illinois State Trooper Brian Scott, a former UI football player, literally lifted a car off a Daily Illini reporter, Ethan Asofsky, who had been pinned under it on an icy highway. With the help of others, Scott was able to extricate Asofsky.
“It was the most amazing rescue and the most amazing story,” Schenk said.
In 2015, nine members of a Muslim family were traveling in their van from a convention in Texas to their Chicago-area home on Interstate 57 when they had a bad rollover accident in Champaign County.
Fellow motorist Mike Roberson of Naperville, who was headed home from his uncle’s funeral in Tennessee, saw the accident happen. The van ended up underwater. Roberson rescued the family members, but the father, who had been driving, passed away.
Roberson — who was going home to a house that had suffered fire damage — gave clothes he had received from his late uncle’s family to the Chicago family to stay warm.
Roberson then went to a gas station off Airport Road to call his family. The clerk called Schenk to tip her off about the amazing rescue.
Through a series of calls, Schenk was able to find Roberson and tell his valiant story.
“I wrote two or three or maybe four stories,” Schenk said.
The family later connected with Roberson and celebrated him at their mosque.
Sometimes, Schenk’s sources came to her aid.
She was covering a rape trial in the southwestern Chicago suburb of Bridgeview during the infamous Valentine’s Day ice storm in 1990. After a day of complicated DNA testimony that ran long, Schenk missed her ride to her hotel. Jim Davis, an investigator for the state’s attorney’s office and a former UI cop, braved harrowing weather conditions to deliver her safely to the hotel.
Schenk promised to vote for Davis for sheriff in the next Champaign County primary.
Why stop now?
Schenk, 65, is retiring because …
“I have hit my milestones,” she said. “Get my child out of college, get her launched, get to Medicare.”
She has been married to Nate Fleming for 26 years. Daughter Natalie lives in Champaign.
Schenk is going to continue helping at The News-Gazette in some capacity.
“I am not rushing out of here with enthusiasm,” she said.
She will gladly write Life Remembered features if asked.
“I love doing that,” Schenk said.
Bottom line on her career?
“What I have done all these years is the absolute best continuing education anyone could have,” Schenk said.
That’s a -30-.