The news cut me like a knife through the heart.
“Mother and husband of Chicago federal judge found dead – killed execution style.”
Execution style. I said it over and over again. Execution style.
In 1993, seven people were murdered execution style in suburban Chicago at a local Brown’s Chicken.
In 1991, nine Thai Buddhist monks were murdered execution style in their temple on the outskirts of Phoenix.
In 1990, the 2-year-old son of Stacy Peroutka died, “accidentally” killed by his father in a shaking incident, in Columbia, Mo.
There was so much tragedy. There was so much violence. It was the horror of humanity.
I had been a witness to all of it.
See, I used to be a journalist.
“Used to” is the key phrase here. Some 11 years have passed since the days of bearing the responsibility of writing a 1,000-word article in five minutes, capturing the essence of human despair and challenging the bureaucracy of society.
Today, I own a sales training company and am the author of three books: two on business and one chronicling my adventures volunteering on an Israeli Kibbutz in 2000.
Still, the memories of who I once was are as crisp as the bright blue sky.
On Feb. 28, 2005, they became that much darker.
When the news broke that the husband and mother of Judge Joan Lefkow were murdered, my days of years gone by resurfaced like a thunderbolt.
I don’t know why.
As awful as the murders were, I had no personal connection to the judge and her family. I had never met her nor her family. I wasn’t an attorney or judge nor even had friends who were.
However, from everything I read, if ever there was an example of bad things happening to good people, this was it.
By all accounts, Lefkow and her husband, Michael, were happily married for 30 years. She was a federal judge, and he was a successful attorney dedicated to protecting the rights of those who couldn’t protect themselves.
If ever there was a case of bad things happening to such good people, this was it.
It was not the first case of late that has moved me to tears, either.
The recent destruction of the tsunami in Indonesia, where a shocking 175,000 people were wiped out, and the cold-blooded killings of 3,000 in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are still fresh on my mind.
But the recent murders of Judge Lefkow’s family hit me in a way the others have not.
The similarities in this case compared to the Brown’s Chicken murders, Buddhist Monks murders and the Peroutka story, have suddenly forced me to address emotions that for so long I repressed.
But isn’t that the job of a journalist – to deny your emotions? Or so we are taught by editors and the general public.
How many outside of the media say that those who write articles or interview sources are gutless, heartless, soulless individuals who will do whatever it takes to hit the front page or be the lead story?
You and I know that is far from the truth.
It is this very dichotomy that makes our (and I will still say our, because once a journalist, always a journalist) industry more threatened and more important than ever.
True journalists, great journalists, get emotionally involved. They must. It’s when they don’t that cynicism and their own despair take over.
To deny your own humanity isn’t only morally wrong, it’s wrong to the readers and those who are counting on you to tell the truth, to represent views most would rather not hear.
But do I miss journalism? Not at all.
I love now more than ever what I do for a living: increase commissions for salespeople and prosperity for emerging businesses through customized training. I am a public speaker who teaches people how to get what it is they want out of life. I am making a difference in the world. I can think of nothing more admirable – however it is accomplished.
For me, being a reporter was just too hard. There’s no other way to say it.
Yes, I was “saving the world,” then, too – one story at a time.
But who was saving me?
At the end of the day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t the long hours or the low pay. Actually, for my age at the time, I was making good money at the Daily Herald. It was a good job, and my editors were the best of the best.
However, the cynicism I developed was out of control. I trusted no one, least of all myself. But this was my job – to be skeptical, to doubt, to assume all were lying. We joked in the newsroom frequently. There are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth.
I was determined to find the truth. “The truth would set us free.” It did, and will continue to, but at what sacrifice? How much was the human spirit worth? How much was my spirit worth?
The judge’s murders reminded me of that.
In 1990, as a 20-year-old reporter for the Columbia Missourian at the Univeristy of Missouri, I was called on to interview Stacy Peroutka, whose son was murdered one day before. Her ex-husband, who she was reconciling with, was arrested for the murder just one hour before we talked.
“I lose my son one day and then my husband the next. What am I going to do?” I recall her vivid pleas for a help to a complete stranger taking notes with a pen and pad.
In 1991, as a 21-year-old reporter serving a summer internship in Arizona, I was one of the first reporters on the scene to cover the monk’s murders.
I’ll never forget one of my sources. One hour after interviewing him the first time, he pulled me aside. He was crying.
“John, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“Remember when I told you my friend, who was one of the monks, was not inside and he was lucky?” John said, choking back tears. “Well, I was wrong, he was inside. He’s dead.”
I put down my pad and we hugged.
In 1993, as a staff writer at the Daily Herald, I covered the funeral of one of the victims in Brown’s chicken murder. I interviewed the surviving victim’s identical twin brother during the showing at the funeral home.
I cried in the car on the way back to the office.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the job of the media more than anybody. I will defend the First Amendment to the max. No one respects the job of a journalist more than me.
Sometimes people ask me if I think I gave up too early in journalism. After all, I was on the fast track – 23 years old and the youngest reporter at the Daily Herald.
Friends of mine from my college days have gone on to amazing things. I see one interviewed on ESPN frequently, as he is a columnist for the New York Daily News. Indeed, in an act of serendipity, one of the main reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times, covering the Lefkow stories, was a teaching assistant with me at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
But I have no regrets. I love what I do – helping others – and I can sleep at night.
I have a life outside of journalism. I do more writing than I ever have in my life. I have a monthly column in a sales magazine and publish a monthly e-zine that goes out to 6,000 people.
My writing helps make the world a better place. I help those who can’t necessarily help themselves.
Wasn’t that the job of Judge Lefkow?
Wasn’t that the job of her husband?
Ten years ago, when John in Phoenix told me his friend was among those murdered, I recognized my own humanity. It is a lesson – whether in journalism or out – I have never forgotten.
Todd Natenberg is president of TBN Sales Solutions and author of the book “I Just Got a Job in Sales! Now What? A Playbook for Skyrocketing Your Commissions.” Visit www.IJustGotAJobInSales.com to learn more about Todd.