One man down

I'm writing this on the day the world lost a good man. It won't post for a while yet, because his family doesn't know.* It seems somehow wrong that those of us who worked with him know before his family does. But sometimes that's the way it happens.

Shortly after work tonight - Wednesday night - I was killing time in a Wal-mart checkout line by cruising Facebook. I saw a post from a local police department stating that they had found an unconscious man in jogging attire on the running trail of a local park. They were unable to save him, and he was carrying no ID. They asked for the public's help in identifying him.

I hadn't seen anything on our website about it, so I called it in to the newsroom. I asked one of the guys on the copy desk if we already had someone working on the unidentified man in the park. He said no, and I told him about the police department's post.

"Mainer's missing," he replied.

And heaven help me, for a brief second I thought he was kidding. Newsroom humor is sometimes dark humor, and I thought he was making a joke and at that very moment, Mainer was giving him the quiet raised eyebrow we had all received from him on occasion.

Then I realized there's a limit even to newsroom humor. "What?" I asked brilliantly.

"Mainer didn't come into work today," he said.

I looked back at my phone and reread the physical description of the man they'd found. "Oh Christ," I said. "He, uh, matches their description. Who's on the desk?"

I filled in the night reporter, who handled it very professionally. From what I understand, the night crew all read the police department's Facebook post while our executive editor went to assist the police with the identification. I can't imagine how much harder it was on him than on the rest of us, waiting by our phones for the news.

And since I'm writing this, you know that it was him. Steve Mainer, copy editor for the Belleville News-Democrat and a damn fine journalist. I think Steve was around even longer than I, and that's saying something when you realize I've been at the paper for 16 years.

Steve was a true metro-east native: graduate of Alton High School and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, lived and worked in Belleville. He was meticulous, taking all the changes in the job in stride and maintaining the highest quality in his work and ours. He was 56 years old - too goddamn young - taciturn with a dry wit and an even temperament.

In a profession that tends to attract, er, unusual personalities, Steve stood out by his quiet, even nature. We got along well, and I respected him professionally as well as liking him personally. Copy editors are the unsung heroes of the news business. They don't get awards, their names don't appear on a byline, and nobody can pick them out in public. But they fix our mistakes, ask the questions we forgot to ask, and put together a product every single day of the year that informs the public of the things they need to know. When I sent a piece up to the desk when Mainer was on, I knew it was going to be handled right.

We don't know yet why he died. He seemed to be in fine shape, and he was a regular runner. He was found at 8:30 a.m., which is early for heatstroke, but the metro-east is enveloped in a horrible heat wave right now, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility. I suppose they'll tell us eventually.

We are a strange, sometimes-dysfunctional family in the newsroom, but we are a family, and I think that's the case with any newsroom. Back when I worked in a bureau office, we sometimes remarked that we literally spent more hours with each other than we did with our spouses and children. It's true, and an odd twist to modern society that you may not choose your coworkers, but you will literally spend your life with them. Years mount up over years, and we live through some stressful, dark times together, as well as jubilant and exciting times. Holidays and snowstorms, an on-deadline power failure, massive computer issues, a burgeoning crisis and a layoff day, we're together, for better or worse.

So if it feels as though we suddenly lost a family member, that's because we did.

I'm trying to imagine what it will be like working a Saturday shift without Mainer on the desk. I can't picture it. A few years ago, we lost another long-time copy editor, who likewise just... didn't come in one day. Roger was a good friend, and I wrote his obituary story. Mourning is not something that just dissipates after an appropriate period of time. It comes back each time we are reminded of friends we have lost, of the holes left in our lives.

Tonight, the staff is putting together a newspaper one man short. It's hardest for them, because they don't have the luxury of dumping their feelings into a blog post. They still have to shovel coal into the furnace. Tomorrow the page will be wiped clean, and we will start again, filling the pages with stories that our copy editors will repair and shape into the day's news, as Steve did for so many years.

As the editor in The Paper says, every day you still start from zero. That's the way of it, and Steve would understand.

But it's not going to be quite the same for us, and we are all the poorer for his loss.

Steve Mainer, 1959-2016

* I am told Steve's parents were informed late Wednesday night. They have my deepest condolences.


  1. Was a very nice guy. He will be missed.

  2. My husband doesn't have FB, nor is he ever on any type of social media but he asked me to please write this comment. Steve Mainer is his brother. This piece touched our hearts in so many ways and we are grateful for that.
    Here are the comments of Mike Mainer:
    "I would like to thank Elizabeth Donald on the wonderful piece on my big brother, Steve. His love for the newspaper goes back to the early 70's when we were kids. Steve was a paperboy in Godfrey at a very young age and taught his two younger brothers how the news got delivered rain, snow or shine. If I recall correctly, he allowed me around 10 papers to deliver. I was on probation :) In my eyes I was always on a good type of probation with him. I guess because I didn't want to let him down. After all, he was my big brother! I hope I didn't.
    I'll miss you terribly,
    Your Little Bro


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