Steve Hinnefeld: Making a difference

Dateline: Tue 11 Sep 2007

I was in French Lick yesterday and today, where the Bloomington Herald Times was and is still regarded as the paper of record.

Thank goodness, because for the past 30 years or so, the Monroe County daily that extends into all of southwestern Indiana had the great good grace to employ Steve Hinnefeld, a reporter whose beat was the environment. Even if you never heard of Hinnefeld, you know his work: He wrote -- and wrote -- about the deadly PCBs that infected the area, a story that began in 1958 with Westinghouse dumping chemicals into the water supply, and continues to at least 2004, when Hinnefeld reported in the Hoosier Times that "Bloomington (is) still struggling to clean up chemical contamination."

That's quite a stamp on the state, and Hinnefeld's efforts have not gone unnoticed. Alas, word comes that he is leaving daily journalism for a job with Indiana University. An email was waiting for me when I returned from French Lick from former Star copy editor/poet and IU Press editor Richard Gilbert, who also worked briefly at the Herald Times. Gilbert's thoughts about his former colleague are well worth sharing; his tribute is an excellent reminder that reporters do make a difference.

Here is what Gilbert, an old friend, has to say:

"A Meditation Upon Steve Hinnefeld, Hoosier

"I worked with Steve at the H-T from 1984-1990, a glimmer compared with his long and illuminating service. The paper did make an evolutionary leap in those years, essentially pre-Internet, as indicated by the change in its name: The Herald-Telephone became The Herald-Times. With the change,

everyone felt less embarrassed, though as a newsroom wit noted, we had always been grateful that the FAX machine hadn't been invented when a

publisher in an earlier epoch of Hoosier history noticed a newfangled

communications tool.

"What to say about Steve, who epitomizes to me all that was right in

American journalism? By the time I arrived in the newsroom he had

distinguished himself with his coverage of PCB contamination in Monroe

County. Steve went right at that story and dug in. He recognized that the

pollution was significant, a local crisis with state and national significance. Trashed landscapes are the problem of our time, and healing

them our enduring duty. Steve's stories helped us see our local task. His

work was careful, thorough and fair. He lived up to that story and

performed a genuine public service. Of course, Steve wearied of the PCB mess. Who can ever forget trying to understand the infamous "consent decree" he had to write so much about? With him on the story, however, his

fellow reporters, editors and citizens could partake of the luxury of

paying less attention. But the bureaucrats, scientists, cleanup experts,

lawyers, corporate suits and fuzzy enviros who kept worrying the issue

didn't take Steve for granted. Some of them rightly feared such an honest

reporter. They tried to use him and found that impossible. They respected

him, they all respected him.

"Steve has suffered for our damaged gift of creation. He's an environmentalist, as any sane person must be. But Steve also has a

scientific turn of mind, a love of rigorous inquiry into ever-greater

mysteries, and he saw in covering the PCB issue how some activists misused

and misrepresented science. He saw it, and it saddened him. Steve would

not allow people, whose sentiments he rightly shared, to lie. Their end

did not justify their means. And calling them on that isn't even what made

Steve a great reporter. The gravity of his work arose from this precise

reason: He not only put on his boots and went into the field, he actually

read and sought to understand the endless reports and studies. Most

reporters are incapable or unwilling to do that for their newspaper or

their fellow citizens. A mere paycheck could never reflect his effort; he

did the hard work of understanding for us, for all of us.

"Steve exudes integrity. He's also a Hoosier, born and bred. A Hoosier,through and through. He epitomizes Indiana. What does that mean? It's more than fried baloney sandwiches, let me tell you. We lived in Indiana for 13.5 years, too short a time to call myself a Hoosier. But I do. I claim Indiana not only because Kathy and I were married in Bloomington and produced two little Hoosiers there, but because I love the state. A sharp word stirs up wrath, and Indiana is mild. Hoosiers pitch in, work shoulder-to-shoulder for a better tomorrow. They don't put on airs. They make room for anyone of good will. Hoosiers see folks rushing across their green fields to more dramatic territory and let them go. The East is mean and crowded, the South plainly crazy. And word always comes back that the West is still too darned dry to grow good corn. Indiana is sensible.

"Hoosiers have their basketball and sycamores along the Wabash, too. God surely smiled when He made such a gentle place.

"Long may you run, Steve.

"Richard Gilbert

Athens, Ohio

September 11, 2007"

Gilbert, you can see, is none too shabby a writer himself; he also distinguishes himself as a "sheep farmer, book publicist, teacher of freshmen writers, and author of 'Appalachian Zen: A Shepherd's Journey (not published YET.)" He has found both life and happiness at Ohio University in Athens. His email is gilbert@ohio.edu

Many thanks, Richard, for sharing these heartfelt words with a wider audience, and for making those long nights on the desk pass with wit and light...

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