Welcome to Joe Grace’s online portfolio

Joe Grace is a media professional with seven years of experience as a reporter, copy editor, paginator and managing editor for various newspapers throughout Chicagoland. He currently is a ChicagoNow blogger and is accepting freelance assignments. He wrote a book.


Small Business Saturday celebrates your community

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Nov. 25, 2011

There’s the mad rush of Black Friday and the, “Hey, I’m shopping in my pajama pants!” rush of Cyber Monday.

Small Business Saturday, however, is about a different kind of rush, a better kind of rush – the rush of supporting your community by shopping at small businesses. OK, maybe rush is too strong of a word, but it’s a good thing to do in any case.

Nov. 26 is the second annual Small Business Saturday, a day promoted by American Express to encourage shopping at small businesses after a hectic Black Friday spent at larger chains. (Black Friday, by the way, will go down in history as one of the strangest named days ever. Future students thinking they’re about to learn about the day World War III started or something equally horrible will be surprised to find out Black Friday was nothing more than a day when merchandise was slightly cheaper than the rest of the year.)

Small Business Saturday was a great idea. Small businesses are the backbone of any community, as well as that of the U.S. economy.

According to the Office of Advocacy of the United States Small Business Administration, small businesses employ about half of all private sector employees and have generated about 65 percent of net new jobs in the past two decades.

One of the small businesses that has recently hired more employees is The Pink Hippo in downtown Geneva.

In May, Stephanie Schmoker opened the boutique, which offers American-made products for girls. After a successful start, The Pink Hippo now has three part-time employees.

“I was just able to hire some people because we’re getting really busy, and we’re able to afford it now,” Schmoker said. … “It’s just really working out for us. We’ve been doing really great business. My biggest thing is I don’t order enough; we’re constantly running out, which is a good problem to have in this economy.”

Schmoker started her business after nine years teaching in Naperville. She said she wanted to work somewhere she could set her own hours. She attributes part of her success to the support she has received from the community.

“Everybody’s been really supportive,” Schmoker said. “Other store owners introduce themselves to me and come with pointers, and when I need something, I can call the [chamber of commerce.]

While Schmoker is just getting started in the small business world, there are plenty of those in the Tri-Cities who have been doing this for years.

Town House Books & Cafe opened in St. Charles in 1974. David Hunt has owned it since 1992, adding the cafe in 1996.

“We think of ourselves as an important part of the community,” Hunt said. “We’ve been a community bookstore for all this time. We have a very loyal customer base that thankfully is growing.”

And one of the keys is where that support for small businesses is coming from.

“It’s not just coming from the businesses,” Hunt said. “The public, our customers, are really doing a good job of acknowledging the efforts of independent businesses in downtowns and want to keep them.”

Dave and Linda McFadden have owned Past Basket in Geneva for 33 years after getting their start inside Town House Books.

Linda stressed that being a small business owner means loving what you do.

“The biggest advice that I can give,” she said, “is you really have to enjoy what you’re doing. And if you don’t enjoy it, find something else because it’s tough.”

Owning a small business isn’t easy. It’s a job like any other, and like any other, it has its ups and downs. Very few will ever become filthy rich owning a small business. Most are probably happy to get by while doing something they enjoy.

Small Business Saturday is as much about community as it is small business. It’s about supporting people just like us.

“It’s very important for people to shop in their community,” Schmoker said, “and help build their communities and keep those businesses around.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Joe Grace is a former editor of the Kane County Chronicle who will occasionally drop in. You can write to him at joewriter81@gmail.com.

Recognizing vets who served during war and peace

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Nov. 11, 2011

Today, we remember and recognize our veterans.

The World War II veterans. The Korean War vets. The Vietnam War vets. The Gulf War vets. And those who have served or are serving in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, we remember and recognize all those who have fought for our country.

But sometimes I think we tend to forget another group of veterans.

Today, I also would like to remember and recognize those who served during peace time.

My father is one of these veterans. He served in the early 1980s when I was a baby, during the sole period in the last 70 years in which we had at least 15 years of not sending a large contingent of soldiers into combat. He might not have fought in a war or a major conflict, but he served, nonetheless. He was willing, nonetheless. And I feel blessed that my father did not have to fight while he served. That we had relative peace during that time. That my mother didn’t have to worry about her son growing up without a father.

A look back at the history of Veterans Day will show why I think it’s important we take time to honor those who did not have to fight, as well as those who did.

Veterans Day started out as Armistice Day, a day to recognize those who served during World War I. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ website, “An Act … approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday – a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day.” In 1954, it was changed to Veterans Day to “honor American veterans of all wars.”

Nov. 11 originally was meant as a day to be “dedicated to the cause of world peace.” I think remembering those veterans who served during peace time is a good way to include that original meaning into the holiday.

Certainly, we should and need to continue to honor those who have shown their bravery during conflict. They put their lives on the line for their country. That is a great deed that must be honored. But by also remembering those who did not have to fight on Veterans Day, we remember the ideal – world peace, a country without conflict, what world leaders were so hopeful for after World War I only to see the rest of the century devolve into constant battles.

One day, I hope to see more veterans like my dad – veterans who were ready to fight, who were willing to fight, but didn’t have to.

I have no desire to debate whether getting into the current conflicts was right or wrong. I simply wish for the conflicts to end and for all of our soldiers to come home. And in the future, I hope we become better at preventing wars and conflicts rather than fighting them.

One day, though it will be long after I’ve gone, I hope there will be a Veterans Day when all of the veterans in attendance will be like my father. Ready to serve. Willing to serve. But unused in conflict. Then it will be a day of not only remembrance and recognition, but also of celebration.

Joe Grace is a former editor of the Kane County Chronicle who will occasionally drop in. You can write to him at joewriter81@gmail.com and follow his writings at http://www.joegrace.blogspot.com.

Column: Trip abroad means some basic French and a $6 soda

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Oct. 28, 2011

In the past week, I’ve run into Tampa Bay Buccaneers players at the Tower of London, paid at least $6 for a bottle of soda in Paris and essentially walked the length of the United States while touring the two European cities.

Ah, being abroad.

The wife and I had talked about going to Europe for years, and we finally made the trip last week.

It was an exciting journey, especially because it was my first time abroad. (I’ve been to Canada and Mexico, but those don’t count. I’ve also been to Jamaica on a missionary trip, but that ended with us holed up inside a school wrongly afraid that the villagers were about to attack us. Let’s just move on.)

The first three days were spent in London, the land of “chip, chip, cheerio” and unlikely food items tossed willy nilly into pies. (We had a pie with goat cheese in it. Seriously, goat cheese. It was actually pretty good.)

We visited the normal tourist sites – the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and the Tower of London, where we ran into the Buccaneers who were in town early getting ready to face the Chicago Bears on Sunday. It turns out examining torture devices and various suits of armor does not help you win football games.

And I got to eat fish and chips in London, which was my main goal. Final result, they taste like fish and chips in America. Oh, well.

From there, it was on to four days in Paris.

Fortunately, my wife speaks some French. Unfortunately, the extent of my French is randomly yelling the names of French actors and fictional characters. (Gerard Depardieu! Jean Reno! Jean-Luc Picard!) This is not the way to make friends with the French.

My wife took pity on me, though, and taught me a few basic French phrases on the train ride to Paris. I was now able to say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak French” and “I would like a Coca-Cola.” Sadly, I would get my words mixed up sometimes and end up apologizing for not being able to speak Coca-Cola. It’s a tough language.

Despite not understanding much of what was being said around me, Paris was great. We walked everywhere – to Notre Dame, to the Louvre, to the shopping areas (my wife’s choice). I walked more in those seven days than I had in maybe the entire year. And the food was spectacular. Overpriced generally, but spectacular.

We complain a lot about the price of things here in the Chicago area. We have nothing to complain about. Just about everything is more expensive in London and Paris. A bottled soda can cost $6. Finding a “good deal” on bottled soda means you paid about $3. Meals cost more. Clothes cost more. Museums cost more. It was like being at Disney World for seven straight days.

By the time the week was over, I was ready to go back home. I was tired of trying to pronounce French. I was tired of $6 sodas. And I was just tired. My feet were killing me and – in the French tradition – were about ready to go on strike.

It was a great trip, but I was thrilled to be back home when the plane landed. No, I did not kiss the ground. One of my personal rules is that I do not kiss the floors of dirty airports. But I did smile. And I bought a soda for $1.50. God bless America.

Joe Grace is a former editor of the Kane County Chronicle who will occasionally drop in. You can write to him at joewriter81@gmail.com and follow his writings at http://www.joegrace.blogspot.com.

Column: The mystery behind why people run marathons

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Oct. 14, 2011

On Sunday, I watched my wife run in the Chicago Marathon.

A few weeks ago, the Fox Valley Marathon had people trekking through St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia for the second year in a row.

And according to Running USA’s annual marathon report, there were 507,000 finishers in the U.S. in 2010 compared with 353,000 in 2000; 224,000 in 1990; and just 25,000 in 1976. In about 35 years, the sport has grown from the size of Geneva to the size of New Orleans. It’s astounding.

What I don’t understand – what I can’t understand – is why.

A marathon is 26.2 miles long – a ridiculous distance if you pause to really think about it. That’s the equivalent of running from St. Charles to Arlington Heights as the crow flies and then – upon reaching Arlington Heights – being told you need to run six additional miles. That’s insane.

I’ve watched my wife run in five Chicago Marathons as well as a few other marathons. Not once have I felt the urge to join in the fun. Just biking after her during training runs is enough to make me yearn for the comforts of a couch and a TV remote. But I’m obviously being left behind here as thousands of additional souls decide to run a marathon every year.

So, wanting to get some insight into this phenomenon, I called the co-organizers of the Fox Valley Marathon, Dave Sheble and Craig Bixler.

Sheble and I in particular have something in common. For years, he watched his wife run while he stood on the sidelines just like me.

“My wife did them for years,” Sheble said, “and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind; there’s no way.’ ”

Sheble ultimately decided to get on the course himself, though, running his first marathon in 2004 in Chicago. When he set out to do it, he planned on being part of the fabled “one and done” club.

“Here we are seven years later, though, and my how things have changed,” he said. Sheble has run a number of marathons along with helping others achieve their marathon goals through his involvement with the Fox Valley Marathon.

But, why? I still don’t understand why.

“Some people have described it as ‘the ultimate challenge,’ ” Sheble said. “You just have to have the commitment. There is a reason they call this an endurance sport. You have to endure the race. … It’s controllable. In today’s environment, how many things are really controllable? But running is.”

Bixler, the other co-organizer of the Fox Valley Marathon, agreed with this idea.

“Times are tough and people need to feel good about themselves,” Bixler said. “They’re having life-changing events, and they need to get a handle of themselves and their lives and have something to feel good about. … It doesn’t matter whether you run it in two and a half hours or six and a half hours, you still did it.”

Bixler, who has been running marathons since his first one while in college in 1980, still remembers finishing his first marathon.

“It was an internal challenge,” he said. “ ‘Hey, can I go out there and do this?’ Whenever you set your mind out to do something and you accomplish it, you always feel great.

Setting a tough goal. Accomplishing it. Being in control of that accomplishment. What can beat that? So few things are in our control. The economy is not in our control. Our health is only so much in our control. But when out on a marathon course, barring injury, you’re in control. You decide whether to stop and give up or to finish the race, to finish the seemingly impossible 26.2 miles.

“The hardest thing is to make the commitment to do it,” Sheble said. “The miracle is not that I finished; it’s that I had the courage to start.”

Both Sheble and Bixler said just about anybody could do a marathon. You don’t need to be an athlete. You don’t need to be in the prime of your life. You just need to have the commitment. You just need to have the desire to control this one thing in your life.

I’ve never seen myself running a marathon. In all honesty, I still can’t. I remember running a 5K and thinking to myself during the race, “This is the worst thing in the world. I paid to do this? Am I insane?” A marathon is eight 5Ks run consecutively and then a little more.

But then again, I also remember finishing the 5K. That sense of accomplishment at having finished something I set out to do. Outkicking the 9-year-old girl down the stretch so I didn’t lose all my pride. And finishing a marathon, well, I suppose I would have to multiply that feeling by eight.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s a goal worth striving for.

Joe Grace is a former editor of the Kane County Chronicle who will occasionally drop in. You can write to him at joewriter81@gmail.com and follow his writings at http://www.joegrace.blogspot.com.

Column: Thankful for the bountiful harvest

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Sept. 30, 2011

Harvest time has always been a time for celebration. It’s a tradition that continues today.

Across the nation, cities and organizations host fall and harvest festivals in October in which people wander around, eat copious amounts of unhealthy food and go on whirling, twirling carnival rides – just as our ancestors would have wanted.

But as we move further away from our agricultural roots, we tend to forget the origins of October festivals.

In St. Charles, there is Scarecrow Fest – also known as “The Original Illinois Scarecrow Festival,” just in case, you know, some other city tries to hone in on its girl – which will be held from Oct. 7-9 in the downtown area.

It will host more than 150 scarecrows decorated in all kinds of crazy costumes. And, of course, there will be the usual festival fare such as a carnival, food and arts and crafts.

Scarecrows at least have a tie to farming. Historically, they have been used to either scare crows from eating up all the crops (hence the name) or to help guide Dorothy down the yellow brick road. Helpful creatures, those scarecrows.

Then we have Batfest in Batavia, which will be held on Oct. 22 on the Batavia Riverwalk.

While I understand why it’s called BatFest, I still don’t like the mental imagery of thousands of bats descending upon the city to wreak havoc.

There’s simply not much harvest symbolism in naming a festival after the winged, scary part of a city’s name (thought I suppose it’s better than AviaFest), but the best thing about it this year will be the zombie walk, which costs $10 to participate in, also known as money well spent.

A fall festival celebrating the undead? I love it! You want to make a name for yourself, Batavia? Next year, change the name from BatFest to ZombieFest and watch as people pour in. (This is probably why I don’t work in marketing.)

If you are looking for something a little more harvest-y, though, there is the appropriately named Harvest Days, which will be held from 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday at Garfield Farm Museum, 3N016 Garfield Road, Campton Hills.

“We’re reflecting when the harvest was a significant event among communities,” said Jerome Johnson, executive director of Garfield Farm. “What we show with various demonstrations is how it took a lot of work to produce your daily bread and everyone was very dependent on that system to work and work well.”

Harvest Days is all about learning the realities of rural life as seen through the eyes of an 1840s working farm. With many fall festivals focused on things such as scarecrows and zombies, it can be easy to forget what celebrating the harvest really is about.

Essentially, it’s about survival. (OK, celebrating zombies is about survival too, but more in a sawed-off shotgun kind of way.)

Our ancestors went nuts celebrating the harvest because it meant they had a better chance of surviving the winter.

That’s hard to comprehend in today’s America where grocery stores sometimes are located across the street from each other and food is omnipresent for most.

And while the harvest remains important to farmers, the average American simply doesn’t think about it.

But, if you’re looking for a reminder, watching wheat run through a fanning mill at Harvest Days isn’t a bad start. Sure, it’s not as fancy or probably as interesting as dressed-up scarecrows and zombies, but sometimes it’s important to remember our heritage and how thankful we should be that we aren’t so dependent on an individual harvest anymore.

“The good news is we’re able to produce large parts of food … in part due to science and technology,” Johnson said. “But it also means that the harvest doesn’t have the same role it once did when you could actually see the results of your hard work throughout the years.”

Kane County is on the edge of the rural/suburban divide and Garfield Farm lies as close to the current dividing line as you can get. Johnson grew up just a mile and a half from the museum and has seen the area transform each year from rural to suburban. But even he is two generations removed from farming. Today’s children, even more so.

I think it’s especially important for children to get a sense of the harvest – that is does not just mean putting a few quarters in a machine and having a Kit Kat bar pop out. There might be an ancient celebration for that type of harvest, but it would probably be terrifying.

“Any child growing up on a farm, when they bring an egg in from the hen house and place it on the kitchen table, they can see how they are contributing to the family’s welfare,” Johnson said. “Here, you have this opportunity to expose young people to things they might not see anymore. You have a lot of suburban children where their whole experience is a cookie-cutter suburban lifestyle.”

There’s nothing wrong with the suburban lifestyle. I have certainly enjoyed it. But it’s important to remember our agricultural past. So, this year, when you’re munching on fair food, hanging out at Garfield Farm, walking through costumed scarecrows or – maybe best yet – traipsing through Batavia dressed up as a zombie, take some time to reflect on and celebrate how thankful we should be that food is as plentiful as it is. While it’s no longer the 1840s – as the zombie parade surely can attest to – even in 2011 we remain thankful for the bountiful harvest around us.

Joe Grace is a former editor of the Kane County Chronicle who will occasionally drop in. You can write to him at joewriter81@gmail.com and follow his writings at http://www.joegrace.blogspot.com.

Column: Ready for the next chapter

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Aug. 2, 2011

When I was 4 years old, I wanted to be a cheetah. It turned out that is not a suitable profession for a human being.

When I was 6 years old, I wanted to be an artist. It turned out that is not a suitable profession for a human being who can’t draw well. Had I been a caveman, maybe my pictures of unintentionally deformed dogs, cows and cheetahs might have won me popular acclaim. Sadly, I was born about 10,000 years too late.

Finally, when I was 8, I stumbled upon writing. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since.

And it’s why, after three years, I have decided to leave the Kane County Chronicle.

While I got into journalism as a way to earn money while writing, as my career has progressed, I’ve done less and less writing – and more specifically – less and less of the creative writing I love to do.

An editor of a daily newspaper is responsible for everything involved with the editorial aspect of the print and online versions of the paper. With that comes little time for writing.

So – with my wonderful wife’s blessing – I’m taking a year to devote myself to writing. I have a couple of unfinished books to complete, and I hope to get through one or two more projects during that time, as well. If things go well, maybe one day I’ll be published. If not, well then at least I tried.

With all that said, I have very much enjoyed my three years as editor of the Kane County Chronicle.

Much has changed in those three years, and I am proud of what we have achieved. I leave a paper with a tremendous future, and I am confident that my successor, Kathy Gresey, will bring the Kane County Chronicle to even greater heights. She was my assistant managing editor when I was managing editor of the Lake County Journals – and I can attest to her passion for community journalism.

While I am excited about my future, there is so much I will miss about working for the Kane County Chronicle.

I could not have asked for a better staff. The reporters, photographers and designers have made working here a joy. They are a fantastic group dedicated to their profession and putting out the best paper possible. And they will continue to do so after I’m gone.

I doubt I could have asked for a better community to cover. This is a beautiful area with residents who consistently impressed me with their generosity and love of their towns. I have met so many wonderful people in my time as editor and wish I had the time to thank everyone who has been there for me when needed. I will not get the chance to say thank you and goodbye in person to most of you, but my gratitude is present nonetheless.

Finally, my mantra since I became editor is that this is your paper, dear readers. Ultimately, you decide through your letters, emails, phone calls and subscriptions what this paper will be. Continue to let us know when we succeed. Continue to let us know when we fail. We are nothing without our readers, and I thank all of you who have been with me during my journey as editor. It is you, most of all, who have made these past three years well worth it. Thank you so much.

Joe Grace is the former editor of the Kane County Chronicle. Write to him at joewriter81@gmail.com.