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As Bill Kurtis leaves CBS, he looks back on a 40-year partnership

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Updated: February 28, 2013 10:12AM

Walter Jacobson and I close out our contract with CBS station WBBM-TV today after 2 1/2 years “back in the saddle.”

What started as a fun moment of nostalgia one night developed into a chance for us to take one more turn around the track. What a wonderful opportunity. Not many people get a chance to repeat the “magic” portion of their lives.

Our time as co-anchors started in 1973, and it’s almost 40 years to the very day we walked on the set and said, “I’m going to anchor with him?” It turned into the closest working friendship either of us ever had.

A journalist enjoys a privileged position. In exchange for not being able to participate in the rough-and-tumble issues of a community, we are given license to observe it all, based on the understanding that we’ll tell everyone what happens fairly and squarely. That’s harder than it sounds. We can come close to truth from our vantage point outside the tent, but rarely do we get access inside. When we do, we can change history by communicating injustice to those people with the power to do something about it.

I would list two stories in my quiver that might qualify. Agent Orange contamination of Vietnam veterans. The story has been alive since 1978. The recipients of veteran’s benefits number several hundred thousand by now. The Richard Speck tapes in 1996. Revealing his freedom inside the walls of Stateville Correctional Center resulted in the most sweeping changes to the Illinois penal system in its history.

In 40 years, everything has changed and nothing at all. The city is still a brawling, noisy old girl. (Oops, not politically correct. That’s one change.) Politics is still the No. 1 sport in town and the scoreboard shows the U.S. attorney’s office leading. Spring will ignite more trees and flowers than four decades ago, but will also bring a new phenomenon: a silence uncharacteristic of our neighborhoods.

For Rachel Carson, a silent spring meant that birds were dying of chemicals in the environment. Chicago’s silent spring means that our streets have fewer children playing in the yards. They are afraid to play outside. The “village” that used to raise a child through adolescence has disappeared. Fathers have left the home. Teachers can’t help because the boys have left school. The models of what a man should be just aren’t there. The first boss. A pastor. A coach. An uncle. Any adult that goes to work in the morning and comes home at night for dinner. Single mothers are holding this world together, but they are overwhelmed and know their children are at risk from the moment they leave the house.

In the old days, we’d hear, “I grew up in a tough neighborhood.” A fistfight on a corner was a tough neighborhood. Today, “tough” is a burst of hollow points from a 9 mm handgun. The phrase “collateral damage” has entered the lexicon of the street, and it means “children down.”

I have faith in my city. It will prevail. I just hope it will be without too many casualties.

From the vantage point of 70-plus years, both Walter and I have been very, very lucky to have worked for CBS and given a box seat to the most exciting, progressive city in the world. Thank you.

Bill Kurtis donated his fee for writing this column to Openlands,

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