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The exact date escapes me, but it was a cold December night in 1974. The venue was the Genoa-Kingston High School gymnasium, and it was a basketball game between the host Cogs and the Central Rockets.
I was a senior at Central, now more commonly referred to as Burlington Central, and I had entered a work co-op program in the sports department of the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. Sports Editor Roger Farrell was teaching me the business from the ground up and the assignment to cover that game would be my first byline.
Little did I know then, nor was it in my wildest dreams, that 48 years later I’d be sitting at home in, ironically, Genoa, writing the final column of my sports journalism career.
But as I embark on retirement after today, what you’re reading here is just that.
Where to start? Well, I learned in that six-month stint at the Chronicle this is what I wanted to do — be a sports writer. At that time, I, like many other aspiring scribes just starting out, had plans on covering the Cubs, the Bears … anything pro or college. And I did at times, but I always came back to my passion — high school sports.
After graduating high school, former Elgin Courier-News Sports Editor Stan Shalett gave me my first opportunity to earn a paycheck as a sports writer, allowing me to cover teams and athletes who achieved greatness. The state championship football teams from Hampshire in the 70s, the run of state appearances and titles from the St. Edward girls basketball teams of the 80s and early 90s — it’s a list that goes on and on.
I came to the Daily Herald as a freelancer in 1995 and was fortunate to cover the Elgin High girls basketball run to a state championship game appearance in 1996.
In 1997, as the Herald took more of a foothold in the Fox Valley, I was hired full time and was named Fox Valley Sports Editor, a position I held until 2018 when I took over for my mentor, Aaron Gabriel, as high school sports editor.
Those years in the Fox Valley chair will always be cherished. Hampshire girls basketball, Bartlett girls basketball, Elgin boys basketball, Larkin football, Cary-Grove football and girls volleyball … all teams that had state greatness and some impressive athletes.
Of course, there were some equally fine teams from my alma mater, Burlington Central. The 2009 softball team that took third place at state, the 2014 girls basketball team that was fourth at state, the 2008 girls volleyball team that was second at state, and the football teams of the early 2000s were so much fun to cover.
My time in the Northwest suburbs of Cook County has been rewarding as well. Thanks to all the athletic directors and coaches who helped me make the transition seamlessly.
People often ask me what the biggest changes are I’ve seen in six decades in the newspaper business and without hesitation my answer is: technology.
When I came to the DH full time in 1997, our Elgin office had one computer that was wired for internet access, and you could eat a sandwich and run a couple of miles while waiting for a Web page to load.
People also ask about the best athletes and coaches I’ve covered. I might have to write a book on that subject, because there’s no way I could even begin to name them here.
The Illinois High School Association takes a lot of criticism, some of it warranted, most of it not. My relationship with the IHSA was always on the up-and-up, and for the most part, it was always positive. Elgin High graduate Scott Johnson, Jim Flynn, Marty Hickman, Matt Troha and Craig Anderson remain among the best people I worked with at the IHSA. And, of course, Beth (Hasenmiller) Sauser and I go back to her basketball playing days in the late 1980s at St. Edward:
Beyond covering those teams and all the athletes and coaches I’ve had the privilege of writing about and working with over the years, there have also been so many colleagues within the walls of this business without whom, it would have been impossible to do my job
If I tried to name them all, I would surely miss many, but I do have to single out people like Tom Quinlan, Aaron Gabriel, Don Friske, Marty Maciaszek, Marty Stengle, Mike Smith, John Lampinen and Jim Baumann for their incredible support .
Lindsey Willhite deserves a mention as well. Lindsey and I covered the Kane County Cougars together when they came to town in 1991 — Lindsey for the Herald and me for the Courier. When I was looking for an “in” with the Herald in 1995, I reached out to Lindsey and the rest, as they say, is history.
I had special relationships with those who collaborated with me, including Mike Miazga, Travis Miller, Patricia Babcock McGraw and Jerry Fitzpatrick, as well as John Lemon, who now takes the baton as high school sports editor.
But the one man I owe the most to is Bob Frisk. Bob taught me, and countless others, that high school sports should always be reported on fairly, but with a positivity that college and pro sports don’t have.
That’s something I always strive for in my reporting and something I tried to instill in those I mentored.
I had the good fortune to be inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2001, an honor I was able to share with my dad, who passed away in 2004. Other special honors, such as the Burlington Central Hall of Fame and the IHSA’s Distinguished Media Service Award, came after that. I never set out to be a hall of famer, but now as I close my career, those accolades do become special.
I don’t know what’s on the horizon. I do know I’ll miss this gig. You can’t do what I’ve done for as long as I’ve done it and say you won’t miss it. I can’t imagine not writing more, but in what form and for whom remains to be seen.
So, as I bid adieu for now, I’ve saved my final thanks for you — the readers. Without you, none of us have the incredible opportunity to tell the stories we tell.
Be well, everyone.
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• John Radtke can be reached at email@example.com, or on Facebook.
High school basketball game the spark for Radtke’s career
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