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January 8, 2008

‘What the hell were you thinking?’

Somewhere among my file of yellowing newspaper clippings is a Louisville Times column from the late-1970s. It is a column written by Bob Schulman about the then-very young Louisville Today magazine (1976-82) that I was publishing. Bob was the media critic for the community’s afternoon newspaper — a role that is on the endangered species list today — and what he opined mattered.Schulman wrote what he thought, and he thought seriously, which was why people paid attention. He was not gentle or diplomatic, whether he was writing about his own employers — the Bingham family — or anyone else who dared to solicit the public’s trust. On this occasion, he was not gentle toward Louisville Today.His comments about my venture were not personal, and as I read his criticisms, as well as his compliments, I clearly realized that his purpose was not to show how smart he was (well, not his primary purpose anyway). No, he was trying to make me a better publisher and make Louisville Today a better magazine.In that way, Bob Schulman had a special gift, an incredible intellect and a generous spirit that always served as a justification for his meddling. Yes, if you knew Bob, you were always subject to his opinions, wanted or not. And if you were a little miffed that he called you out of the blue to give you his refined version of “What the hell were you thinking?,” you soon felt grateful that Bob Schulman cared enough to give you the benefit of his insight.Many relatively new readers of LEO will not remember that Bob Schulman, who left us this weekend at the age of 91, was one of its “founding editors.” When I was assembling the cast of characters who would help me launch this publication, Bob was at the top of my recruiting list. I knew that his involvement would give any new media venture instant credibility, and he certainly did that for us.In those early days, Bob’s was one of the five local voices that formed LEO’s core content. Each issue, then every two weeks, featured Bob’s musings about politics, a book, a play, a trip he and Louise had taken, an item from the cultural landscape. In a very real way, Bob embodied the eccentricity promised by the paper’s name. He wrote with a gleam in his eye and mischief in his words. Even then, well into his eighth decade, he engaged with the spirit of a 20-year old. He saw humor and irony in the darkest of places, but he had a hard time being cavalier about anything.More than anything else, he was the conscience of the paper, an internal gyroscope for me and the staff. Even when he stopped writing, he was always ready with guidance when asked, and frequently when not. It is not a stretch to say that LEO would be a very different publication, if it had survived, without Bob Schulman.But Bob Schulman’s footprint was felt throughout the community. When most would be long retired, he was playing an important role in U of L’s Arts & Sciences department, mentoring young journalists as adviser to The Louisville Cardinal, bantering on public radio as one of the “Killer B’s,” and serving as a very active director of the Society of Professional Journalists. He never stopped giving, and caring, and thinking about the world. In fact, as I reflected on our relationship, I cannot remember ever hearing him talk about himself. It’s impossible to know whether he considered his mind to be a gift to the world, but I know many did, and I’m one of them.Too often when people leave our lives, we reflexively say that they will be missed. It is hard for me to imagine the world without Bob Schulman’s light. It is hard to accept that I will never again pick up the phone, and hear Bob’s unmistakable voice ask me what the hell I was thinking. All I know is that if God has a team of advisers, Bob most certainly is at the table.