A beloved columnist, reporter and all-around good guy from the Kankakee area died last week, and you should care.
Dennis Yohnka was my colleague for four years at the Daily Journal, which covers Kankakee and other cities within about a 20-mile radius. Sadly, he died unexpectedly on Aug. 15 at age 68.
Now, it would be selfish of me to sit here and say Dennis and I were best buddies, to make more of our relationship after he died. But, we did work together on a few editorial projects over the years.
Specifically, Dennis introduced me to the Kankakee County Speedway, where, to be honest, as a city boy in his mid-20s dressed in a shirt and tie, I felt a little out of place. That was especially true in the pit area, where visitors must watch every step to avoid car parts, oil and whatever else drivers have back there. I still don’t really know.
Dennis shined at the speedway. I tagged along with him for several Friday nights during the summer of 2011, when I was in my first year at the Journal and ready and willing to cover anything. The stock-car racing scene might as well have been on another planet for me. But, I watched Dennis roam around the pits and interact with just about every driver.
Then we hung out in a wooden press box that felt more like a treehouse, where Dennis’ son, Bill, served as the announcer over the public address system. When the two talked about the races, I felt like I was listening to a foreign language—but they seemed so happy.
I’m also sure that I annoyed Dennis a few times, including on one occasion where I left the speedway early and went back to the office with his camera, which I used to record some video and an interview. Unfortunately, I never gave it to the layout designer, who needed to use some of Dennis’ photos in the next day’s paper.
When Dennis returned a couple hours later and asked the managing editor and designer if they had received the camera, I could only turn and blush as I realized I still had it on my desk, as I wasn’t quite done with it.
So why should you care about Dennis’ passing? The reason is that it gives pause to remember that there are plenty of members of the media out there who want to hear your stories—who think that your story matters and who aren’t just weaseling around for information.
Two years ago, Dennis wrote about the health struggles and death of an 18-year-old from Bourbonnais named Mikey Santella. Dennis visited the family right when Mikey died, and his column contained great detail about the mood at Mikey’s home—and reflected how strong Dennis’ relationships were with his story subjects.
“I know who was there because I couldn’t stay in the office: I was there, too. I was greeted—not like a pushy reporter—but as a friend of the family.”
To be honest, in an earlier article on Mikey, Dennis had unfortunately spelled his last name as “Santello.” One of my first reactions when I saw a social-media comment about the error was that no one would be that mad—or stay mad for long—at Dennis because he had a remarkable ability to become a friend—and not a pushy reporter—to those he interviewed.
While working at The Beverly Review, I’ve attended many funerals in order to write articles about the deceased. I’ve been thanked for attending a funeral a few times—but let’s be honest, there are plenty of times that I’ve felt uncomfortable, if not guilty, for being there. Here I am at families’ saddest and most vulnerable moments, and in many cases, I don’t even know them. Of course, I am always respectful at the funeral and in writing the story. However, my presence can feel intrusive.
But I know this: Dennis Yohnka would have been great in that role—in fact, I can picture families, amidst their sadness, doling out hugs and thanking him for coming to such a sad personal event. And, God forbid, should I have another funeral to attend, I will think of him and how he always conducted himself with professionalism and compassion.
I know the Daily Journal has a huge void right now, both in the staff’s hearts and on its pages, that it probably can never fill. Any newspaper would be lucky to have a Dennis Yohnka, whose articles and features always made people stop and read. I even enjoyed reading his stock-car racing stories, which he could file in mere minutes under tight deadlines on Friday nights.
The “mainstream media” catches a lot of flack, and some of it is justified.
However, always remember, there are many media members on your side.
Instead of “pushy reporters,” most times we’d much rather be considered a friend.