Alumni Interview: Bill Geist
I’m very much a Midwesterner, and I think of myself that way. Very practical. Standard. I’d say I’m normal, but I’m actually from Champaign, and Normal is about 50 miles further west. (That’s an Illinois joke.) For much of my upbringing, I thought of Chicago as different, stranger—and possibly dangerous.
My parents were perfectly conventional people; I’m not sure they ever traveled outside Illinois. They didn’t entirely know what to make of me, and my teachers said I was a disruptor. I just didn’t see that there was anything wrong with fun. It wasn’t until I went to work at the resort lodge owned by my aunt and uncle in the Ozarks that I fell in with people who appreciated that characteristic. I wasn’t lazy or unproductive; I was just ready with a wisecrack or an off-the-wall idea, and the people there liked me for that. I guess we all have a time when our personality gels. My son says the Ozarks is where Bill Geist began.
There was never a question about going to the University of Illinois. Everybody in my family went there; my aunt was the salutatorian of her class. The joke in our family is that my aunt got just one B in college—and so did I. What do you expect when you spend all your time playing pinball? Foreign languages were the worst. I never studied, just crammed before the test. Imagine my dismay when I found out the exams were written in a foreign language. But in high school, I wrote some funny pieces and got encouragement. The same thing happened in college, and I began to think that maybe I could be a writer.
In college, I was encouraged to go into advertising. It was a place where a funny writer could make a living, but it was a little too superficial for me. After graduation, the army sent me to Vietnam. I was a photographer, and I fell in with some journalists. I felt they were kindred spirits. When I came back, I studied journalism at the University of Missouri, then got a job with the suburban Tribune. My goal was always the Trib Tower, the main paper, but the brass always discouraged me. They told me the suburbs were the future. Turns out the Trib Tower is now condos, so they might have been right. After eight years, I grew frustrated, and wrote to newspapers in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Within a week, an editor from The New York Times called and offered me a job. I had some misgivings about going, but then a friend said, ‘The Yankees only call once,’ and I took it.
And it was great! Everybody else at the paper was covering movers and shakers, crises and scandals, and there I was with all the characters in the world’s most dynamic city. I thought of New York as another planet. After four decades living in the New York area, I can say: I was right about that.
I had all these subjects nobody else was paying attention to! And I was the right man for the job. I didn’t take myself seriously. I thought the people were interesting, although they didn’t always think so. But honestly, I prefer the eccentrics. I don’t really relate to the beige Chevette types who toe the line. I don’t like people who don’t take chances.
One day Don Hewitt, the producer of 60 Minutes, called me out of the blue and asked if I had ever thought about being on TV. As it happened, that very morning I had read an article about how Andy Rooney had received a million dollar advance for his latest book, so I was able to say, ‘Why yes, Don, I have thought of it.’ Later the great correspondent Charles Kuralt wooed me. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘it’ll be fun.’ The magic word!
I had no trouble adapting to TV. The producers, on the other hand, had a hell of a time. Every script I wrote was too late and too long. I thought everything was fascinating. After 25 years, I got the hang of it. I learned: Shorter is more fascinating.
We need more fun in the world. It’s an interesting place, but people take themselves too seriously.
The paperback edition of Geist’s latest book, Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America,
about time spent working at his aunt and uncle’s resort, will be out this summer.