Midwest supper clubs, The Staple Singers, and minor league baseball. Newspapers, radio, documentaries, books and blogs. Dave Hoekstra is omnivorous in his approach to journalism, and the kinds of stories he likes to tell.
Throughout it all? “Community and sense of place are really the thing that, I think, ties all my work together,”said Dave when we talked in February, at Star Lounge in West Town–the city neighborhood he lived in the longest until his recent move to Westchester, Ill.
He got his first taste of journalism at Naperville Central High School, where he became editor of the school paper. “We weren’t just a mouthpiece for the administration,” said Dave, citing a few stories that got him pulled into the principal’s office. Though he loved writing, “I was a mediocre student,” he said. Instead of college he jumped directly into the field, with a gig at the Aurora Beacon News. “It was all, really, I wanted to do.”
It was a choice that stuck. Before long, Dave would move to the Chicago Sun-Times, where he’d stay for nearly 30 years, as a columnist-critic. Then in 2014, in what Dave described as the most unexpected turn his career’s taken so far, he began hosting his own show, “Nocturnal Journal,” on WGN-720 AM Radio. On paper and on air, he told stories about local lore, music, travel, sports, and food–but always focused on people and culture.
Today, Dave’s been out of the newspaper business for a few years, and “Nocturnal Journal” was one of the casualties of the recent sale of WGN to Nexstar. “It hasn’t been great financially,” he said, but having a wide appetite for work has been a positive for Hoekstra. “This was a great newspaper town, back when newspapers were more of a thing.” But, he said, “it’s dangerous to let it become your identity.”
What he calls “the afterlife of journalism” seems to suit him just fine–and keep him busy. He’s written books on the farm aid movement, camper culture, and soul food and the civil rights movement. He’s worked on some documentary films, including “The Center of Nowhere: The Spirit and Sounds of Springfield, Missouri,” about “America’s most overlooked music scene.” Currently in post-production, Dave calls it “a labor of love, and faith, and fellowship.” He’s also finishing a book on multigenerational independent family newspapers, due to come out in 2021. “This is not just a journalism book. It’s about community.”
Dave was awarded the Studs Terkel Community Media Award in 2013. I asked him about Studs, whose visage gazed out at us from the cover of the 2013 program. “I keep looking at him,” he laughed. He said he didn’t know him well personally, but admired him as an interviewer. “You could tell he got people to open up to him. I mean, he was so colorful.” I asked Dave what he thinks makes a good interviewer. “Listening, and research,” he said simply. “Space is okay,” he added. “Let somebody collect their thoughts. Don’t make it about you.”
Reading a piece by Dave Hoekstra, you’re always along for a good ride. You don’t get a sense that he’s trying to get to a particular point, as much as he’s just telling a story. On April 7, local and national country-folk hero John Prine died at age 73, after a struggle with COVID-19. Dave wrote a remembrance on his blog. “John was born on Oct. 10, 1946, in Maywood. He grew up in a Maywood house framed by humble walls. His father William Mason “Bill” Prine was a tool and die maker in Chicago’s western suburbs from the 1930s through the early 1970s,” he wrote. “After his shift Bill Prine, Sr. would adjourn to the front porch of his frame house on First Avenue in Maywood. He’d enjoy a quart of Old Style. And then he would watch the world go by.”
The 26th Annual Studs Terkel Community Media Awards will take place on Thursday, September 24, 2020. Nominations are open now through May 31–go to bit.ly/Terkel2020 to review guidelines and nominate a community-driven Chicago journalist.