Andrew Patner liked to toss around words like “polymath.”
Which, according to Webster’s, “is a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning.” (If you already didn’t know that 🙂 .)
In a review of the documentary “Wagner & Me” (2010), Andrew once wrote: “Many writers and musicians have spoken of ‘The Wagner Effect,’ the way the unique harmonies and long, seemingly endless, lines of Wagner’s grand 19th century operas grab certain listeners and stir, even transform, their souls. It’s not surprising that one of those affected so by the composer and dramatist is the British polymath Stephen Fry. In Patrick McGrady’s 2010 documentary on Fry’s fascination, ‘Wagner & Me,’ we hear the actor, writer, director, television host, comedian, mental-health advocate and gay rights activist recall his grandfather playing for him, at age 11, a vinyl recording of the overture to ‘Tannhauser’ and falling under its yearning spell.”
Or this passage, from a 1999 recital review: “Many artists provide us with links to musicians or styles of the past, either through their own studies or influences. But few performers provide as tangible a link to a vanished world as the great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel. Though he was born a dozen years after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this bookish polyglot and polymath represents old Middle European culture, with its visions of loyalty and integrity cloaked in a fog of nostalgia and slight eccentricity.”
The irony is that if anyone ever defined the word “polymath,” it was Andrew Patner himself. He seemingly knew everything, from classical music, opera, literature, visual arts, architecture, theater, film and dance, which he covered for WFMT-FM, the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ-FM, Chicago magazine and the Wall Street Journal, to politics, labor history, the civil rights movement, world affairs. He didn’t officially report on the latter fields (to my knowledge), but he used his extensive knowledge of these realms to inform his journalism.
One of the last times I saw him, before his shocking and untimely death Feb. 3 of a sudden infection, was at Orchestra Hall, virtually his home away from home. Andrew and Tom Bachtell, his longtime partner, were seated across the aisle from me in the lower balcony (their favorite spot in the hall). Before the concert began, I asked Andrew about the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, which had happened earlier that day. I admitted that I’d never heard of the French satirical magazine (probably like most Americans). Andrew of course was familiar with the publication, and before the downbeat, gave me a detailed summary of the magazine’s history and significance.
Despite such deep reserves of knowledge, he never used his intellect like a cudgel. His weapon of choice was usually his unmatched sense of wit. Two weeks ago, again at Orchestra Hall, I ran into him at intermission, and before I could even say hi, he started in: “So what did you think of that?” He proceeded to rattle off a string of hilarious comparisons, ending with, “It’s like Elgar meets the June Taylor Dancers.” Classic Andrew. I often imagined he could have been Lenny Bruce (without the substance-abuse issues) in another life.
Of course, genius often comes with a price. To quote again from his 1999 review (cited above): “… Its visions of loyalty and integrity cloaked in a fog of nostalgia and slight eccentricity.” Andrew embraced his eccentricities. He insisted on always being called Andrew. There would be no Andy or any other diminutives like Ange (as Barney Fife used to call his partner in crime enforcement). For years, he favored leather tie-up oxfords without socks, and seemingly dressed just in jeans and a checked shirt — or black tie. He used to brag about not owning a television and refused to carry a cellphone. (After finally giving into the 21st century, he bought an iPad and never went anywhere without it.)
And he was legendary for his lateness. He never met a deadline that he didn’t think he could finesse. At the Sun-Times, where I was his editor for years, he was notorious for a litany of “the dog ate my homework”-type of excuses. After one blown deadline, I cried out in exasperation, “That’s the last story that Andrew Patner is ever writing for me.” One of my fellow assignment editors sprang up, hurriedly transcribed my words on to a Post-It note and pasted it to my computer terminal.
The Post-It note collected dust while Andrew continued to write for the paper. His chronic lateness and disorganization (he went years without filing invoices) didn’t matter. As one of his friends (and journalistic proteges) Bryant Manning once observed, “It’s all just part and parcel of his genius.”
Back to the subject of socks. Eventually, after years of shunning them, Andrew started wearing red ones, just as Studs Terkel, his longtime friend and colleague, used to. Along with Roger Ebert, there was no one whom Andrew revered more in the Chicago journalism community than Studs. Andrew modeled his own sense of personal and professional integrity on Mr. Terkel, and they were close friends until Studs’ death in 2008.
In the many tributes to Andrew made over the last week, Studs’ name often cropped up. Steve Robinson, general manager of WFMT-FM, recalled on “Chicago Tonight” that “Studs said Andrew was his worthy successor” and that “he never knew anyone who knew so much about all the arts as Andrew.” And a reader commenting on Robert Feder’s media blog wrote, “I believe he [Andrew] was the true successor to Studs Terkel — that level of eclecticism, love of all the arts, belief in people power.”
Just last week, the winners of this year’s Studs Terkel Community Media Awards were announced. The awards are given annually to “journalists who go the extra mile to report news from the people who made Chicago, news that’s bottom up, rather than up, down,” as Studs Terkel announced at the 2007 ceremony. “That’s what this is all about.”
Many of Andrew’s friends wondered when his name would be added to the list of honorees. After all, who was more worthy? With his distinctive brand of journalism, Andrew Patner generated his own “Wagner Effect,” grabbing readers and listeners, and stirring, even transforming, their souls.
After the names were announced last week, Andrew sent out an email with the subject line “The 26th consecutive year that neither Mike Miner [of the Chicago Reader] nor I have …” It was not a complaint or whine. Just a wistful observation.
Maybe the Community Media Workshop, which bestows these awards, might reconsider and honor Andrew posthumously. Through his love of the arts and the city itself, he transformed many souls, including mine, and those of his many friends and followers. As Studs would say, “That’s what this is all about.”
PHOTO: Andrew Patner at the gravesite memorial for Sir Georg Solti. | Todd Rosenberg Photography
Laura Emerick is the digital content editor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.