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Issue Date:  March 17, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Retiring in true Unsworth style

Several weeks ago I received a letter from longtime NCR columnist Tim Unsworth in which he said: “After much muddled reflection, I have concluded that it’s time to stick my quill back into the goose and retire from NCR.”

On one level, it came as no surprise. The many NCR readers who have found sustenance and inspiration in his sometimes searing and other times deeply sympathetic depictions of the community called Catholic, or who have frequently smiled and even laughed out loud at his sacred irreverence have noticed he’s not been in our pages very often of late.

In recent years he has pushed through a range of medical problems but says as he approaches 77, “My health is deteriorating rapidly.”

In true Unsworth style, of course, the news of his deterioration comes packaged in lines that make you want to cry and laugh simultaneously. “And now, a recent MRI shows brain shrinkage. We’re testing to see what it means. I am now devouring Aricept, a tiny pill that is virtually guaranteed to unmuddle my brain, which a $2,600 MRI revealed resembles an archipelago of abandoned Pacific islands.

“The final opinion is not yet in and there is much hope. However, those little pills in the bathroom -- a salesman’s sample -- remind me constantly that my brain is becoming a scrambled egg.”

Well, not quite. I spent the better part of a day recently with Tim and his wife, Jean, an accomplished artist, in their home, which doubles as a fascinating gallery of painting, collage and sculpture, including her own and pieces from the far corners of the earth. I am no medical expert, but I can tell you that Tim, though noticeably frail, remains a raconteur of the first order, with wonderful news and stories from long ago, from yesterday and all points in between. So we came to a bit of an agreement: There are no expectations, but should inspiration strike, a page would always be open to him.

In his letter to me he noted that his career here began nearly 24 years ago when he sent in a letter he had written to the newly appointed archbishop of Chicago, Joseph Bernardin.

In his long missive to the new leader, he suggested three top priorities: First, he advised that the soon-to-be cardinal “go to a deli, wait in line and order a salami and Swiss to go,” noticing along the way “a variety of people as interesting as the variety of lunch meats and cheeses behind the counter.”

Next, he suggested that the new archbishop either walk to work or take a bus. “An archbishop on a CTA bus would convert half the bus population.”

Finally, he suggested that the new prelate sell the mansion, the archbishop’s residence, on North State Parkway. “The only people who can afford to live in mansions like that are the archbishop of Chicago and Hugh Hefner. Hefner wants such symbols. You don’t need them.”

That’s how it all began. He sent the letter to NCR because he hadn’t received a reply from Bernardin and didn’t know if he’d seen it. We ran it beginning on the front page. And Bernardin was kind enough to send in a brief response.

“These 24 years,” Tim wrote, “have been most rewarding. They prompted a half dozen books, dozens of TV appearances, articles in other publications and talks galore. … Above all, my NCR link introduced me to extraordinary people, from those still panting from picket lines to those who ringed the pope at audiences. I met enough good people to exhaust all the loaves and fishes without leftovers.”

He concluded: “At Mass each Sunday I hear the Gospel proclaimed. During the week, NCR arrives and I learn how it is being lived out. May this continue.”

A postscript to the letter to Bernardin: “The newly appointed archbishop read the letter at his farewell party when he left Cincinnati for Chicago,” Tim recounted in his recent letter. “The cardinal became a good friend and I basked in his glow.”

I told Tim and Jean that once this was out, they could expect to be the beneficiaries of prayers from far and wide. Feel free to e-mail him at

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006

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