He’s Dead, And Life Is Possible. He Made It Possible.

Les Brownlee, 1915-2005

An African-American pioneer in mainstream broadcast and print media in the 1950s, Lester H. Brownlee became a mentor to thousands as a journalism professor at Columbia College.

Mr. Brownlee’s journalism career began as a reporter for Ebony Magazine, followed by the Chicago Defender. In 1950, he was the first black reporter to join the staff of the Chicago Daily News. Over the years he also worked for several radio stations, including WBBM, and television stations, including WLS-TV, where in 1975 he won an Emmy Award for editorial writing.

Mr. Brownlee, 90, the first African-American inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists and the first African-American president of the Chicago Headline Club, died of complications from lung cancer Monday, Nov. 21.


“Les was very keen on community journalism,” said Nancy Day, chair of the college’s journalism department, “in terms of getting out into the neighborhoods that he felt were uncovered by the major media … he wanted to expand the definition of who and what was covered.”

“He was a great teacher, but also just a very nurturing role model.”

I have a sort of collection in my head, a Bartlet’s Quotations of good advice I’ve gotten from people over the years. The first entry in that collection came from Brownlee.

I was sixteen, that summer between my junior and senior years of high school, and got a brochure from Columbia College in Chicago (a whole world away, a strange planet from my small Wisconsin town) about a journalism class for high school students. Two days a week, I could take the train to the city, walk eight blocks from the station to the college, and learn about reporting. Pitchforks and torches couldn’t have kept me away.

Les Brownlee taught that class.

The very first day, Brownlee said, “Don’t ever say you’re too tired. Have you fallen down and gone to sleep yet? Then you’re not really tired.” At the time, I laughed, as did all his other students. I thought he was kidding.

I would remember it later, when I had been going for three days without a break, when I thought, screw this, I just can’t take it anymore. I’d hear his voice, ask myself, have you fallen down and gone to sleep yet?

There were about a dozen of us in the class, from all over the city and the suburbs and me from the cow town, and Brownlee did another important thing when he encouraged us to talk to one another, to share stories about home and family as well as the usual bitching about homework assignments. It was a great lesson in journalism, that your job is not just to interview the person in front of you, to ask questions and get answers. It’s to find out their story, to listen, observe. He taught us that everything was interesting, everything was part of the story.

Anytime anybody had a question, he’d answer it. He’d been in the field, he knew what went on: how to get a job, how to deal with an editor, that you had to write something so that it would make people stop in their tracks and put down their morning bacon. And until the last time my husband and I moved, we still got a Christmas card from him, every year.