J.A. Lobbia: A Tribute

Lobbia's impact on this newspaper was without parallel

Nov 28, 2001 at 4:00 am
I believe I hear a voice from heaven, and the message is loud and clear:

"Don't write this. Don't you dare write this. I mean it. I'm gonna come down and haunt you if you write about me. Isn't there some new stadium angle you can think up? Better yet, run letters. That's always a good choice in your case."

Sorry, Julie Lobbia -- this one's for you.

Julie died last week on Thanksgiving Day, taken from us by ovarian cancer at 43, and, like the countless number of friends she touched, I want the whole world to know what it has lost: one great reporter -- albeit a self-effacing one -- and as pure a soul as any of us has ever known.

I realize that most Riverfront Times readers didn't know Julie personally, but, gratuitous as this might be, I'll beg your indulgence anyhow. After all, this was a person who cared deeply about strangers, people she had never met.

It would be fitting if, at her death, a few strangers could care about her in return.

Julie worked at the RFT from 1983-90, first as a reporter and ultimately -- and reluctantly -- as managing editor. Her impact on the development of this newspaper was without parallel: Though the paper was founded in 1977, it only began attempting to take on serious journalistic topics three years later, and it only started doing it consistently well when the byline "J.A. Lobbia" showed up.

At the RFT, she authored hundreds of stories (dozens featured on the cover) on a multitude of subjects, but if there was a common thread in her journalism, it was the tenacity with which she stood up for the little guy. If ever a reporter lived up to the old adage "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," it was J.A. Lobbia.

Her investigative pieces over three years about how public funds were being wasted on the VP Fair led to an end to that practice, and the savings to taxpayers -- arguably continuing today -- was in the millions. She championed the causes of tenants, gays and lesbians, racial minorities, a whistleblower fired by the county, you name it: The list is endless.

Lobbia specialized in environmental stories, producing incisive probes into the dangers of hazardous-waste storage on the East Side and at the airport and of threats to drinking water in Valley Park. Much of her work was prescient: She questioned Monsanto's budding biotech forays as early as 1985 and federal plans to make St. Louis is a "hub for nuclear garbage" in 1987.

By the time Julie left for a prestigious spot at the Village Voice in New York, she had been an editorial mainstay at the RFT for almost all of its serious editorial life. Yet her only career was just beginning: As a reporter and columnist, focusing mostly on housing and tenants-rights issues, she became one of New York's most respected journalists.

"Her columns gave dignified voice to New York's most vulnerable citizens -- the homeless, the elderly, immigrants, displaced artists, community gardeners," said Andrea Kannapell, a New York Times reporter who had worked with her at the Voice. New city, same J.A. Lobbia.

Proudly displayed next to her casket at the funeral home on Monday was a reproduction of a 1999 Voice cover story authored by Lobbia, taking Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and others to task for allowing politics to jeopardize programs for the needy. "Heartless Bastards" proclaimed the headline.

It was a fitting sendoff for a journalist whose ferocious column, "Towers and Tenements," won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen's Club of New York. The Society of Professional Journalists gave her a Best Columnist Award and a Golden Typewriter Award, and on and on.

But what made Julie special wasn't the awards she won, at the RFT or at the Voice, but how she won them: with utter humility. At the funeral home, in Julie's native city of Chicago, one of her sisters told me that their wonderful mother did have an unanswered question:

"She was so proud of Julie's awards," Lori Lobbia told me, "but she was wondering about how many there were that Julie didn't tell her about."

Never has there lived a person more unjustifiably devoid of ego. She could always take a joke but never a compliment.

Ah yes, the jokes. If there's anything I treasure from nearly two decades of friendship with this most serious journalist, it's that it was so joyfully not serious. Our relationship was essentially a running mutual short joke -- I figure she was about 4-foot-3, and she had me at 4-foot-9 -- and, as it was for so many others, she always made me smile.

Actually standing a little under 5 feet tall, clad -- how shall we put this? -- in a less-than-imposing manner, diminutive Julie was a journalistic Columbo, pleasantly disheveled, harmless as a flea on the surface. Meeting her would hardly strike fear in the heart of a greedy developer or oppressive landlord (especially if they'd showed up at the RFT, where she usually hung out in a cluttered office with her shoes off, looking like a junior-high kid at a slumber party).

That is, until the story came out. At first glance, this might have seemed like just some cute little Italian girl, but beneath that beguiling exterior lived a fearless, thorough, tireless, honest, world-class reporter.

Julie was a ball of glorious paradoxes, except one: Her commitment to helping the less fortunate in her journalism was matched by a private life filled with giving and charity the likes of which I've never seen. She didn't contain an ounce of meanness or prejudice, and she really cared.

No wonder her beloved husband, Joseph S. Jesselli -- a fellow journalist whom she met at the Voice -- was proud when people called him Mr. Lobbia. No wonder her best friend, Jeff Truesdell, eulogized her on Tuesday as "an unbelievable woman, the absolute kindest person in the world."

I love you, Julie Lobbia, and so do a hell of a lot of other people. The world will miss you more than you'd ever have been willing to admit.

Now, go ahead and haunt me all you want.