In my experience, journalism is not a field that lends itself to forming friendships, at least not between journalists and the people they cover.
But I was happy to call Dan Braun, the head of youth services for the Worth Public Library District, a friend — and one of the few good ones I’ve made through this profession. For those of you who don’t know, Dan died last week at the age of 35, leaving behind a wife, a 2-month-old daughter and countless friends.
I vividly remember my first encounter with Dan. I was writing for The Reporter, and editor Jason Maholy sent me over to the library to cover an event Dan was hosting. I introduced myself and took a few photos, and then Dan pulled me aside.
He asked me if Jason had something against Worth’s library — for the record, he didn’t and doesn’t, as far as I’m aware, and I told Dan so — because he didn’t think they were getting enough coverage. As a defensive and snarky young journalist, I reminded him that we covered six towns and had limited space.
But I think what took me by surprise most was how forward he was about the matter, and I wondered why he thought he could pull me aside and trust me with this question. For all he knew, I could have run back to my boss and said, “You wouldn’t believe this jerk over at the library …”
Maybe by his design, after that encounter I took more of an interest in what he was doing at the library. I know I lobbied to cover some of his events, as I watched him put on incredibly well-attended video game tournaments, an annual ice cream social that seemed to bring out the entire community, and storytimes for which he showed no shame in creating a variety of character voices.
As I continued to cover the library, I got to know Dan better. And I started to realize why he was so concerned about getting attention for his events. He was doing something special, and he wanted as many people to know about it as possible — not as a matter of self-aggrandizement but for the opportunity to touch more people with his programs.
Dan was someone who never approached the library as a job; he was someone who showed up week after week because he cared deeply for the children he served. I cannot remember a single day I stopped by the library in the late afternoon to say “hi” that I didn’t see a line of bicycles and skateboards out front, and a crowd of children surrounding him inside asking him about books, sharing stories about their days and bouncing ideas off him.
Dan was someone who saw the Worth Public Library as something of an underdog. It isn’t quite as big as some of the other area libraries. It isn’t as well-funded. And its staff isn’t as large. But he recognized he could still make a difference, not only by pioneering new programs but also by connecting with the children and teens.
And Dan made those connections by relating to the youths in a way few adults can. Dan didn’t lower himself to the level of children; he spoke to them with respect and on an equal level. By the same token, he didn’t act like a child to endear himself to them; he showed them how you can be an adult and still have fun. And so the connections he made were real, and the children came — activities or not — because they wanted to be around him. And in the process they found themselves enjoying their time at a library.
I will remember Dan for many things. I will remember playing games like “Gears of War” and “Left 4 Dead” with him online. I will remember how we wrote and argued about those games. I will remember the time we went to the Bears Expo and kicked field goals at Soldier Field. I will remember hanging out at his condo in Oak Lawn, and so much more.
But really, it will always be his work at the library that I’ll remember him for most. Dan was someone who saw he had a rare opportunity to make a difference and gave it everything he had. He had a passion that was nothing short of inspirational. And though the library, and life in general, will be a lesser experience without Dan around, my hope is that the children he connected with will continue to remember him, continue to recognize that the relationship they had was truly one-of-a-kind, and continue to visit the library. I think that’s what he would have wanted.
And for everyone else who encountered Dan, I don’t think I need to write anything else. I’m sure you all have your own stories and memories of Dan, and if you do, you already know that he will be impossible to forget.
Bill Jones is a former staff writer for The Reporter. He is the editor of the Homer Horizon and assistant managing editor for Orland Park-based 22nd Century Media.