• U.S.

The Press: Blue-Collar Pundit

4 minute read

Eight hours a day, five days a week, Mike LaVelle, 39, works as a hot-pipe bender in a Cicero, Ill., shop. Wielding a 16-lb. sledgehammer, the workman packs sand into lengths of straight pipe that are then heated and bent with a winch. When he isn’t twisting hot metal, LaVelle is sweating over pencil and paper as the newest regular columnist in the Chicago Tribune stable.

LaVelle is something of an oddity even in Chicago’s hardboiled, cigar-chomping newspaper tradition. He quotes Nietzsche and reads Walt Whitman and Jonathan Swift. He bristles with ideas but belittles intellectuals. He declines to romanticize the workingman’s life, offering instead a knowing view of the restive blue-collar world—a world that he believes the typical newspaper columnist cannot understand.

Although his weekly column is only a month old, LaVelle’s introduction to the trade began two years ago when Author Studs Terkel recruited him for neighborhood-tavern discussions that Terkel was filming for the National Education Television network. Once he was assured that Terkel did not want to portray him as a “hardhat brute,” LaVelle agreed to take part. LaVelle’s TV appearances led to a correspondence with the Village Voice and the publication of one of LaVelle’s critical letters in the paper; a Tribune editor asked him to submit his written view of the McGovern candidacy. “I tried to explain that I wasn’t a professional writer,” LaVelle says. “But then they said it pays $75, and so I said, ‘I’m a professional writer.’ ” He makes $7,800 a year bending pipes and has a wife and two small children.

In his maiden effort last August, LaVelle told Tribune readers that the McGovernites were driving off workingmen in droves. He professed himself and his colleagues unmoved by the youngsters who rallied to McGovern’s cause: “The blue-collar Hell’s Angels are hoodlums; the upper-class Weatherman et al. are idealistic ‘kids,’ who are never idealistic enough to demonstrate on campus for mine safety after the live burials of their lesser peers in cave-ins.”

LaVelle’s pungent views caused wide comment and after two more freelance articles he won a six-month contract with the Tribune at $75 a week. Although his right-of-center views fit comfortably in the Tribune’s conservative pages, LaVelle disdains ideology. Some notions from recent columns:

> On political labels: “I do not care for conservatives who are for South Africa, Rhodesia and Greece, or liberals who care for Russia, China or Cuba. I suspect my politics are close to the new Libertarian Party [a Westminster, Colorado-based group opposed to big government] of which I confess almost total ignorance, but I dig the name.”

> On class conflict: “The workingman perennially has been the bane of the intellectuals since he seeks meat on the table before he will sacrifice himself for some vague Utopia.”

> On mores: “I couldn’t care less who’s got long hair or short, or what someone’s particular lifestyle is, with this exception: that it allows others to freely accept or reject it.”

>On Women’s Lib: “I doubt whether I will ever in my lifetime see a woman elected President, but a step in that direction might well be that we leave gender differences on restroom doors and in biology classes where they belong.”

LaVelle is amused by readers who ask skeptically whether he writes his own material: “I tell them, ‘No, I’ve got a trained mother.’ ” He is also mildly disconcerted by the stir his columns have caused: “So here I am, the average man expressing himself in the media, and people look at it as unusual. It says something about the isolation of the media, I think.”

Lately he has considered abandoning his job as a pipe bender to write full time, and he jokingly wonders whether his having dropped out of high school helped or hurt him. “Do you realize the possibilities,” he asks puckishly, “if someone, anyone, had just approached me ten years ago and given me just one more year of schooling? I might have gone to college—and ended up writing greetings for Hallmark cards.”

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