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Sometimes life takes you to places you never would have predicted

Ortbals Headshot 1 1 16By ALAN J. ORTBALS
    I’m fascinated by the way some peoples’ careers take turns they never expected — taking them places they never thought they would be.
    For example, there was a man who owned and operated a tavern at the corner of Jefferson and Cherokee streets in south St. Louis. While attending the World’s Fair in 1904, he saw his first motion picture. That got him thinking. He acquired a film and projector, rented the vacant storefront next door, and packed the house. That was the end of the tavern business and the beginning of Wehrenberg Theaters, a fixture on the St. Louis movie scene for more than 100 years.
    Or, back in the 1970s, a couple of 20-somethings, friends since high school, were sitting around shooting the breeze. One of them was unemployed; the other had a job that he hated. The idea of starting their own business came up and they began kicking around ideas. They decided to open a bagel store; went to a local purveyor of used restaurant equipment and asked to see a bagel maker. When the salesman showed it to them, they were taken aback. It was much more than they could afford. Then, one of them asked, How much is that ice cream machine? Their names were Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield and that was the beginning of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.
    My career took a crazy bounce as well. I had spent 25 years in economic and community development, first in St. Louis and then making the jump across the river in 1985. When I made that move, I was like every other Missourian. Illinois was like the dark side of the moon. But, coming across the river I was struck by some very big differences — the development pattern for one.
    On the Missouri side, communities blended together. You could drive down a street like Manchester or Lindbergh and go from one municipality to another, not knowing which one you were in. The Illinois side, on the other hand, was made up of small towns both geographically and socially separate from one another.
    So, when Kerry Smith, a reporter with The Telegraph in Alton, called to tell me that she was considering creating a business publication for the Metro East, I told her that I knew absolutely nothing about the newspaper business but that I loved the idea from an economic development standpoint. I thought such a publication could help bridge those divides and bring the communities of southwestern Illinois together.
    Little did I know that just a few years later I would find myself out of a job for the first time in my adult life. I sent letters to about 150 of my closest friends and acquaintances, letting them know that I was job hunting. I received some interesting responses but one day I received a call that left me speechless. It was Kerry asking if I would be interested in coming to her new paper. I thought that was the most preposterous idea I had ever heard and sat for several moments just staring at the phone. We concluded the conversation and I assumed that would be the end of it.
    When my wife came home from work, I told her about the bizarre call I had received and thought that she would agree with me that the idea was ludicrous. She didn’t. Instead, she said that she thought that it had merit and I should think about it. The more I thought about it the more I liked the idea and finally came to the conclusion that I not only wanted to do it but wanted to buy half of the business.
    That was 16 years ago and over that time I think we built a publication that did indeed bridge the divide, bringing businesses and communities closer together. So that it may continue long into the future, my partner Dennis Grubaugh and I have sold our interest in the Illinois Business Journal to Better Newspapers Inc. of Mascoutah, Ill., publishers of more than 20 newspapers across Illinois and Missouri.
    Dennis and I will still be involved and the Illinois Business Journal will continue to deliver the high quality journalism that’s been our trademark for nearly two decades but this move ensures that the IBJ will continue long after we retire.
    If some fortune teller had told me 17 years ago that I would end up in the newspaper business, I would have told him he was crazy, out of his mind. But, like Fred Wehrenberg, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, I ended up somewhere I never would have predicted.
    Alan J. Ortbals can be reached at or (618) 659-1997.

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