Former Catholic Spirit associate publisher retires

| May 12, 2016 | 4 Comments
When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, left, toured the chancery offices with the media after being named Archbishop of Chicago in 1982, he was interviewed by Bob Zyskowski, who was then managing editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, the Chicago Catholic. James Kilcoyne/Chicago Catholic

When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, left, toured the chancery offices with the media after being named Archbishop of Chicago in 1982, he was interviewed by Bob Zyskowski, who was then managing editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, the Chicago Catholic. James Kilcoyne/Chicago Catholic

As a kid growing up in Chicago, Bob Zyskowski remembers his father reading at least two newspapers a day — something that made an impression about the importance of journalism. He also remembers a certain Catholic periodical in his childhood home — The New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago where Zyskowski would one day serve as managing editor, prior to coming to St. Paul for a job with the Catholic Bulletin, predecessor to The Catholic Spirit.

After 43 years of working in the Catholic press in three states, Zyskowski is retiring May 31. His departure marks the end of an era for The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper he skillfully led for nearly three decades, first as editor and then associate publisher.

“I hope that I’ve inspired people to reach for those lofty goals of bringing people to Jesus and being part of a media organization that touches lives,” said Zyskowski, a parishioner of Transfiguration in Oakdale, who turns 65 May 17.

When he became associate publisher in 1998, The Catholic Spirit was $2.1 million in debt. With help from a dedicated board of directors, circulation and advertising grew and the company worked into the black. Meanwhile, its team of reporters garnered a glut of national awards from the Catholic Press Association. From 2004 to 2009, The Catholic Spirit was consistently ranked among the top three Catholic newspapers in North America.

Zyskowski also served as CPA president from 2007 to 2010, and “was just a promoter” of The Catholic Spirit and Catholic journalism, said Pat Norby, who worked first as a reporter and then news editor for The Catholic Spirit from 1988 to 2014. She applauded his speedy news-writing skills and his overall vision.

“His creative juices were always flowing,” she said. “He’s the one that came up with all these great ideas. . . . He worked as a team leader trying to pull out more ideas and suggestions for stories and special sections.”

She added: “The Catholic press is going to lose someone who has just been a very strong advocate for reaching out to people and being able to promote the Catholic faith in a way that few people do.”

‘More than just a job’

Zyskowski attended Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, initially intending to pursue engineering, but he quickly changed his major to journalism. In high school he had discovered an aptitude for writing and turned to the mentorship of Bradley’s two journalism professors, Jack Fought and Paul Snider, to help him hone his skill.

While in college, he covered sports for the local daily paper, a side-job he would continue after graduation. His first full-time job, however, was with The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria. Snider, a Catholic, knew the paper was hiring and recommended Zyskowski.

Bob Zyskowski accepts the 2011 St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association June 24 in Pittsburgh. CNS / Nancy Wiechec

Bob Zyskowski accepts the 2011 St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association June 24 in Pittsburgh. CNS / Nancy Wiechec

He recalls the interview with the editor, Msgr. R. G. Peters. Two things in his office caught Zyskowski’s eye: a stuffed Arctic grayling and a “Frannie” — the CPA’s St. Francis de Sales Award, given for lifetime achievement in the Catholic press and named for the patron of journalists.

A baseball player, Zyskowski was used to setting goals, and he made earning that statue of St. Francis de Sales his professional aim. It was one he would realize 38 years later, when he was granted the award during the annual Catholic Media Convention for “outstanding contributions to Catholic journalism.”

Zyskowski worked in Peoria for a year before taking a job at The Catholic Standard & Times in Philadelphia. There, under its editor, someday cardinal Msgr. John Foley, Zyskowski worked as the news and sports editor, writing a sports column and covering local stories, including efforts of Catholic school teachers to unionize, which the Archdiocese of Philadelphia opposed.

After three years in Philadelphia, he turned his sights back to Chicago and an open assistant managing editor position. He got the job, but the sports editor — Herb Stutz, nicknamed “The Bearcat” as a nod to the Stutz roadster — at The Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia, where he was also working part time, urged him to stay.

But, Zyskowski recalled, Stutz acknowledged, “sometimes people who work for Church organizations do it because it’s more than just a job.”

That’s when it hit Zyskowski — his work wasn’t just a career, it was a vocation.

“That’s when I really realized that there’s a piece of me that really needs to be doing this, that God wants  me to be doing this work,” he said, “but it took a Baptist guy named ‘Stutz the Bearcat’ to point it out to me.”

In Chicago, Zyskowski oversaw the paper’s transition from The New World to the Chicago Catholic, redesigning it at his mother’s kitchen table and refreshing its editorial content.

“I felt like I was part of this team that helped bring it back to life, and that’s where I was able to use some of the Catholic journalism development I got from Msgr. Foley and [Msgr.] Peters, and really put it into play — printing stories people wanted to read, stories that people needed to read, and presenting them in an attractive package so that they would read them,” he said.

“That’s been the philosophy I’ve tried to go with: that Catholic publications should be able to visually compete on the coffee table with Time magazine and Oprah’s magazine and any other publication,” he added, “because we’re interesting looking and vital and fulfill a need for our readership, [by] giving them information they can’t get otherwise, and stories that nobody else is telling, especially the other media.”

Bob Zyskowski

Bob Zyskowski

After its first year, the Chicago Catholic (which has since been renamed the Catholic New World) took first place for general excellence — the highest honor a newspaper can earn from the CPA. It was an indication to Zyskowski that he was on the right track.

His work in Chicago also offered Zyskowski an insider’s view of St. John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Chicago, but he was first on a team of U.S. journalists who covered the first half of that papal trip in Ireland before the pope traveled to the U.S. In Chicago, by contrast, Zyskowski’s mother was among Polish-American Catholics selected to receive Communion from the pope. Her son, meanwhile, was stuck at the back of the crowd behind a chain-link fence, he recalled wryly.

Zyskowski also edited “The Pope in Chicago,” a commemorative magazine highlighting the trip.

He came to the Catholic Bulletin in 1983 and became editor in 1986; 10 years later the newspaper became The Catholic Spirit. After working 14 years as the associate publisher and general manager, he relinquished responsibility for the paper’s business side in 2012, when The Catholic Spirit — long a nonprofit separate from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis — merged into the newly formed archdiocesan Office of Communications.

After the merger, Zyskowski oversaw The Catholic Spirit’s client publications, which at the time included The Visitor, newspaper of the Diocese of St. Cloud; New Earth, newspaper of the Diocese of Fargo; and The Northern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of Duluth — papers he had worked to bring under The Catholic Spirit’s publishing umbrella. The role allowed him to return to his initial love of reporting and writing, and even design.

He recalls that design didn’t come naturally for him as a fledgling journalist, but his editor in Peoria encouraged people to try new things. “For me, it’s like artwork. It’s a way to express yourself in a different form, a different method, besides the words,” he said.

Keeping ‘the story’ at the fore

Mike Krokos, editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, who edited The Catholic Spirit from 1999 to 2004, said Zyskowski was a teacher, too.

“He was a wonderful mentor to me personally,” he said, describing the way Zyskowski didn’t shy away from controversial stories, always asked the team to ask the question “Why should I care?” to keep readers in mind, and how he urged the staff to think outside of the box.

Zyskowski’s commitment to Archbishop Harry Flynn’s directive to make the archdiocese “a Church for all” — and reflect that in The Catholic Spirit — also made an impression. “That stayed with me, and it will stay with me forever,” Krokos said.

Father Charles Lachowitzer, the archdiocese’s moderator of the curia, has known Zyskowski since 1993, when he became pastor of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Maplewood, where the Zyskowskis were longtime parishioners before joining Transfiguration. He recalled that — if Bob really liked it — his homily would “disappear” from the pulpit and find its way into the newspaper.

“Bob has seen many seasons . . . in the life of the newspaper,” Father Lachowitzer said. “He has remained predictably consistent both in the gifts he shares with the Church but also his vision for the opportunities of media to be a tool for evangelization.”

Joe Towalski, whom Zyskowski hired as editor in 2005, saw his associate publisher’s commitment in all aspects of Catholic journalism — reporting, photography, editing, page design, advertising, running the daily business and envisioning the future.

“He was always encouraging us to be the best and to be innovative in how we did things,” said Towalski, director of communications for the Diocese of St. Cloud and editor of The Visitor. “And he made sure we had the resources — people and otherwise — to get the job done.”

Zyskowski credits his wife, Barb, for her steadfast support throughout his career. He recalls phoning in a story to the Peoria Journal-Star from a Dairy Queen in Havana, Illinois, while Barb was beginning labor with the first of their four children. Story filed, they sped 70 miles back to a Peoria hospital.

“Barb and I have always looked at it this way: It’s just been God — the Holy Spirit — looking out for us,” he said. “I could have never imagined a career in the Catholic press as fulfilling as mine has been, especially as a 22-year-old punk kid in 1973” when he took that first job in Peoria.

After his retirement, the Zyskowskis are moving near Green Bay, Wisconsin, to be near their daughter and her family. He hopes to coach grade school basketball, something he did for 25 years at Presentation. Zyskowski also has plans to freelance for the diocese’s newspaper, The Compass.

“It’s the importance of story and telling the story,” he said, pointing to Jesus’ use of parables. “Every Sunday in our church we retell the stories, and I’d like to think that Catholic journalists are part of that long line of people who are sharing the story, making sure the story isn’t forgotten.”

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