Uncle Cecil’s glorious first column appeared 30 years ago today (February 2, 1973): The First Straight Dope Column. The powers-that-be have been sparse in providing authorative information about the glorious early history of the column, so I have assembled below a few carefully verified details, supplemented by wild speculation, as needed:
It all reportedly started with an editorial flare-up at My Weekly Reader. No need to go into details. But the dissenters were challenged with the traditional “If you’re so smart, why don’t you start your own weekly periodical?” The upstarts attempted to flee overland to Canada, but were blocked by Lake Michigan. The Chicago Reader was begun with the idea that they would grow rich and powerful and someday buy out a big media company – NBC at one time, currently the target is AOL-Time Warner – and show all those know-it-alls what-for. (A photograph of Chicago Reader big-wig Mike Lenehan, standing ominously beside an AOL-Time Warner functionary, is located at Board of Visitors Adds 15 Members. It is also interesting to do a Google search on “Medill School of Journalism” and “Illuminati”).
One day, according to an unverified, but certainly plausible, report, the Chicago Reader received an indignant ten-page letter from one Cecil Adams about the proper use of semicolons, the latest in a series of hectoring missives. (Paul S. Piper’s “What makes Cecil Adams the world’s greatest reference librarian?” [American Libraries, February, 1996] reports that Cecil’s mission began as “a divine calling”, with “the archetype of Cecil, a relative of the Norse god Odin, coming to him in a dream and commanding him to ‘take the helm’”). The powers-that-be decided to give this “nutcase” a chance to show off his supposedly limitless knowledge. Might be good for a few laughs for a few weeks. Needing an editor, they asked: “Who wants to be the editor for some dope we’re giving a column to?” Mike Lenehan, mishearing the announcement, glanced up, and was drafted. How much could it hurt? he mused. (A jealous William Poundstone, who lost out on the position, later started a rumor about Cecil that his loyal followers do not believe!) Within a few months the (in)famous caloric-content-of-semen column appeared, and Cecil’s magnificent reputation was sealed. Meanwhile, Lenehan was plotting his escape. Dave Kehr was tricked into playing in a crooked poker game, and “won” the column editorship with a hand of black aces and eights. Kehr remained tethered to Cecil for two years, then went both mad and over-the-wall. At this point a neophyte journalist, Edward “Blue Pencil” Zotti, striding in mighty seven-league boots, took charge, and to date has sacrificed over a quarter century of his once promising career in service to The Master. (Little Known Fact #1: Ed Zotti’s real name is “Eduardo Zot”. Cecil made him change it for numerology reasons. Don’t tell anyone, but Cecil is a huge fan of numerology. He’s always talking about it with his golfing buddies).
Ironically, Cecil was never able to reduce his original semicolon manifesto into a column-sized version, but is working on developing it into a screenplay. They’re going jazz it up a bit, shoot a trailer, then shop it around the major studios looking for a greenlight. The working title is SeMiCoLoN;-3D.
Congratulations, Unca Cece, on your production of (approximately) 1,568 weekly gems of wisdom! May there be (approximately) 1,568 times 1,568 more!
All Hail Cecil! Heed His Mighty Words! Buy His Mighty Books! Well, not his books – purchase your own copies of the books that he authored. And don’t forget “Ed Zotti’s” Know It All!, which is also commercially available.