This may seem a little cold, but you pretty much know you’re on your last legs when Charles Gusewelle comes after your butt…
The ever-cranky, senior Star scribe sank his bona fides into longtime Union Station and Light Rail advocate Clay Chastain last Sunday. And in the process, former Star columnist, editor and publisher Art Brisbane.
Something about the Man of Clay cornering him in the newsroom in 1991, Gusewelle having the good sense not to write about him and Chastain then suckering Brisbane into doing the honors.
“I have ideas,” Gusewelle claims Chastain said, in a 22 year-old recollection of their impromptu meeting. “I have a lot to offer. But what I need is some exposure. I need some press. I wonder if you would help me out…with a column. Write a piece about me. That could give me a start.”
Fat chance of grizzled journalist Gusewelle stooping to that.
“I was baffled,” Gusewelle writes. “How had the guy found his way to me? And how could he dream I’d do that? We were a newspaper. We weren’t a launch pad for off-the-street startups.”
“Art gave him the exposure he craved, and that was the beginning of Clay Chastain’s two-decade-long career as a gadfly and relentless public nuisance, determined to find a role in community affairs,” Gusewelle writes.
Brisbane remembers it somewhat differently.
“I don’t have any reason to doubt that Clay approached (Gusewelle) first and that he rebuffed Clay,” Brisbane says. “I do remember that Clay never came to me flatly asking for ‘help’ in the manner Gusewelle describes. He was simply a voice for a proper reuse of Union Station.
“As I recall he was saying the science museum should go into Union Station and that way provide a lift for the station’s rehabilitation. All the grand pooh-bahs of the town opposed him but the idea made sense and ultimately was the path that was followed. Too bad Science City was not better conceptualized. I saw Clay as a person with a decent idea for a problem that no one had been able to solve.”
That stands in marked contrast to Gusewelle’s characterization of Chastain as an undeserving, desperate, fidgety, unemployed single parent out to make a name.
Let’s take a brief look at the Brisbane column in question – “A citizen, a station and a plan” - and you make the call as to whether Chastain was a worthy subject:
Clay Chastain walked into the Union Station controversy like a lamb into a lion’s den. He sought naively to save the station, not realizing he would be up against an angry combine of frustrated politicians and burned-out station advocates. And those were the people on his side.
On the other side was Trizec Corp., a Canadian real estate corporation so rich it could afford to hire two or three sets of first-rate lawyers to fight Kansas City’s lawsuit against it well into the 1990s, if necessary.
Clay also didn’t realize that nobody in this town wants to talk about the deteriorating landmark right now. The powerful are mute, afraid to say anything that could undermine Kansas City’s legal contention that Trizec is to blame for not rehabilitating the station.
None of this has stopped Mr. Chastain.
He is the classic citizen without portfolio. He has no letterhead, no lawyer on retainer, no corporate backing, no tie on.
All he has is an idea.
“Joined by longtime station advocate Max Fearing, the 38-year-old electrical engineer has barged into just about every office that matters in this dispute. He has foisted himself on Kansas City’s philanthropic chieftains. He has buttonholed the mayor. He has jawboned Trizec’s counsel. He has picked the brains of finance experts and building contractors.
“Over the course of six months, he has tilted at every windmill in sight. And in that time, he has refined a plan that makes sense.
“It is a plan that could end the legal stalemate, save a cash-starved city millions in future legal fees and preserve the station.”
“Granted, Chastain’s plan has some rough edges. But surely the city and Trizec can assemble enough sharp lawyers, builders, preservationists and bond underwriters to polish those edges,” he summarized.
“Do it, ladies and gentlemen. Listen to the citizen without portfolio.”
The point that Gusewelle’s column bashing Chastain (and Brisbane) misses in declaring Chastain irrelevant is that at a number of points over the years many voters – not to mention the Star‘s own editorial board – did indeed listen to and agree with him.
And that Chastain’s credited – grudgingly at times – by many for helping save Union Station by keeping it in the news and helping to shape many of the specifics that were ultimately included in its renovation plan.
It’s also true that many subsequent Chastain efforts were met with criticism and that he apologized at times for his behavior.
Still, when Grandpa Gusewelle takes you to the woodshed, you know you’re in a rough patch.
Chastain could not be reached for this column.
However if the intention of Gusewelle’s column was to serve as an “I told you so” – that Chastain was never worthy of news coverage then or now – it falls well short of the mark.
Twenty-two years of history offers a different view.