Manes: Teen adviser Wallace fond of Gary roots
April 13, 2012 9:26AM
Robert Wallace, 77, was born in Gary, Ind., graduated from Emerson High School and writes the syndicated teen advice column “ ’Tween 12 & 20.” His wife, Mona, still serves as his typist because, Wallace said, “I never learned to type.” | Photo provide
Updated: May 16, 2012 8:06AM
“Every man dies; not every man really lives.”
— William Wallace,
from the film “Braveheart”
After a 35-year hiatus, Dr. Robert Wallace has returned home.
He is a native of Gary and has lived in St. John about a year. Since the ’70s, he had lived in California. He and his wife, Mona, have raised two children.
Wallace, 77, is a Korean War veteran who writes the syndicated teen advice column “ ’Tween 12 & 20,” which appears in newspapers nationwide — including the Post-Tribune — and also can be found on newsstands in places like Hong Kong, Jamaica and Northern Ireland.
Dr. Robert Wallace, I presume.
“I’m back in Northwest Indiana; just call me Bob,” he said.
Bob, one of my favorite movies is “Braveheart,” the story of William Wallace.
“Great movie. I’m of Scotch-Irish descent; my parents emigrated from Northern Ireland. They lived in this country for 60 years, but are buried in Northern Ireland.”
Was your father an Orangeman?
“Yes; my parents were Protestants. My father worked in the Sheet & Tin Mill at U.S. Steel for 40 years. He made a good living for us.”
“I was born and raised on the east side of Gary — 5th (Avenue) and Maryland (Street). I graduated from Emerson High School in 1951.”
Gary in ’30s and ’40s?
“I had a fantastic time growing up in Gary. At the time, the school was the center of everything. I was involved in athletics. There was a lot of loyalty; the city was safe.
“We lived in an area where there were many European families; it was a total melting pot.”
“I lettered in cross country and track in high school and college, so I was a pretty fast boy. Cross country is a difficult sport; you have to have some guts to run cross country. I used to train during the summer at Miller Beach.”
“After the service, I worked at U.S. Steel as a rigger for about six months. Then, through the GI Bill, I attended Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.”
Your first teaching job?
“I was hired as an English teacher and a basketball coach at Hiawatha High School in Kirkland, Ill. Former Chicago White Sox manager Gene Lamont was a freshman at that time.”
Did you stay at Hiawatha?
“No, I got a job at Phoenix Union High School, which was the largest high school west of the Mississippi (River). I coached basketball and taught there a year, then a job opened up in southern California. I took the family and moved to Orange County California, where I became the head basketball coach at La Quinta High School.
“We were a real good team. Unfortunately, I went into administration. They wanted to make me an assistant principal. I wound up a principal and was very happy, but I’ve always missed coaching. I have a little bit of Bobby Knight in me, but I didn’t throw any chairs.”
“I took it to the Anaheim (Calif.) Bulletin. The editor liked it and said he’d put the column in the paper.
“The first two or three were made up because I didn’t really have a column yet. I had my students ask me questions; they didn’t write to me on their own. Soon after, letters started coming in. At that time, there were no emails.”
Clearly, the column caught on.
“Within a few months, four more newspapers took me on in southern California. I was working as a principal at the time. I thought, ‘Boy, if I could only write this column full time.’ ”
What time frame are we talking?
“The mid-’70s. I approached the superintendent and asked for a leave of absence. Believe it or not, I had almost a year of sick leave that I’d never taken.
“I told the superintendent I’d really like the opportunity to promote my column. He took it to the board of education and they granted me the leave.”
So, you were getting paid to promote your column for a year.
“That was the key to the whole thing. I ended up getting myself in the Register Mail, which is a very big newspaper in Southern California — Orange County. It’s in competition with the Los Angeles Times and is probably the third-largest newspaper in California behind the L.A. Times and the San Diego Tribune. It’s bigger than the San Francisco Chronicle.”
To this day?
“Yes, I got in there because they owned the Anaheim Bulletin, where I got in first. The Register took me on one day a week.
“Copley Newspapers out of San Diego saw that I was in the Register. They contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in becoming syndicated. So, I went down there, interviewed, and I had everything they wanted.”
“I was male; they had so many females, like Dear Abby, Ann Landers, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Dr. Ruth ... . Plus, I had a doctorate, was a principal, an English teacher and had been a high school coach.”
Who would know teens better than you?
“Exactly. Within a month, they had me in 35 newspapers. That’s when I decided to take the leave of absence. I bought a van and traveled the United States.
“I’d walk into individual newspapers cold, and say, ‘I’m Robert Wallace, and I’d like to speak to the editor. I write a teen column.’ Every time I’d say that I wrote a column about teens, they would at least listen because they wanted to get young people reading the paper.”
How did you fare promoting your column that year?
“I sold myself into about 60 more newspapers.”
Wow, the syndicate must’ve loved that. You were doing their job for them.
“That’s right; the syndicate takes half of whatever the newspapers pay for the column. The amount is determined by circulation.”
What was the apex as far as newspapers your column appeared in?
“About 280. As you know, newspapers have suffered in circulation. The evening papers like the Baltimore Sun were the first to go. I’m still in more than 100 papers at this time.”
Your column appears in the newspapers six days a week.
“Yes, the Post-Tribune runs it every day but Monday. It takes me about 15 hours per week to write six columns.
“ ‘ ’Tween 12 & 20’ is from 450 to 600 words. When you’re syndicated, most newspapers block out a permanent place in the paper for your column.
“My wife, bless her heart, is the typist. I write the columns longhand, which is unusual in this day and age; I never learned to type. Every Sunday, Mona sends my six columns to the syndicate in Los Angeles. In the 30 years that I’ve been writing the column, I’ve never been late.”
Bob, me either, but you have 23 years on me. I’m sure you’ve received some unique questions through the years.
“As of today, there is nothing I haven’t heard until tomorrow.”
Have you been told off a few times?
“I’ve been told off so many times, it doesn’t offend me; it makes me feel good because they’re reading the column. There have been times when I’ve changed my answer because of the information I received back from the column. I’ll say: ‘I’m sorry, I goofed up in my first answer. After getting all this input, I’ve rethought it. The readers are correct; I’ve changed my answer.’ It happens; I’m not omnipotent.”
The future of your column?
“It’s something I enjoy immensely. I can write it at home; it’s the best job in the world. The young people keep me enthused and young at heart.”
Dr. Robert Wallace began writing his syndicated advice column for teens in sunny Southern California in the mid-’70s. Thirty-five years later, he finds himself writing it in Northwest Indiana. But his newspaper career actually can be traced back to the ’40s.
As a mere lad, Bobby Wallace delivered the Gary Post.