If you’re in the news business for any length of time, sooner or later, you get to know someone like Rob Sherman. They’re people who delight in working their way under the skin of officialdom and want to make sure you — the writer, the camera, the headline, the link to legitimate public attention — come along to watch officialdom squirm. Sometimes, it’s hard to know which is more important to them, their cause or the attention. Sometimes, you tire of running down and assessing their conspiracy-driven tips. Sometimes, you actually sympathize with the officials they relentlessly pester.
But if you’re careful, you don’t ignore them. Their quixotic assaults brandishing the letter of the law and their own peculiar interpretation of it don’t always merit a story, but when they do, it’s usually an important one. Or, at least one that forces citizens to wrestle with their core values.
Sherman, I suspect, would have preferred to be remembered for something other than his lack of religion, and surely among those who knew and loved him as father, friend and colleague, he will. But such was the nature of his particular quest for justice that it would give him the title of mere “atheist” in the mind of the public he portrayed himself to be fighting for. Atheism, it turned out, was the cause celebre that earned him his stripes. When in the late ’80s, he began his outsider’s battle against various suburbs over their village seals or their Christmas displays, he was catapulted to the national spotlight. Eventually, government would come to feel grudgingly obliged to give him its ear, if not necessarily its agreement — even on an issue as emotionally explosive as whether government officials could pray at a ceremony honoring victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.
He considered his real cause to be justice and helping to define it. I recall a particular story involving him in 1989, when he took umbrage at being accused of opposing religion. He was, he insisted, one of the “true patriots,” and only wanted government to abide by the Constitution. During his fight against a cross on public property in Wauconda, he pointed gleefully to “an explosion of religion” as village residents responded to his protest with a massive show of crosses and lights on their property. “It’s great,” he said. “But it’s on private property, not government property.”
While most of Sherman’s political actions involved religion, he also focused on secular civil rights. He protested against his son being forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance. He joined demonstrations opposing abortion. Fetuses, he said, can’t protect themselves because they “don’t vote or make campaign contributions.”
Whatever his cause or action of the moment, he was sure to be in touch with someone here at the Daily Herald, as well as any news outlet that would take his calls. Assessing whether he was driven by the issue or his ego could depend on whom you spoke to, but however you saw his windmill tilting, the end result — win or lose — generally was that the definition of our freedom was clarified and, thus, strengthened. At least it was seriously debated. To that end, Sherman and the many meddlesome sticklers like him who lengthen our meetings, pile up stacks of court paperwork and burn up our telephone lines have their role to play in democracy. And engagement toward clearer, stronger freedom surely is worth a little squirming now and then.
Jim Slusher, [email protected], is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.