by Jessica Landon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Hunkered down deep inside an office that more resembles a nature/history/church museum, Joe Bollig slowly and methodically churns out magic.
As The Leaven’s senior reporter, Bollig expertly crafts stories that can’t help but pull readers more deeply into their faith.
Although he’s a walking encyclopedia of church history and doctrine, he doesn’t inundate readers with jargon, but instead weaves together articles that make even the most complex subjects accessible to anyone.
“You meet people at all kinds of places along the spectrum in their faith life — some people really struggling with their faith, and some who are very solid in their faith, and some people I would consider saints, and some people I consider a fellow struggler — like myself — who are just trying to make it work,” said Bollig.
It reminds him how the faith can be both simple and complex at once.
Faith is as deeply ingrained in him as his Volga-German roots.
His ancestors hailed from the Volga- German colonies of Russia and eventually settled in windy Hays in western Kansas, where Marion and Shirley Bollig raised Joe and his four siblings as members of St. Joseph Parish.
The pious practices and sacramental traditions of his heritage certainly course through Bollig’s veins — along with a deep appreciation for the Capuchin Franciscans who influenced him (certainly paving a path straight to heaven for those tasked with teaching him, he said).
So reporting on the church seemed to be a natural choice, although becoming a writer was a struggle, insists Bollig.
After he graduated from Thomas More Prep in Hays, Bollig considered nursing and spent time as a hospital orderly.
“But I was also attracted to broadcasting — particularly radio,” he said.
He followed that passion into the radio-TV-film program at Fort Hays State University.
“Any piece of equipment I would have worked on back then is [now] in a landfill or has been recycled,” he said.
Bollig worked for three radio stations as a disc jockey during college but, by his senior year, the broadcasting bug stopped biting.
A newswriting class and its deadlines had piqued his interest, however.
Although he never officially worked on the college newspaper, he contributed stories.
In fact, he believes he’s the reason Fort Hays State clamped down on phone use after he racked up heavy charges calling the Argentine and British consulates while covering the Falkland Islands War in the 1980s.
His first newspaper job was selling advertising for the Russell Daily News.
But he wanted more and landed at the University of Kansas in Lawrence for his master’s and a hard-earned education in writing.
Advanced degree accomplished, he reported on police, fire and general assignments at the St. Joseph News-Press in St. Joseph, Missouri.
He married his wife Linda in 1989 (they raised three children) and returned to Lawrence.
He worked for College Boulevard News, owned by Sun Publications, covering business and lifestyles.
When a position came open at The Leaven, Bollig faced an interview with Father Mark Goldasich, who is still editor, and Anita McSorley, still managing editor.
“I’m not sure Father Mark and Anita really wanted me at first, but I managed to convince them to hire me,” said Bollig. “And you know, I think it worked out pretty good.”
“Joe is kind of like a journalistic Rumpelstiltskin — he can spin straw into gold,” she said. “And that is never truer than when he’s crafting the lead — or opening lines — to one of his stories.”
“Granted,” added McSorley, “he goes about it in typical Joe fashion — by wandering around, interrupting other people’s work and regaling everyone in the break room with the same loopy wit that infuses his writing.”
It’s true, he always has a story, whether it’s about the latest cat (or other creature or sometimes plant) he has rescued, a treasure from a nature walk, his family, or the delicacy he cooked or sniffed out in the break room (he’s never met a pie he didn’t like).
“But I can’t argue with success,” said McSorley. “I’ve worked with Joe for 20-some years, and every single one of them he’s made good on the promise he made the day Father Mark and I first interviewed him for the job: ‘You’ll be hiring a Cadillac at a Chevy price.’”
And that trusty (rusty?) Cadillac has been running for The Leaven since October 1993.
After 21 years in the same position, a reporter is bound to have to repeatedly cover the same issue or event, from anniversaries to ordinations.
Bollig keeps it fresh by discovering the story of each individual.
“It’s like opening a Christmas present or a birthday present,” explained Bollig. “Not every birthday is the same, and not every birthday present is the same.
“So even though you cover some of these things that you’d think would be similar, when you take off the paper and open up the box, there’s a new surprise in it.”
Bollig possesses a particular talent for capturing a priest’s life in an obituary story.
“It’s amazing when I write an obituary for a priest I thought I knew.
I learn so much more about them,” said Bollig. “At the end of a lot of these obituaries I say, ‘Darn, I wish I’d known this guy better.’”
Bollig’s reporting has earned a long list of Catholic Press Association awards and other honors.
He enjoys those, but has his eye on another prize.
“The real thing we’re trying to win here is not a CPA award, but the readership of the people who subscribe,” he said. “Our greatest award is the people reading our paper and finding it interesting and relevant to their lives.”