Pen Ultimate / From byline to deadline
Lech Lutogniewski, a reporter the news of whose death was not exaggerated
Practitioners of each profession seem to have their own behavioral quirks. As a practicing journalist I tend to notice things even when they are not within the scope of my journalistic "mission." That is why, while attending a recent theater festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland (430,000 inhabitants), my attention was drawn to someone in the audience.
He attended every event, was about my age, tall, rather corpulent and bespectacled, and he wore a black suit and a big black bow tie. He had a cell phone in his hand which kept ringing, and something that looked like a small tape recorder as well. He talked to all, was known by all. He was accompanied by a young, slender girl with shiny eyes and a broad smile.
It turned out that he noticed me as well. As I was moving around Bydgoszcz on my small electric scooter, he started to ask me about it and said that one day he may be in need of such a contraption. We exchanged cards, and I learned that his name was Lech Lutogniewski - the chief editor and owner of www.infobydgoszcz.pl, an Internet site that carries local news. When he finished perusing my card, he raised his eyes: "Do I really see what I see here? Are you from Tel Aviv? You know, I'm also of 'that origin.'"
That comment demands an explanation, within the framework of Polish-Jewish relations and apart from our mutually tragic history. There were and are Poles of Jewish "faith" (or, as they were called, "of Moses' faith"), but the implication is clearly religious. And there were, and are, Poles of Jewish "origin," but even if they're nonpracticing, being branded with that label cost such people their lives in years past. However, nowadays in Poland, at least in "liberal" circles (there are anti-Semites everywhere), having those origins is almost something to boast about.
It turned out that Lutogniewski's grandmother kept her Jewish ancestry a secret, and he found out about it only after her death.
Our conversation then veered toward the subject of "nightlife in Bydgoszcz," and soon we were on our way to a local sailors' pub, for an evening of Irish music and dancing. "And that is your daughter?" I asked. "No, she is our managing secretary," he said about the young woman accompanying him, as we exchanged names and greetings.
He went about finding seats for us in the very crowded pub, and it was evident that he was being treated like a local celebrity. I told the young woman, Gosia (short for Malgorzata), that I was trying to guess her age. Nineteen, she obliged. And what did she do apart from her secretarial duties? She studies. Where? At high school. And how did they meet? Four years ago, in a discotheque. Here my bad manners overcame me, and I said: "I can understand what you were doing in a discotheque, but what was he doing there?" - to which she answered with a charming smile: "I'll answer that with a 'no comment.'"
From the pub we proceeded to a restaurant in the market of the Old Town of Bydgoszcz, where one of the waitresses (Paulina, not on duty) was one of my companion's reporters, supplying information to the site. The editor had never seen her face-to-face.
Lutogniewski turned out to be a sort of impresario-agent-reporter and man-of-all-trades, all rolled into one. In Bydgoszcz, it seemed that he was renowned as someone who is in all places at the same time, sometimes leaving a tape recorder behind at a press conference in the care of one of his young minions. His site also carries broadcasts from events around town.
He also creates events as he goes along. Some years back, when Good Friday fell on April 1st, for example, he organized his own funeral and was driven around town in white hearse, lying in a white coffin. Those who followed the hearse to his home were greeted with a Klezmer band and herring. Then he arose from the coffin to greet his guests.
We parted for the night with him and Gosia driving off in a white car with the words "Lech Lutogniewski, Reporter" emblazoned in black over it.
Since then I have looked him up on the Web and found that he is well known, esteemed as a reporter and also controversial, especially with respect to his private life. Talkbacks about him split between hate mail and admiration. He is especially commended - and criticized - for his interest in the lives of young people.
I got one e-mail from him, which I saw as a sort of a beginning of a beautiful virtual friendship. Then one morning I got an e-mail from Gosia, notifying me that he had died suddenly one Monday morning of heart failure. He was 54.
There was a spate of mourning "posts" on the Web from people he had worked with. They all said one thing: that he had been a generous mentor who did not spare harsh words, but acted this way solely in an effort to motivate them to be better journalists. One of the messages was signed by Pauline, the reporter-waitress, who wrote that she would try to follow the path he steered her into.
At his funeral, last Friday, a trumpet played tunes from "Fiddler on the Roof" and his top hat was carried in the procession behind the coffin. Gosia's message, posted following the funeral, stated: "You always told us not to cry after your death. You wanted us to laugh and be brave. We will. We do not say 'good-bye' as we will be seeing you."
Lech Lutogniewski, a reporter the news of whose death was not exaggerated.