On the write path: SHS graduate trades bluster for bylines as an investigative reporter
STERLING – As a senior at Sterling High School in the early ’90s, Bill Myers was more Ferris Bueller than Bob Woodward, speaking the language of teen rebellion.
Then he found a pair of teachers who understood what he was saying, and who taught him there was a different way to say it.
Today, the one-time Warrior is fighting a different fight. Instead of clashing with conformity, he’s fighting to find the truth as an investigative reporter, a fight that’s put him the middle of the war on drugs. The Washington, D.C., resident was back home this week, reporting on the state’s growing opioid crisis.
Journalism wasn’t always in his plans, though. Originally, Myers, 43, – son of Bill and Margo Myers, and brother of Michael, Grace and Erin – aspired to be a lawyer.
“I was going to be a poli-sci major and get my law degree and probably get into politics. My mom had been chair of the Whiteside County Democrats in the early ’90s. I did a ton of stuff for her and other candidates, and I loved it.”
Sometime during his senior year in ’93, his plans changed – with help from two of his teachers, Donna Spencer and Barb Booth.
“Donna Spencer is the reason why I switched to English – between her and Miss Booth my attitude changed drastically toward school,” Myers said.
First, though, the teachers had to scrape away at his veneer of teen rebellion.
In a Ferris Bueller-wannabe way, Myers wanted to make sure the teachers knew how little how he thought of them, dragging them into arguments to convince them he knew it all.
Looking back on it now, he sees how he “was really immature. But at the time I thought it was funny, but Mrs. Spencer and Miss Booth saw through that in their own different ways,” he said. “They talked to me like I had a mind of my own.”
“Miss Booth had a dry martini wit about her; she was direct and it was up to you if you wanted to learn from her or not,” Myers said.
It turned out, Myers did want to learn. Although he struggled with philosophical views about homework and succeeding in class, he eventually set the bar higher and started applying himself. Once he did that, he earned Booth’s praise.
“She would call out the top grade in the class after an assignment; it was just great,” he said.
Myers went on to attend the University of Illinois Chicago, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature/letters, with distinction, and a master’s in general studies and humanities at the National University of Ireland in Galway.
While at UIC, Myers was still on the track to study English, be an academic, and “think great thoughts.”
But there was a romance about being a journalist. Myers grew up watching classics on AMC such as “His Girl Friday” – a 1940s drama about a New York editor and his ex-wife.
Something about the profession appealed to him – fighting the man and taking on city council with a stiff drink and hubris.
Still, Myers didn’t know exactly what he was going to do after graduate school.
“My primary goal was to be an academic and study my way to a better world. The sister of a woman I was dating suggested that I apply to the city news bureau of Chicago.”
He did, and the chaos of the interview hooked him.
“There were a couple of TV sets, radios and a bunch of young people typing furiously away at old computers at full blast, I knew then that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Myers headed to Washington, D.C., in 2005 and became an investigative reporter for The Washington Examiner, a politically conservative newspaper.
There, he reported on incompetence and corruption; his work helped secure the indictment of a Massachusetts clinician who was regularly shocking and torturing his ward.
Over the past 12 years, Myers has built up his resume as an analyst for NBC Washington, associate editor at Warren Communications News, senior editor at Provider Magazine, and for the past 2 years as a freelance journalist.
What brought him back to Sterling is the opioid crisis that has plagued Illinois and the rest of the nation. Part of that story is covering how the political landscape has changed the battlefield in the war on drugs since the ’90s.
“Illinois is the next war zone in the opioid crisis, by the numbers,” Myers said. “Even if I hadn’t grown up here, I would still be interested in the spikes we’re seeing in increased emergency room trips within the last few years.”
The Department of Public Health reported 2,278 drug-related overdose deaths in 2016, a 44.3 percent increase over the 1,579 reported in 2013.
“There is something to be said about the change happening. The hometown of Ronald Reagan, who heavily incarcerated drug abusers, which continued through the Clinton administration, are deciding to not arrest addicts,” he said.
Myers is referring to the Safe Passage Program, which allows people to come to a law enforcement officer to get help with an opioid addiction without fear of being arrested.
“I want to give an honest assessment of the situation out here,” Myers said. “A lot of times when a national reporter comes out to these small towns across America, they act as if they were in the Congo in the 1960s. ”
His future is undecided. Myers is open to continuing as a freelance journalist, but might jump back into a corporate position.
One thing he’s sure about, though, is his passion for investigative reporting.
“I feel like I’m good at it, its certainly something that I enjoy, it can be disheartening a lot especially in D.C., where you sit down at a table with people who make you want to wash your soul out.
“But every once in a while you can make the world suck less for somebody, and that’s cool.”