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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Downstate activist Buff Carmichael talks husband, the Prairie Flame
by Matt Simonette
2020-06-24

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In the May 27 issue of Windy City Times, in the first of a three-part series, Springfield-based activist Buff Carmichael discussed his early life in Texas and his entry into gay activism in downstate Illinois.

In this second interview, Carmichael discusses meeting his late husband Jerry Bowman and the Prairie Flame, the LGBT-newspaper which he and Bowman published from 1996-2008.

Windy City Times: What was a key moment that started you in activism?

Buff Carmichael: We had a proposal to start teaching about racial and religious diversity in the public schools. I was not involved in writing it, and took note that it did not involve anything having to do with sexual orientation. But I felt like it would be a stepping-stone and would be a good thing.

I went to a series of meetings about it. Somebody later wrote a letter to the editor that "representatives from the gay community" were at the meeting and said that it was part of their plan to get homosexuality taught in schools.

I had to respond to that. I said that I interestingly was at the meeting and nothing like that was said, and that, to the best of my knowledge, I was the only gay person there. The person who wrote the letter was not there. I [concluded] that it would be a big step forward for the gay community if we could stop hate.

WCT: Where did you meet Jerry?

BC: Smoky's Den, the old bar that was here. When I was in Decatur I didn't have a car; a friend of mine loaned me his because the nearest MCC church was in Springfield. … My friends there told me that they had cowboy line-dancing on Sunday nights at the bar and asked me if I wanted to join them.

I went there and Jerry was there having a beer and we met and talked, and were never apart until he died.

WCT: How long did it take you for you guys to move in together?

BC: Three months and a week.

WCT: How did the idea to start the Prairie Flame come about?

BC: I sent a letter to Windy City Times, asking them to what extent they covered the central Illinois area, and how we could access the paper locally. I sent a very similar letter to the St. Louis paper that was there at the time. The response I got was, "We cover our metropolitan area and go fuck yourself."

I identified four or five people in the region who were very well-qualified to publish a paper. None of them seemed interested, but I really wanted a way for local people having access to what was going on. The bar was full of local people saying Springfield was the dullest place in the world, and, I was going from political meeting to political meeting, wondering where everybody was. We needed a way to tell people at the bar: "There is something to do—go do it."

We went through our local public-access TV channel and put together a TV show that aired at 1:30 on a Friday morning. You could set your VCR to record it and watch it at your convenience. It was LGTV, a 30-minute show once a week. I would say the maximum rating was about eight people—nobody watched. We did a lot of good, positive interviews, but it just wasn't effective. It wasn't in your hands when you needed it.

I kept looking for people who would publish a paper. One day in May, we had the death of a local AIDS activist, Steve Morel, who had been very active in the AIDS community, and had just gotten on the cocktail. He had thought he was dying, but he was soon thriving. He went to Virginia to help his father move and had a heart attack and died. The local newspaper gave him the average obit of three inches, but this was a very important person. He deserved more than three inches.

About that same time, our local Barnes and Noble put a window display up for Gay Pride Month. The daily publication in Springfield, the State-Journal Register, ran a whole bunch of letters to the editor about how we should boycott Barnes and Noble because of the their nasty horrible window display.

I later ran across a guy who published a local literary newspaper. He published short stories and poetry, and local artwork. He was just thrilled to talk to me. He and I sat down and talked about it, and later I went to his place because he had software for this purpose; I didn't. We drew up two or three pages of a paper and were going to do the rest later, then his computer crashed. Everything was lost.

I went out and bought the software. Probably in the course of two nights, I put together the first issue. It was pathetic, but I did make sure that there was an obituary for Steve Morel, and there was a front-page article praising Barnes and Noble for their window display. We printed 2,000 copies of an eight-page paper and distributed it. I think I have 1,000 of those down in the basement write now.

WCT: Did you pay for the printing out of your own pocket?

BC: Yep. The big question was, would there be a second issue—but we started getting people. We had a guy who staggered out of a bar drunk. Somebody got out of a van and beat him half to death. He got in touch with me. His main concern was that he was HIV-positive and he had bled all over them—they had beaten him, and his main concern was their health and safety. The second issue had a lengthy interview with him. Things just started happening so that we were—from one issue to the next—actually publishing a paper.

I had absolutely zero credentials in journalism. I had a lot of experience as a paper boy. … It was a very interesting eleven-and-a-half years.

WCT: How many people did you have working for you?

BC: My partner and I did it with no pay. In each major community, we had a volunteer who sent us suggestions for stories. Dave Bentlin in Bloomington was the only person on staff who'd ever had a journalism class. He had a degree in journalism and wrote articles. Once a year we would go to a really nice restaurant and Prairie Flame would buy dinner for all of our volunteer—that was the only pay they received.

The first week of the month, Jerry and I would send out bills. The second week, we would put together the articles. The third week, we would put together the paper. The fourth week, we would distribute. We were holding down full-time jobs at the time. As time went on, each of those tasks got bigger and bigger, and it got to wear we were spending every night of every week on the paper.

When I first moved in with Jerry, he was in a single-wide mobile home. We pretty much destroyed it, using it as a publishing office. After two years, we rented an office space.

WCT: What were your daytime jobs at that point?

BC: Jerry spent 33 years working for State of Illinois. For the first 20, he was working for Public Aid. When Blagojevich came in, they combined a bunch of agencies. They came to his desk and told him, "Congratulations, this is your 20th anniversary and you're fired. Tomorrow, you work for Human Services."

I worked for the Department of Nuclear Safety, which was combined with the Office of Emergency Management Agency. He and I retired at the same time.

WCT: How did the community engage with the Prairie Flame as the years went by?

BC: It was mainly positive. A lot of people made fun of us and thought we were a very poor publication, and thought it was short of silly. Within the major metropolitan areas, businesses were happy to give us space to distribute. We had a few problems, but nothing major.

The distribution person for Champaign lived in the community of Tolono. She decided that we needed to put them at the Tolono Public Library, to which they said sure. She put out 10 copies.

The next day she went back and all of them were gone. So the next day she put out 25 copies. The next day they were all gone. Then she noticed a fundamentalist church across the street from the library, and she got to thinking that maybe somebody was stealing them.

…I told her to put out 25 every day and see how long they do this. If they did it for a long time, I'd print out an extra 5,000 copies, and we'd stack an extra 5,000 copies in there and notify the news media so they could record whoever comes and tried to heal them away. It never happened—whoever was doing it got tired of doing it and quit.

Our advertising seemed to be Springfield, Champaign, Peoria, Bloomington and DeKalb. We weren't successful in getting advertisers in any of the areas outside of there.

WCT: What led to the decision to fold?

BC: The financial breakdown at the end of the George W. Bush term had already started. Every business starts cutting their advertising when things are tough. Jerry and I were looking at getting to retirement and we couldn't retire—our money went to keeping the flame alive. We reached the month when the advertising couldn't cover the printing bill. And there were things besides the printing bill we had to pay, like the utilities and rent. We said it was time to stop.

WCT: Do you miss the newspaper business?

BC: I don't miss the one o'clock in the morning. I wish we had a paper. … [But] print media is dying and we get our news now from the internet. Springfield's not alone in being without a publication.


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