A CJA Tribute to Late, Longtime President Allen Rafalson

“There will never be another you.” I remember loyal Chicago Journalists Association supporter Harriet Ellis singing this classic jazz standard to longtime president Allen Rafalson after our 78th Annual Awards Dinner.

The moment was significant, as Rafalson was set to retire after 15 years at the helm. Let that sink in for a minute. Fifteen years. No one in CJA’s history served as long. He carried the torch when others weren’t up for the task.

Rafalson launched his journalism career as a copy boy at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. He went on to become an award-winning magazine editor with Kraft Foods and editor-in-chief of a weekly Chicago-area newspaper. Later in life, he ran his own public relations consulting firm and penned the novel, “The Santa Claus Trial.” When he joined CJA, it was known as the Chicago Press Veterans Association. Interested in expanding opportunities to all journalists, he rebranded the group as the Chicago Journalists Association about 20 years ago.

I met Rafalson at a graduate school open house in 2013. He was managing the CJA table and chatting with attendees, so I quietly grabbed a brochure from him. I corresponded with him afterward, hoping my freelance work would qualify me for membership with this distinguished organization.

At the time, many of CJA’s members were retired journalists, and the organization wanted to start a new chapter with younger professionals. Rafalson told me about the group’s new associate board specifically geared for college students and recent grads. Little did I know he intended for me to lead it. I was hesitant but ultimately accepted his offer.

Late CJA President Allen Rafalson presents the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award to longtime columnist, Ann Gerber.

I quickly learned that Rafalson was a dedicated leader. A few years into my role, our growing associate board was set to host a back-to-school networking event in the South Loop. He doubted that we planned for enough food and promised to bring an additional pizza for our crowd of young journalists.

There was one small problem, however. He had car trouble that day and lived more than 20 miles from the South Loop. But he was determined to fulfill his promise. 

He hopped on a Metra train and a CTA bus, arriving just before the end of our event — with the pizza still in hand. As you can imagine, that pizza was devoured in minutes.

Rafalson never told me his age, but I later learned that he was doing all of this in his mid-80s. We developed a friendship outside of CJA. He took me to a Cubs game, and we met for lunch a few times at the original Billy Goat Tavern. I always chuckled whenever I saw him order a martini with an olive during our monthly board meetings. On those days, you knew he had good news to share!

I heard about Rafalson’s passing just before our fall awards ceremony last year. He was 92, and he followed us until the end. Whenever we host a successful event or reach a milestone, I hear his simple yet encouraging words in my head: “Steph, nice. Onward.” 

I miss my friend and mentor. I hope he’s looking down and smiling at the progress we’re making. I do this work for all of Chicago’s journalists, and I do it with his spirit.

Ellis was right. There will never be another Allen Rafalson.