By Alyk Russell Kenlan
I started at Medill one year ago. I was part of a group of recent college graduates, published journalists looking to accelerate their work, and people going through a mid-career shift made up the 30-or-so magazine specialization students.
While most of us were near the beginning of our adult lives, in this sense Scott Andringa was the odd one out. He was middle-aged, had a wife and two kids, and had built a career as a state attorney in Florida.
But as a colleague and a friend, Scott was the same as anyone else. We griped about the most recent assignment or had ongoing inside jokes. We had the same goals of working for major magazines and seeing our names in print.
Over last fall, Scott and I spent hours interviewing and profiling each other for our magazine class. Despite major life differences (I’m 24, with almost no work experience, and certainly no children), we found small nuggets of connection and built a strong friendship. As a boy, Scott went to summer camp where I grew up, we both went to Tanzania in 2012 and we were both outdoorsmen with a penchant for hiking.
Scott had wanted to go to journalism school for years, but a cancer diagnosis and the subsequent treatment forced him to put it off until he recovered. But he made it.
In February, Scott medically withdrew from Northwestern for the Winter Quarter. In April, he started a Car-T trial treatment for a recurrence of Leukemia. On Aug. 10, Scott died. This past Sunday, Sept. 13, would have been Scott’s 52nd birthday.
When I heard Scott died I pulled out the profile I had written of him a year ago, one of my first assignments at Medill. I feel lucky to have spent so much time with him and gotten to know him so well. And I feel lucky there’s this profile to remember him by.
It was a Rockwell Thanksgiving. Scott Andringa sat at the adults’ table, as they slowly work their way through the last bits of stuffing and turkey. Outside, it’s a crisp Florida evening, and his wife, Jessica, watched their two boys, Tristan and Trenton (also known as “chaos and mayhem,”) play with their cousins. It’s bucolic, intimate and soothing.
There was nowhere more appropriate for Scott. Happy contentment existed like an aura around him. Whether you stood on his bout, touring around the Florida coast, or had lunch in a windowless underground salad shop in downtown Chicago, there’s a sense of comfort and thankfulness in each moment.
Thanksgiving, journalism graduate school at Medill, and a passionate appreciation for finding that one can of Beefaroni after a long day were all things that Scott never expected to be able to do. In 2016, he was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer — the type of cancer where you spend months in the hospital. The type of cancer from which you don’t recover. The type of cancer where you start thinking about funeral arrangements.
Nevertheless, Scott recovered.
“At home, I have a USA hockey jersey that I bought after I was diagnosed with leukemia, but before I got a transplant,” Scott said. “It’s got the word ‘miracle’ on the back. I got it as ‘I’m going to be the miracle,’ and that was before the miracle happened.” After three months in the hospital, Scott finally returned home to his family, took account of his life, and decided it was time for something different than being a state attorney.
“Why Northwestern? It’s the best journalism school,” Scott said. “If I was going to do [journalism school], I wanted to do it the best place that I possibly could.”
On the first day of class, a friendly-looking, middle-aged student in comfortable attire went up and wrote, “THE ATLANTIC” in huge capital letters across a whiteboard. The professor had asked the class to write their biggest goals on the board. And Scott confidently proclaimed that someday, in the future, his name would be printed in a prestigious magazine.
He describes the feeling as “surreal.” Getting to the Northwestern newsroom was a multi-year effort, and he enjoyed each day as a bonus he hadn’t been sure he was going to get.
“When I went through this health challenge. That made it feel, ‘Jesus is my last Christmas, my last birthday,'” Scott said. “I try not to think in those terms, but there’s a certain part of your consciousness that tries to enjoy the moment knowing that the next moment may not be guaranteed.”
Northwestern was more than a point of academic pride for Scott. It’s also a point of independence. There’s a lot of family history in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s where Scott grew up, went to law school and got married. It’s also where Hank Andringa, Scott’s father, grew up, went to law school and got married.
“My life has been following my dad. He went to Stetson [University,] I went to Stetson. He became a lawyer, I became a lawyer. He was a prosecutor, I was a prosecutor. He has a boat, I had to have a boat. He has a cast net, I had to learn to throw the cast net, even though I had no good reason for it.”
Chicago was Scott’s and his alone. He went all-in on being a Wildcat. He carries his keys on a purple lanyard, he had a stylized “N” proudly emblazoned on his shirt, and Medill stickers cover his laptop and iPad. Northwestern was displayed on his phone, his sweatpants, and a pair of purple socks peeked out from his trainers.
Scott’s pride in Northwestern comes from a sense of independent achievement. His time in Chicago was his addition to the family legacy. “I always tell people my dad taught me to make a living, and my mom taught me how to live.”
Scott wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduation. He posited that he might try and become a professor. And fulfilling his first-day-of-class goal of being published in the Atlantic was also there. While those aspirations were important, Scott primarily focused on living in the moment.
“I climbed Kilimanjaro less than two months after I had major surgery, and I was not sure whether I’d be able to go. I kept telling myself, ‘just one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other.’ And that’s my approach to life, too.”
Not that each step has been easy. While in Chicago, Scott missed his family terribly. It was the first time he has lived alone in almost 30 years. He made a video call home every day and made sure to get down to Florida at every available opportunity.
Scott focused on what was in front of him and what could be completed then and there. He learned that the future was uncertain. Immediate actions last longer than long term goals — however admirable long term goals may be.
“What do I think it will feel like on graduation day? I don’t know that much. But I know what it will feel like after I turn in my second beat story, or third beat story, those short term achievable goals.”