June 2002


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Robert Mendelson
Editor in Chief

406 Craig Hall

As I neared my graduation from college 24 years ago, I wasn’t too worried about where I was going to live. I was more concerned about someone taking a chance on a 22-year-old inexperienced writer. Someone did, which is how I wound up in Lorain, Ohio, a proud steel town located about 20 miles west of Cleveland. I was a staff writer for the Journal, Lorain’s daily newspaper. I rented a comfortable apartment there, overlooking Lake Erie. Yet, in my two years at the Journal, only a few friends and members of my family came to visit.

That changed when I moved to Chicago to write for the Suburban Sun-Times, a weekly supplement to the Chicago Sun-Times. Suddenly, I was very popular—as was my wife Deb, whom I married not long after relocating to the Windy City. Maybe Rush Street, deep-dish pizza, Lincoln Park, Michigan Avenue, Marshall Field’s, Italian ice, and the Blues Brothers had something to do with our newfound appeal? People visited us on a regular basis, even though I had heeded my father’s advice: Never make guests too comfortable or they’ll never leave. The second bedroom was nothing more than a windowless oversized closet with a pullout loveseat crammed inside.

One of the second bedroom’s short-term tenants was Deb’s sister Elissa, who had recently graduated from a university whose name escapes me (but which is located in State College, Pennsylvania).

Elissa had a couple of friends from college living in one of Chicago’s northern suburbs, so we met them one night at Charlie Lui’s, my favorite Chinese restaurant, not too far from Wrigley Field. At dinner, Elissa mentioned she had a headache. One of her friends said she had a headache, too, and had taken some Tylenol capsules on the way to the restaurant. She offered Elissa two capsules, which she gladly accepted.

Not long after the Wonton soup and spring rolls arrived at the table, Elissa’s friend said she felt ill and had to leave immediately. The two Chicago friends were gone before the soup was cold. Elissa, Deb, and I stayed and finished our meals.

By the time we returned home, Elissa was feeling sick, too. Into the cramped bedroom she went. She didn’t emerge for nearly two days. Deb and I deduced her sister had the flu. After a few days of looking very purplish, Elissa was fine. So, too, we learned, was her friend.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but days later seven people in the Chicago area had a far different fate. They died after ingesting store-bought Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. The case has never been solved.

The world has forever changed since the 1982 Tylenol tragedy. That’s evident from the tamper-proof seals visible on nearly every grocery store shelf. Before 1982, who seriously imagined that something like salad dressing, bottled water, vitamins, or a pain reliever could be a deadly weapon?

I thought about that dinner at Charlie Lui’s while reading this issue’s cover story, “Airborne Defense.” In associate editor Jason Togyer’s feature, he describes how researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are partnering with their Carnegie Mellon University colleagues to create a system for combating bioterror attacks. Since the events of September 11 and the subsequent anthrax attack, the work by these Pittsburgh researchers has captured the attention of President George W. Bush.

After I finished reading “Airborne Defense,” I spoke to Elissa about her illness in Chicago, but she didn’t remember the specifics anymore. Who can blame her? It was nearly two decades ago. Although, I did ask her one question she could answer. Would she take Tylenol capsules today for a headache? She replied, without hesitation, yes. So would I.

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