Jay Shefsky is endlessly fascinated by people: professional drone racers, shoemakers and hatmakers, veterans trying to rebuild the country they served in, a couple sharing their struggle with Alzheimer’s. But there is one type of person who doesn’t spark his curiosity. “If you look over all the stories that I’ve done, there’s hardly a story about a famous person,” he says. “They just don’t interest me.”
Where many people are drawn to the glitz and glamor of celebrities, Shefsky would rather spend time with the everyday people you might encounter driving a Lyft, attending a screening, or performing at a street festival, each of whom has their own exceptional history, job, or passion. And those are exactly the people he spotlights in Jay’s Chicago, which begins its fourth season tonight at 8:30 pm.
“I think of these segments as fond profiles,” Shefsky says. “It’s almost never just about the work that they’re doing – it’s also about the person themselves. These are people that I’ve chosen to do a story on because I’ve enjoyed spending time with them and I want to share their stories and their work. I’m fortunate in that I get to do stories about people that I like.”
There’s Stacey Greene, who continues to run the live bait shop her father opened 60 years ago at Montrose Harbor. Or the talented Lucero family, whose young children perform Mexican folk music with their father around the city. Or the five men with intellectual disabilities who have lived together for decades and the dedicated administrators at the organization Avenues to Independence who make their independent lives possible. Shefsky keeps photos of these and all the other people he has profiled on a board in his office, just one set of reminders of the various projects he has worked on over his almost thirty-three years at WTTW.
A light-up Hammond Organ Company sign, framed images related to the tragic 1958 Our Lady of the Angels fire, and a photo of the architectural preservationist Richard Nickel recall his time as a producer of Chicago Stories in the early 2000s. The appearance of a simply sketched, suited man is a relic of Shefsky’s time as producer of Image Union, a late-night film showcase hosted by the character. A series of ID badges chronicles Shefsky’s shifting hairstyles over the decades, from his entry-level position through assistant directing Sneak Previews with Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved to producing his own documentaries for the Chicago Matters series and, now, segments for Chicago Tonight.
One theme that has carried through most of his work, from documentaries on reconciliatory justice and hospice care to many Jay’s Chicago segments, is a focus on overcoming odds. “This sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but I like spreading positivity a little bit,” he explains. “There is so much bad news these days, so much that’s difficult in the world, that I think stories that are fundamentally positive are good and important. People want those; I hear it all the time. I once thought about calling Jay’s Chicago ‘Now for the Good News.’ “ And don’t we all need some good news?