Sloup Gets The RHINO

“No one ever remembers the Rhino story.”

— Lonny Cain, longtime NINA board member, former managing editor of The Times, Ottawa, IL

“I thought I had the Rhino won back in ’97, but the board gave it to Sammy Sosa, I think.”

— John Etheredge, NINA Board member, Kendall County Now

“Clearly us old-timers need to be taken out in the field and put down.”

— Jim Slonoff, NINA Treasurer, publisher of The Hinsdale Doings

Every organization has its lore — or should have. The Greeks have Narcissus. The Cubs have their goat. Jimmy Carter’s family has Billy.

NINA has the Rhino.

Steeped in tradition and dedicated to the proposition that all journalists should aspire to penning their name to a small, iconic pachyderm, the Rhino Award represents …

What?

Apparently, none of us remember.

The Rhino’s history dates back to the late 1990s, as the signatures at the bottom of the beast indicate.

The award, which is pictured above and to the right, is passed from one Northern Illinois Newspaper Association member to another, typically during the last meeting of the year (or the first meeting of the new year), signaling the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next.

In recent years, the Rhino talisman has changed hands from the outgoing NINA president to the incoming president. Just last week, Jay Dickerson of The Galena Gazette passed the lumbering gray baton to Tammie Sloup of The Times, Ottawa.

But “horn by succession” wasn’t the original intent, according to longtime NINA member and two-time Rhino winner Lonny Cain.

In an email exchange on the origins of the Rhino Award, Cain said the following:

“The year Rick (Nagel) was NINA president, he brought that goofy sculpture to the end-of-year dinner we used to have in Sycamore, with a little drinky and talkie talk afterward at Lois Self’s house. (Really miss that.)

“He wanted to recognize someone for working hard throughout the year. I guess charging forward, like a rhino on target.”

But Nagel (aka “me” … or “I” in this narrative context) has no recollection of purchasing the odd-toed ungulate.

In fact, the origin of the Rhino remains a riddle inside a mystery, wrapped in newsprint. Cain says Nagel started it. Nagel says it was Cheryl Wormley or Jan Larsen. John Etheredge says it was Wormley. Jim Slonoff says it was Cain.

This is what I suspect:

  • As Lonny said, the Rhino was an MVP-type award, meant to acknowledge the hardest working board member from the previous year. In the old days, that often turned out to be the first vice president, so it’s easy to see why, over the decades, that has become the tradition-by-default.
  • Rhino or Rino was an acronym of some sort. The “Reward for Inspired NINA Organization” or the “Really Humongous Intrepid News Obelisk,” I don’t know.
  • It was first given out during the late ’90s.
  • Either Lonny Cain or Jan Larsen was the first recipient.
  • The obscure fact that the rhinoceros horn was once coveted as an aphrodisiac might have played a role.

This is what I know for certain:

  • “A little drinky and talkie talk” was involved.

We’ve all looked into our records, and no one so far has come up with any definitive documentation of the Rhino’s origin. And although I remain curious, in some ways, it matters not at all.

What is important is that a new generation of journalists covets the Rhino Award as much as we did. That people under the age of 30 have as much passion for this strange calling — and as much fun doing it — as we did 30 years ago.

That the legend — and the lore — live on.

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