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MIKE ROYKO: 1932-1997 'Quite simply the best'

MIKE ROYKO 1932-1997 'Quite simply the best' Legendary columnist, the voice of Chicago for decades, dies by Jerry Crimmins and Rick Kogan Chicago Tribune / Web-posted: Tuesday, April 29, 1997

Mike Royko, a self-described "flat-above-a-tavern youth'' who became one of the best-known names in American journalism, wrote with a piercing wit and rugged honesty that reflected Chicago in all its two-fisted charm. His daily column was a fixture in the city's storied journalistic history, and his blunt observations about crooked politicians, mobsters, exasperating bureaucracy and the odd twists of contemporary life reverberated across the nation. It was Royko's inimitable combination of street-smart reporting, punchy phrasing and audacious humor that set his column apart, along with his remarkable durability in facing daily deadlines for more than three decades. Royko, who was 64, died at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday of heart failure in Northwestern Memorial Hospital. A statement issued by the hospital read in part: "The family has asked us to express their deep gratitude for the outpouring of affection and concern during this period.'' Royko was admitted to Evanston Hospital on April 22 after experiencing chest pains at his Winnetka home and later underwent surgery at Northwestern Memorial for an aneurysm. He had become ill in March while vacationing with his family in Florida. "Mike was Chicago,'' said his longtime friend, author Studs Terkel. "He did it all and who was ever better about writing about the real Chicago, the Chicago of two-flats and the working man? He was an investigative reporter of the highest rank but also wrote with great humor. Some day in the future, when people are trying to understand the city and the meaning of political power, they will have to turn to Mike. He knew the turf better than anybody.'' Royko, whose column appeared on Page 3 of the Chicago Tribune and was syndicated to more than 600 newspapers nationwide, had won nearly every journalistic prize available, including the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for commentary; the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award, named for the famed World War II war correspondent; the National Headliner Award; the Heywood Broun Award of the American Newspaper Guild; and the first H.L. Mencken Award presented by the Baltimore Sun in the name of its legendary columnist.

"From the time I first met him at the Chicago Daily News, I knew he was quite simply the best,'' said Jack Fuller, executive vice president of Tribune Publishing Co. "Mike was more than the best columnist of his time,'' said Tribune Editor Howard Tyner. "He was the best journalist, period. There probably will never be another one like him.'' Royko was indeed an original, a writer with a poet's sensibilities and a working-man's plain language. For more than 30 years, his column gave voice to the disenfranchised and offered a platform for skewering hypocrisy and pretension and for examining contemporary fads and foibles. The column could be sarcastic, funny and nostalgic, funny and cynical, funny and informative, occasionally very serious, and sometimes heart-rending. Esquire magazine once called Royko "The Man Who Owns Chicago,'' but he was never one to act the big shot, though to some it seemed that way. His gruff exterior hid a soft soul. He most enjoyed listening to Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, the blues and jazz, and was something of a self-proclaimed "fine cook.'' He could often be found, in his younger years, rubbing elbows at Billy Goat Tavern, pitching on one of the city's softball diamonds or ambling across a golf course. He was a lifelong Cubs fan who disdained those who said they wished both Chicago baseball teams would do well. Though Royko didn't invent the word "clout,'' he defined its special backroom nature in Chicago like no other. And, in a way, he had it himself. More than a few politicians and judges found their fortunes influenced by Royko's opinions -- and, if they were particularly unlucky, in more than one column. A demon in print, he could appear to be a grizzly bear in public (or in the office), seemingly remote when meeting strangers. Those who knew him well, however, saw this sometimes gruff exterior as a necessary shield for a shy and sensitive man in a very sensitive and public position. "I am the victim of the Frank Sinatra syndrome,'' he once told a reporter. "Whenever Frank Sinatra goes somewhere, somebody tries to pick a fight. It's the same with me, only the reasons are different. People want to hit Sinatra to get their names in the papers. People want to slug me because I make them angry.'' He made plenty of readers angry. His column, forthright and with an uncanny instinct for the unpopular position, courted controversy and ire. In recent years, he ruffled a lot of feathers and riled some African-Americans and members of the gay community who took exception to some of his views. In March 1996, some 1,000 protesters gathered outside Tribune Tower demanding that Royko be fired for what they said were insulting portrayals of Mexicans in his column.

One of his principal critics was the writer and Catholic priest Rev. Andrew Greeley, who once described the content of Royko's columns as "crudity mixed with resentment.'' A dissatisfied reader, one of many whose letters Royko almost gleefully printed in his column, wrote, "You should be arrested for defacing a public newspaper. Your column is like an ugly time warp.'' The man who was called by New York columnist Jimmy Breslin "the best journalist of his time,'' and whom Terkel called, "pound for pound ... the best journalist in America,'' was born Sept. 19, 1932, in St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital at Division and Leavitt Streets on the Near Northwest Side, the third of four children and the first boy. His father, also Michael, had immigrated to the United States at age 9 from the town of Dolina in Ukraine. His mother, Helen, whose maiden name was Zak, was born in America, the child of Polish immigrants from Warsaw. At the time of Royko's birth, his father was a foreman and milkman for the Pure Farm Dairy and, for a time, the family lived in a basement apartment behind a store where his mother operated a cleaning and tailoring business. In 1938, his parents bought a tavern at 2122 N. Milwaukee Ave., setting the stage for the young Royko's early immersion into the social, political and cultural life of middle- and working-class Chicago. This immersion formed the foundation of his writing and reporting. The Royko family moved into the flat above the tavern, and he became, in his description, "a flat-above-a-tavern youth.'' Royko said his mother had about two years of high school, but was well read. His father "never had one day of school'' but taught himself to read and write and do his own accounting. His father also "read all the newspapers,'' Royko said. "Tavern keepers have a lot of down time to sit around and read.'' The father often sent the son down to the newsstand to pick up the papers when they came out, including the Polish language Daily Zgoda. (Royko's sister Eleanor Cronin contended their father for the most part could not read and would ask his children to read to him, saying he had forgotten his glasses.)

After a checkered academic career -- he spent much of his homework time tending bar in his dad's tavern -- Royko abandoned college and joined the Air Force, where he was trained as a radio operator. First stationed in Washington state -- where some bumpy plane rides gave him a lifelong aversion to flying -- he later served for a time near Seoul during the Korean War. He returned to the U.S. and was stationed at O'Hare Field, then a military base. In 1955, to avoid becoming a military policeman, he applied for a job on the base newspaper. "It struck me that any goof could write a newspaper story,'' he recalled years later. Royko told the base public information officer that he had been a cub reporter for the Chicago Daily News before his enlistment, which was a lie, and flimflammed his way into running the base paper. After two weeks, he was joined by another young Air Force man who had been a reporter for United Press International. Royko recalled that one morning the man said, "Don't con me. You never worked for a newspaper, did you?'' Whereupon Royko confessed and promptly assigned himself a column called, "Mike's View.'' His first in the paper made fun of the American Legion for supporting the Communist-hunting U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy. "The next column was one I took great pride in,'' he recalled. In it Royko rebuked the officers' wives for coming onto the base with their hair in curlers and wearing sloppy clothes, while their husbands had to go around starched and neat. The women's appearance, the column said, was bad for morale. The reaction was swift. Three wives burst into the public information office demanding to see Royko. In an era before name tags, Sgt. Royko told the wives, "He just left on a 30-day leave.'' He was at the time married to his childhood sweetheart, Carol Duckman, who had become his wife in 1954 and with whom he would have two sons, David and Robert. After his discharge from the Air Force, Royko worked briefly as a reporter with the Lincoln-Belmont Booster, a twice-a-week paper belonging to the Lerner chain.

After six months, he joined the City News Bureau, a legendary training ground for journalists. He recalled that he made his first mark reporting on the police investigation into the death of the Grimes sisters, Patricia, 15, and Barbara, 14, who were found frozen and naked in a ditch near suburban Willow Springs on Jan. 22, 1957. The case, which has never been solved, was front-page news for a month, and Royko said he got many scoops through doggedness and through such techniques as eavesdropping on the police from an adjacent office and interviewing people while pretending to be an undersheriff. In February 1957, Royko interviewed at the Daily News but felt "overwhelmed ... looking around this room at all these great reporters.'' He surprised acting city editor Maurice "Ritz'' Fischer, by refusing a job offer. "Mr. Fischer, I don't think there's any point in continuing this interview,'' Royko recalled saying. "I don't think I can do it. I just don't have enough experience. I'm going to fall on my face.'' A year and a half later, when Royko finally thought he was ready, he said the Daily News city editor was no longer interested in him; the Tribune, the Sun-Times and the Chicago American turned Royko down for lack of a college degree. Casting about, Royko auditioned for a job as a combination news director, reporter, writer and anchorman for a television station in Ft. Wayne, Ind., but flunked the TV version of the screen test for "failure to project.'' In 1959, he was hired as a reporter at the Daily News, starting with "lightweight stuff'' on the day shift before moving to nights. During the day, he sold tombstones over the phone and through home visits to supplement his income. Back on the day shift, Royko got his first very modest chance at column writing when he was asked to write a once-a-week County Building column. Royko decided to make his column "a little different,'' he said. The first one was about "how much it costs the taxpayers to have an unofficial holiday on St. Patrick's Day'' for local government workers.

It caught the attention of the paper's new editor, Larry Fanning, who asked Royko, "What would you like to do? Where would you like to go in this business?'' Royko recalled: "When he asked me that question, it just sort of clicked together. I said I'd like to be a local columnist.'' Royko said he had in mind a column with "a strong Chicago flavor. I said I'd use satire. There's a lot of things people have never been told. Straight reporting doesn't tell it. I felt nobody had ever really described what a City Council meeting was like, what aldermen were like, what a County Board meeting was like.'' He started as a full-time columnist in January 1964. He was an early champion for civil rights and consistently went after bigots, fat cats, politicians and greedy corporate officials. "Royko has always been an angry man,'' syndicated columnist Art Buchwald once commented. "But he's so funny that his anger isn't obnoxious.'' One of the most effective tools for that humor was the character Slats Grobnik, a tough neighborhood guy who many took to be Royko's alter ego and who the columnist employed, much like the Mr. Dooley character created by the great turn-of-the-century columnist Finley Peter Dunne, to provide commentary on life. In later years, as contemporary life became wackier, Royko created Dr. I.M. Kookie, an expert in almost everything, for the same purpose. With a prodigious output -- five columns a week for most of his career -- Royko made it look easy. But on the rare occasions when he would talk about how he did it, he said, "Blood drips out of my fingers every time.'' In the late '60s, he acquired his first "legman,'' a reporter who worked exclusively for him. At the end, there had been 16 of them. At a party at his house to celebrate the publication of one of his books, Royko ordered leatherbound copies for each of the "legs'' embossed with their names on the cover. The book had been dedicated to them.

In every book, Royko had written, "You were the best. Don't tell the others.'' When the circumstances warranted, Royko's pen could be deadly serious. In 1968, he won the Broun Award for his coverage of the Democratic Convention in Chicago that year and the police attacks on demonstrators and the media. His principal nemesis during this time was the city's mayor, Richard J. Daley. "It was inevitable,'' the columnist said. "If you were a mountain climber, you'd go climb Mt. Everest if you could. It was not just Daley, but the machine. It was a natural.'' In 1971, Royko delivered a devastating blow in the form of the non-fiction book "Boss,'' an incisive look at machine politics as practiced by Daley. It was a best-selling sensation and received glowing reviews. However, the Tribune panned the book for treating Daley as a "two-dimensional villain.'' "What Daley did that was good, I credited him for,'' Royko said years later. "He was a great public works guy, a family man. He had the old-fashioned virtues. He harnessed the machine for some good things.'' The one subject on which Royko relentlessly hammered Daley in the book was his treatment of blacks. Fifteen years after the book was published, after three other mayors had been in office, Royko was asked if his views on the late Mayor Daley had changed any. "I might have been a little more understanding of him,'' Royko said. "I wouldn't have been any more approving of him. Maybe he didn't have as many choices as I thought he did... . Maybe he didn't have the capacity to understand race problems and what could be done. Maybe what I was asking of Daley was like asking somebody who's never done calculus to do calculus.'' One of Daley's sons, Mayor Richard M. Daley, said of Royko: "The heart and soul of the community showed in the way he wrote. He had a style of writing -- his wit and the ways in which he looked at an issue.

"He had a better understanding than most people ever realized. I think he broke barriers between a lot of people.'' In 1972, Royko was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper column (judges described him as "having a flair of an old-time Chicago newspaperman in the Ben Hecht tradition''), and the next year, he flirted with the idea of moving himself and his column to Washington, D.C. "I was offered jobs by the Washington Post and the Washington Star,'' and some negotiations took place. "(But) my wife didn't want to go to Washington. My kids didn't want to go to Washington. I didn't want to sell my house. ... "I said, 'Wait a minute. Do I need the Washington Post to give me an identity?' "I said, 'Let's forget the whole thing.' '' Royko laughed recalling this episode. "All I got was a big ego job,'' he said. Often badgered by publishers to write more books, Royko was content to periodically issue a collection of his columns or graciously contribute introductions to books by colleagues and friends. Ever turning down speeches or public appearances -- and the larger fees that went along with them -- he did dabble in television, often showing up to provide expertise during local stations' election coverage and, in 1981, hosting an hourlong interview show set in a saloon and called "Royko on Tap.'' He was comfortable in barrooms, whether the Billy Goat or the more rarefied Acorn on Oak, where he would sit deep into the mornings listening to his favorite piano player, Buddy Charles. His nocturnal habits added colorful splashes to his reputation. But there were darker sides too: Once he was locked up after a saloon scuffle and in 1994 was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. This is how he addressed his reputation for a reporter: "You show me a man who can go to work every day, turn out five columns a week of consistently good quality, raise a family and still be a legendary drinker and I'll show you a bionic lush.''

When the Daily News ceased operation in 1978, Royko and his column moved to the surviving Field paper, the Sun-Times; but some of the fire was gone. "I work for the Sun-Times,'' he said, at the time, "and I have no role in the paper other than my column... . It's more of a job to me now than it used to be.'' His depression was intensified the following year with the death of his wife, Carol. She suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at age 44, and Royko went into a personal tailspin, which he characterized later as "a period of disintegration.'' He stopped writing his column for several weeks with the exception of one brief column, published on Oct. 5, 1979, more than two weeks after his wife's death: "We met when she was 6 and I was 9. Same neighborhood street. Same grammar school. So if you ever have a 9-year-old son who says he is in love, don't laugh at him. It can happen." The column, which readers have always remembered, ended, "If there's someone you love but haven't said so in a while, say it now. Always, always, say it now.'' He joined the Tribune in 1984, after resigning from the Sun-Times when it was sold by Field Enterprises to a conglomerate headed by Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch, who Royko derisively referred to in print and public as "The Alien." He added: "From what I've seen of Murdoch's papers in this country no self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in them." "Mike was not only the best reporter I've ever known but the best writer on any American newspaper,'' said Lois Wille, a close friend and a colleague at the Daily News, Sun-Times and Tribune. In 1986, Royko married Judy Arndt, who had worked as the head of the Sun-Times' public service office and as a tennis instructor. He sometimes referred to her playfully in his columns as "the blonde.'' They lived for a time on the Northwest Side and later in the DePaul area before moving to the North Shore. They had recently purchased a condominium in Florida, in anticipation of vacations filled with golf (he held a solid 10 handicap, with ambitions to become a 7) and fishing (he claimed to be a "better fisherman than a writer''). Over the last few years, he spent less and less time in his office at the paper, doing much of his writing at home in a room filled with computers, books and oddly mismatched furniture.

That room is in a lovely house made of wood, with a wide and rolling back yard where Royko would play with his young children, 9-year-old Sam and 4-year-old Kate. That was one of the reasons he didn't come downtown that much anymore: the kids. And in the afternoons, he would trudge upstairs to his office, a twinkle in his mind, and do what he has done more than 8,000 times before: write his column. "It never occurred to me to do anything else,'' he said. In addition to his wife and children, Royko is survived by a brother, Robert; sisters Eleanor Cronin and Dorothy Zetlmeier; and five grandchildren. Services will be private.

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