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The Other Royko - Chicago reader March 12, 1999

CHICAGO READER - March 12, 1999


The Other Royko

By Michael Miner

While his father lived, David Royko wrote bluegrass reviews for the Tribune under the byline of David Duckman. The name honored his late mother's side of the family, and they'd earned it. When he was young, David remembers, the Roykos lived with his mother's parents; once in a while when his dad wrote something "prointegrationist," picketers would gather outside and throw eggs at the Duckmans' house.

Both his parents were music makers. "A lot of people who didn't know my father didn't realize how deeply his love for music went, especially for the first two-thirds of his life," says David, Mike Royko's oldest son. "He played guitar, and my mom and dad and my mother's brother and his wife and my father's brother Bobby--they used to play four-part harmony. My father was able to discuss and compare and contrast recordings of Beethoven symphonies with anybody. Every Sunday morning it was Souza marches blasting that got everybody out of bed. I absorbed it."

What music did your dad like? I ask.

"Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea," says David. "Beethoven's Ninth. The Weavers. Big Bill Broonzy. Souza marches. The sound track to Zorba the Greek. Doc Watson. Josh White--not Josh White Jr. Brahms's First Symphony and Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn."

Mike Royko lived to be 64, dying in April 1997. By the first two-thirds of his life, David means until 1979, when Carol Duckman Royko suddenly died and Mike Royko became "a sort of ship that had lost its anchor." David says, "I would always give my father music. I chose music I knew he'd like. One Christmas a few years ago we were over there, and I happened to look through his CD collection--and I noticed that this one Christmas CD I'd given him the year before still had the shrink-wrap on. I asked him, 'Do you listen to music much?' And he said, 'Not really.' He said something like, 'It kind of brings back memories.'"

David Royko, 39, is a psychologist. He directs the Marriage and Family Counseling Service of the Cook County courts. He sees families as they're shattering, and he gets only the hard cases, the families that can't work things out alone. "Our role is to try to help parents negotiate a custody and visitation agreement," he says. "Part of the job is we interview the kids. I came to realize quickly how powerful their perceptions are, and the way they'd express what they felt and thought--that was the part of the job that really grabbed me."

The families keep coming, and he has only a couple of hours to give to each of them. The interview with the kids might last ten minutes. In the spirit of a reporter who recognizes that the real story isn't getting told, Royko decided to write a book. He conducted about a hundred new interviews--these lasting up to five hours--and has just published Voices of Children of Divorce, an unpretentious, mournful book.

"I've had more than one kid say that lying in bed at night, the thought of mom and dad getting killed wasn't as scary as the thought of mom and dad getting a divorce," says Royko. "After a divorce, that fear often turns out to be justified. With a death, it'll be, 'Oh the poor kid, it's got to be rough!' The divorce doesn't seem as rough, and the length of time the child is expected to have a hard time is much shorter. But it's very unrealistic to expect a child to get over a divorce any quicker than to get over a death. When a marriage dies--that is a very appropriate use of the word 'death.'"

Is there a worst age to be when your parents break up? I ask him.

"Whatever age you want to pick--5, 8, 12, teenager--a lot of people will say, 'This is a particularly tough age,'" he responds. "Every stage of a child's life is a particularly tough stage for a child to be going through a divorce. That's why I have such a representation of college-age kids--because often the parents wait until the kids go off to college so it won't be so hard for the kids. But it can be brutally difficult. You keep developing throughout your life, and when you come to your teens and early 20s and you're trying to figure out how you feel about relationships, to have what probably was your model, your lab, your own mom and dad splitting up can really be troubling. It can be confusing as hell. And parents of kids that age feel more of a need to explain their position. The kids aren't seen as kids anymore, so often they feel that much more burdened."

David Royko was born in 1959, the year his father joined the Daily News. His brother Robert was born in 1963, the year his father got a column. Just before talking to David, I happened to read a story out of La Farge, Wisconsin, about a movie that's going to be made there on the life and times of Will Kilkeary, the old owner of O'Rourke's. He's a teetotaler now, but he says he knew back then he was going to drink on whatever job he had so he might as well run a bar. "I certainly have lots of memories of my dad being at O'Rourke's," David says. "I'm not sure I was ever in the place. But O'Rourke's, the Goat, Riccardo's, the Boul Mich--those were the places dad hung out. The name brings back memories of my mother wondering what place he was in. That probably sounds too harsh."

He laughs. "He was a rough-and-tough Chicago journalist, and that doesn't necessarily translate into being a Father Knows Best kind of dad. He wasn't home much. And my father was never somebody who glossed over things in terms of himself. He was the most self-critical person I've ever known." Like most great writers, Mike Royko had his own failings down cold. The best thing that happened to his dad in later years, David says, was that he remarried and had two more children, Sam and Kate, to raise when he was not so young and driven. "When Sam was very young, Solti was on TV conducting Beethoven's Fifth, and Sam was pretending to conduct. I don't remember my dad more excited about something."

David had wanted his dad to retire and write his memoirs or a novel--anything but the column. "The stress of the job was extraordinary. Anybody who's written five columns a week for the length of time he had, with the day-to-day scrutiny he was under--it gets to you. Even though he was a guy who certainly knew his worth, he was not immune to other people's arrows by any stretch of the imagination. If he wasn't a sensitive guy he wouldn't be able to do what he did.

"At one point he'd done a chapter or two of a book. A family member came over, and dad let him go a round on the computer. He pulled it up and read the whole file. Dad hadn't backed it up, and it wiped out. I remember him saying afterward, 'It was crap anyway. I'm glad it's gone.' It's possible he wouldn't have written anything, but it would have been nice to find out."

The summer of 1977 David graduated from high school and headed out to the Pacific Northwest. He made a stop at Glacier National Park in Montana to do some hiking. "I bumped into a young guy--he wasn't a hobo, but he knew how to ride freight trains. Even though I'd already made reservations to go to Seattle on Amtrak, it seemed like something worth doing--to hop a freight train. In fact, my father's sister's husband Clifford had ridden the rails a lot as a young guy, and I always idealized what that must have been like. Here was a chance to do it with a guy who seemed to know what he was doing. So I hopped on an open flatcar as it was passing through slowly. He said, 'You should really have warmer clothes than you've got.' I said, 'How cold can it get?' We didn't stop again until Seattle, and it went all night--and yeah, I was absolutely freezing.

"I'd told my mother what I was doing over the phone. She knew what my father's reaction would be, and she didn't tell him. I told him over a meal in a restaurant, which was deliberate on my part. I felt there was less chance of his going ballistic in public. His fork stopped halfway between his plate and mouth. 'That's the stupidest goddamn thing you've ever done in your life.' And that was the end of the discussion. It never came up again."

David remembers his father's fame as something that got bigger as he did. "It was never something I enjoyed--the automatic, 'Oh, Royko? Are you related?' Coming of age you want to find your own identity, and you don't want it attached to somebody else." He started covering bluegrass for the Tribune because nobody else was doing it, but the paper wasn't big enough for two Roykos. His book has come out under his legal name, however, and with the new year he's begun using it in the Tribune. "I was my mother's son in a way, and my mother's parents' grandson--and now I'm ready to be my father's son."

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