Mention the name Mike Royko to many Americans of a certain age and several images come to mind: tough-talking, hard-working, hard-drinking. A man who stood up for little guys and chopped down big ones.
He also was a supremely self-confident and relentlessly self-critical striver whose career always came first -- before family, before friends, even before (though barely) his beloved sport of 16-inch softball.
"There was the public dad and there was the private dad," Royko's oldest son David says from his light-filled corner office with stunning views of the Loop. A licensed clinical psychologist and published author, David Royko has directed the Marriage and Family Counseling Service of the Cook County courts for 17 years. "And the public dad could be a real pain in the ass as far as being a family man."
Removed from the ever-glaring spotlight, however, Royko occasionally showed more of his little-seen tender side -- the same side he employed in wooing his first wife, and David's mother, Carol, in the mid-1950s via an onslaught of letters that detailed his daily existence and conveyed -- often in unabashedly emotional and obsessive terms -- his romantic feelings.
Collected and edited by David, the 114 missives -- alternately happy and sappy, angry and jealous, funny and serious, comprise the newly released Royko in Love (University of Chicago Press, $24). They were penned, pre- and post-nuptials, over the course of around 10 months and are rife with the cutting wit and wry cynicism for which Royko would one day become renowned.
But while Royko's sometimes fiercely protective adoration of Carol was a well-known constant throughout their quarter-century-long marriage, his behavior (the heavy drinking, the infidelity) didn't always reflect that truth.
"My father never really expressed his love for Mom to me," David, 51, says. "That just wasn't his way. But Mom would talk about her feelings about Dad with me when she was pissed at him and when she was not. And so I never questioned or doubted his love for her, even during the rough times."
When Carol died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm, on September 19, 1979, Royko's 47th birthday, the seemingly steel-skinned wordsmith was felled as if armorless. In a column for the Sun-Times a couple of months later, titled "A November Farewell," he opened his heart publicly as never before.
The elegant ode eschewed maudlin sentiments and waxed poetic about a cottage he and Carol had purchased on a small lake in Wisconsin -- a refuge from pressures personal and professional. A wistful Royko described their watching sunsets together and drinking wine and planting flowers. "Every summer, there were more and more flowers. And every summer seemed better than the last. The sunsets seemed to become more spectacular. And more precious."
In retrospect, David thinks, that soul-baring send-off may also have been an expression of regret.
"She was the closest person in the world to me when she died," David says. "But I think it was much, much harder for Dad than it was for me. I didn't have anything that was unresolved as far as my mother. But for Dad, I have no doubt that he had a lot of unresolved feelings of guilt for things that he wished he'd done differently in the marriage."
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But for an initial confluence of luck and pluck, the marriage might never have happened. Early on, Royko was a young airman stationed across the country in Blaine, Wash., following a stint in Korea. He loathed the regimented military life and desperately wanted out. Carol, his childhood friend, was a Chicago beauty with a bevy of suitors back home. Royko had been smitten with her since youth, but he'd never let on.
"If you knew him back then when he was a teenager, a guy in his early 20s, my impression was you would never see him as a shy person," says David, who lives in Deerfield with his wife Karen and their twin teenage sons. "But in the area of romance, he was debilitatingly shy. He was a mess as far as that goes."
Before he could break his silence, Carol was betrothed to another. His name was Larry. Royko left for Korea and his trap stayed shut, but he was livid with himself for getting beat to the punch.
David says merely mentioning the episode long after Royko had successfully won Carol's hand "could drive my father into a depression or into a rage or just a bad place. He held onto it the whole marriage."
Fortunately for Royko, whom everyone knew as "Mick," Carol's first union lasted only year. And so, from the confines of Blaine Air Force Base, Royko's Cyrano de Bergerac phase began -- starting with a brief note on March 16, 1954, in which the reinvigorated suitor went for broke: "I'm in love with you. Surprised? Well I am and the result has been mental hell. For a couple of years I've been wondering when I'd stop thinking about you every day. I've come to the conclusion that I won't. So as long as I have to keep going this way you may as well know about it."
Stunned and still recovering emotionally from her split, Carol logged a response in her diary. "Got a letter from Mick today, telling me he loves me. I can't believe it's actually true. I'll start living again."
Each had become the other's lifeline -- a source of hope and joy in the midst of misery.
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A veteran of divorce mediation who deals regularly with the most extreme cases of marital dysfunction and child custody, David says his own parents' struggles have had no bearing on his work.
"It's more like the other way around. It's kind of like what I've learned here that I've sort of extended to my knowledge of my own family. I've seen reconciliations around here that shocked me. One thing I've learned is I'm really not very good at predicting the outcome of a marriage. Even if there's trouble or even if it seems great and wonderful. It's hard to know how a marriage is going to wind up."
Had his mother lived past the age of 44, David thinks, her relationship with his father -- fraught as it was with discord during Royko's "superstar" era -- might have improved.
"One thing I've seen very often is people who've had really, really rough stretches in their marriage when they're younger, if they end up not getting a divorce or separating, it seems like in later years, when they get to a more settled place in their own life, that the marriage can settle as well. And I really feel like Mom missed out on all that."
Through it all, their love endured. Carol, David writes in one of several brief interstitial portions, "was always aware of, and could see, the good, even when Dad did his best to obscure it."
Although the expression of that love is more tempered and more artful, it is conveyed every bit as powerfully in Royko's final paean to Carol as it was in his first. Besotted and beguiled and filled with longing, he is utterly lost without the woman he worships.
"This past weekend, he closed the place down for the winter," Royko wrote in his 1979 column. "He went alone."
Still there at sunset -- "a great burst of orange, the kind of sunset she loved best" -- he was overcome by grief and sorrow.
"He tried, but he couldn't watch it alone. Not through tears. So he turned his back on it, went inside, drew the draperies, locked the door, and drove away without looking back."
Looking ahead was no doubt just as hard.
"They say that a sincere love increases with time," airman Royko mused in closing on June 11, 1954, "so until tomorrow when I'll love you more than I do today."
David Royko will discuss his book, Royko in Love, during a Live at Maxim's program with Rick Kogan, 6-8 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Nancy Goldberg International Center, 24 E. Goethe. Tickets are $25. For reservations, call (312) 742-TIXS; maximschicago.org.