Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7629
Jerry Crimmins and Rick Kogan (obituary date 29 April 1997)
SOURCE: "'Quite Simply the Best', Legendary Columnist, the Voice of Chicago for Decades, Dies," The Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1997, p. 1.
[In the following obituary, Crimmins and Kogan offer a full appreciation of Royko's life and career.]
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.
Howard Kurtz (obituary date 29 April 1997)
SOURCE: "Mike Royko: Columnist, Curmudgeon, Character," Washington Post, April 29, 1997, pp. C1, C4.
[In the following obituary, Kurtz observes that while times changed, Royko remained the same—except for his house in the suburbs and country club membership.]
He was cantankerous, soft-hearted, infuriating, earthy, bull-headed, funny. He was loved. He was hated. He was read.
Mike Royko, who died Tuesday at 64, was more than a Chicago legend, more than a throwback to the days when columnists smoked, drank, hired legmen and chased dames. He was a writer who made people mad, a rarity in today's buttoned-down, ironically detached, cappuccino-sipping journalistic culture.
For me, the shock a couple of years ago was visiting Royko in his airy third-floor study, not on the gritty Windy City streets where he made his name but in the leafy suburb of Winnetka. There were backporch swings and deer playing on an endless lawn that overlooked a ravine. He belonged to a country club, fer cryin' out loud.
Was this the same Royko, the shot-and-a-beer guy who hung out at Billy Goat's Tavern? The alter ego of his fictional everyman Slats Grobnik? Or was he just playing the character he had once been? A few hours of salty conversation made clear he was still mad at the world, even if time had transformed him into the sort of wealthy suburbanite he had once scorned.
Royko wore his success like an ill-fitting windbreaker, and his last years were rough. There were a couple of drunken-driving run-ins with police. He had been writing a column since 1963, and he was clearly tired of it. He said he kept going to support his two small children with his second wife, Judy (his first wife died years ago). But if Royko had a "symbiotic relationship" with Chicago, as his friend Studs Terkel put it, he increasingly seemed a man out of his time.
The persona looms larger than the writing in the haze of history, but the writing could sparkle. We know this not just from the honors, such as the Pulitzer Prize he won in 1972, but from the detractors, all the people and groups he kept ticking off. Royko was the one who stamped Jerry Brown with the moniker "Governor Moonbeam," who dissed Indianapolis as "the dullest large city in the United States." As for feminists, well, he wondered whether his fellow men would prefer "dropping a 40-foot putt, landing a 6-pound bass, bowling a 230 game, seeing the Sox or Cubs win a pennant or seeing your wife waddle across the room in a negligee…. Nobody ever asks us about our needs, our frustrations, our longings and yearnings. It's always, 'Madam, do you have your quota of orgasms?'"
During my visit, the gravel-voiced Royko showed me the former home of the Blue Sky Lounge, run by his father, a Ukrainian immigrant. The family lived over the tavern, and Royko, who tended bar, learned early how to pay off the cops to overlook infractions. He joined the Air Force at 19, served in Korea and later became a night police reporter for the Chicago Daily News.
Royko routinely did things that would be journalistic felonies today, carrying a counterfeit badge and impersonating cops, teachers and social workers. He exposed miscreants and bribe-takers and became the chief nemesis of Mayor Richard Daley. (Years later, ironically, he became pals with the younger Richard Daley, the current hizzoner.)
Once, in response to a critical letter, he wrote: "Basically, I have contempt for people like you. You live in a wealthy, pampered, trouble-free suburb in Glenco. I live in a corrupt, troubled city like Chicago…. What in the [expletive] do you worry about? Your crabgrass? Getting invited to a neighbor's brunch?… Shove your 15 cents in your ear."
Royko moved to the Sun-Times after the Daily News folded. When Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, Royko announced that "no self-respecting fish" would be wrapped in it and signed with the Chicago Tribune. He turned down job offers from Ben Bradlee at The Washington Post, fearing he would become one of those stuffed-shirt pundits who talks about the deficit. He was what he had always been, a Chicago scribe who settled scores with his typewriter.
Critics, rarely speaking for attribution, described him as a tyrant, an unpleasant bully. He remained a forbidding figure for many of his younger Tribune colleagues, sticking to his remote office, the only one where smoking was allowed.
The last time I talked to Royko was last year, when he had landed in some hot water. He returned the call even though he knew he would be hammered. He had written a diatribe about a woman named Maurica Taylor whose name landed her in a bureaucratic mixup. "Some black names defy explanation," Royko fumed, openly pining for the likes of Jane, Mary, Dorothy and Helen.
Royko-haters went wild. Blacks called him a racist. And, under pressure from Tribune management, Royko publicly apologized. But he told me he had mixed feelings. "What's off-limits because of my race?" he asked. Some loyal readers, he admitted, were "disappointed that I apologized."
Mike Royko, saying he was sorry? What about his reputation for cursing out critics? "That reputation has been diminished somewhat this week," he told me wistfully.
His larger reputation will live as long as journalists value the old finger-in-the-eye school of columnizing. No graduate school can teach what Royko did; he amplified the workingman's grievances because he was one of them. But he learned in his final years that making fun of blacks, gays, feminists and vegetarians had become dangerous sport in a culture that barely resembled the tobacco-stained city rooms of yore.
Steve Marshall (obituary date 30 April 1997)
SOURCE: "Chicago Columnist Mike Royko Dies at 64," USA Today, April 30, 1997, p. 3A.
[In the following brief obituary, Marshall looks at recollections of Royko by some of his early associates.]
Mike Royko, who skewered everyone from mayors to yuppies in his gritty newspaper columns, died Tuesday in Chicago, the city many say he helped rule with his commentary.
Royko, 64, a Pulitzer-winning Chicago columnist syndicated in more than 600 newspapers, died at a hospital where he had undergone surgery last week for a weakened blood vessel in the brain.
"Through the years my family filed many of his columns, some critical and some supportive, but whether you agreed with him or not, you had to respect his honesty and his love for the city," said Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose late father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, had long tangled with Royko.
The elder Daley ruled Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976.
Royko never hesitated to take on those outside of the Windy City's boundaries, either. Frank Sinatra, so infuriated over a Royko jab, once referred to him as "Jerk" at a Chicago benefit concert.
"When he wrote, nobody could touch that guy and I think he wrote for all of us," said Jon Hah, a columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligence, who worked with Royko at The Chicago Daily News, an afternoon daily home to literary great until its demise in 1978.
A frequent Royko companion in print was his fictional buddy, Slats Grobnik. "He wrote for the Slats in all of us," Hahn says.
Royko joined The Daily News in 1959 as a reporter and won the Pulitzer for commentary in 1972. He moved to the Chicago Sun-Times in 1978, then jumped to the rival Chicago Tribune in 1984, citing Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of the Sun-Times.
Royko's books included the 1971 best-seller Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. It was so critical of the late mayor that Daley's enraged wife, Eleanor, launched a campaign to keep it off supermarket shelves.
The gravel-voiced, curmudgeonly columnist never strayed far from the city of his birth, though he had offers from The Washington Post after The Daily News folded.
Born in Chicago on Sept. 19, 1932, his childhood was anything but idyllic. "I grew up in taverns," he said. "I was a bartender at 12 or 13 … I had one foot in reform school."
He tried military school, but "was a rebel at that point and never fit in," says Post-Intelligencer writer Art Gorlick, who knew him at that academy.
After serving four years in the military, three of them in Korea, Royko became a reporter for a chain of Chicago neighborhood weekly newspapers, then moved on to the City News Bureau, a local Chicago wire service from which Royko later hired his "legmen," positions guaranteed to lead to promotions.
Author and radio commentator Studs Terkel, a Royko friend for 35 years, said Royko "covered the city like no one ever covered a city. He celebrated the uncelebrated."
Royko is survived by his wife, Judy, a 9-year-old son, Sam, and 4-year-old daughter, Kate, as well as two sons from his first marriage, David and Robert, and four grandchildren. His first wife, childhood sweetheart Carol Duckman, died in 1979.
Judy Pasternak (obituary date 30 April 1997)
SOURCE: "Mike Royko: Chicago Newspaper Columnist," Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1997, p. A18.
[In the following obituary, Pasternak focuses on Royko's orneriness and some of the backlash it brought him.]
Mike Royko, the ornery chronicler of an often ornery town, died Tuesday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications following a brain aneurysm. He was 64.
Royko had suffered a stroke in early April and last week underwent surgery for the aneurysm, a rupture or weakening of a blood vessel.
In nearly 34 years as a columnist at one or another of Chicago's daily newspapers, Royko represented in print the views of the lunch-bucket white ethnic, long after he'd moved his own family to the wealthy northern suburb of Winnetka. He managed to continue offending powerful politicians, police, feminists, gays, blacks, Latinos and a certain veteran local television anchor, to list just a few.
In the process, he won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and national acclaim for Boss, his biography of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had refined machine politics to an art. Despite Royko's Chicago identity, his column was nationally syndicated, running in about 500 papers.
The words Royko wrote about Daley the day after the pugnacious mayor died in 1976 could have applied just as well to himself: "He wasn't graceful, suave, witty or smooth. But, then, this is not Paris or San Francisco. He was raucous, sentimental, hot-tempered, practical, simple, devious…. This is, after all, Chicago."
Daley, of course, had regarded Royko as a nemesis. The columnist regularly lampooned the mayor at a time when the rest of the press was considerably more respectful. Once, Royko recalled, the mayor shook his hand by rote in a receiving line, then realized whose hand he was gripping and let go hastily like he'd been holding "a snake."
But the columnist was merely following a long Chicago tradition of journalistic like-it-or-not bluntness, from Finley Peter Dunne's column about the opinionated bartender, Mr. Dooley, to Nelson Algren's love/hate letter to his town, a book called City on the Make.
Like them, Royko wrote words refracted through the lens of the guy just a bar stool away. Sometimes he gave the guy a name, Slats Grobnik. Sometimes he played off an equally fictional psychiatrist, Dr. I. M. Kookie. Most often, though, he dispensed with the alter egos and simply presented himself.
He certainly had solid urban blue-collar credentials, having grown up the son of a Ukrainian immigrant who ran the Blue Sky Lounge on Chicago's west side. The family lived upstairs. As a teenager, Royko's chores included tending bar and paying off the police sergeant every Saturday morning.
He joined the Air Force at 19, serving as a radio operator. When he was transferred to Chicago's O'Hare Field, there were no openings for radio men. He wanted to escape being assigned to MP or KP duty, so he talked his way into editing the base newspaper.
After the military, he worked for a group of neighborhood newspapers in Chicago and then for City News Bureau, a local wire service.
In 1959, he joined the Chicago Daily News as a police reporter, entering a world that hadn't changed much since Ben Hecht's The Front Page. Royko has admitted in interviews that he joined his freewheeling colleagues in gaining information by pretense.
"I posed as a deputy coroner," he told the Washington Post. "I once posed as a female high school principal, in a falsetto voice over the phone."
In 1962, he began a weekly government column called "County Beat." In 1963, the Daily News gave him regular space for his own thoughts on whatever subject he chose.
In 1978, the paper folded.
Royko didn't have to move far for his next job, at the tabloid Sun-Times in the same building. But in 1984, when Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, he proclaimed that "no self-respecting fish" would be wrapped in something published by the new owner. He landed at the Chicago Tribune.
By this time, he was a Chicago institution, having both called the Boss a racist and been called one by the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington.
The columnist also would spin sob stories about underdogs in trouble. But mostly he wrote tough, and acted tough too.
Royko threw fists in a bar brawl or two. He smoked, and snarled at colleagues. He was convicted twice of drunken driving—most recently in 1995, when his guilty plea brought a fine of $1,600, two years' probation and 80 hours of community service.
Royko drew plenty of blood. Last year alone, he set off uproars in the black and Latino communities here.
He wrote about a woman named Maurica Taylor who was falsely accused of being a father negligent in child support payments; the true suspect was named Maurice Taylor. The column started out sympathetic to the woman, but then Royko announced, "I put the blame on Ms. Taylor's mother. She is the one who decided to name her child Maurica. Some black names defy explanation."
He went on to muse that "a personnel officer at a corporation might be inclined—all things being equal—to lean toward hiring an accountant named Arthur Smith rather than one named Wanakumba Smith. It just looks neater on a business card."
He wrote a rare apology for that one.
Later in the year, he decided to explain to readers that "there is no reason for Mexico to be in such a mess except that it is run by Mexicans." He issued a challenge: "Just name one thing that Mexico has done this century that has been of any genuine use to the rest of this planet. Besides giving us tequila."
Mexican Americans called for a boycott of the Tribune and its Spanish-language Exito, a free weekly. More than 1,000 protesters rallied at the Tribune Tower.
The speakers gave as good as they'd gotten. "We are protesting against this little man who is nothing more than a drunk and a degenerate," said the leader of a Mexican students' group.
The Tribune defended its columnist, releasing a statement that read in part: "It was well within the confines of irony. Anyone who has read Royko over the past 30 years knows that he is not reluctant to speak sharply and sarcastically."
Royko is survived by his wife, Judy, three sons, a daughter and four grandchildren. His first wife, Carol Duckman, died in 1979.
Richard Pearson (obituary date 30 April 1997)
SOURCE: "Famed Chicago Columnist Mike Royko Dies at Age 64," Washington Post, April 30, 1997, p. B9.
[In the following obituary excerpt, Pearson recounts some of the "events" Royko staged as part of his career-long campaign to deflate Chicago institutions and practices.]
Mike Royko, 64, the Chicago Tribune's classically caustic, cantankerous columnist who spent 30 years lampooning the words and actions of the Windy City's high and mighty while serving as champion of such underdogs as the "common man" and the Chicago Cubs baseball team, died April 29 at a hospital in Evanston, Illinois.
He had a stroke while vacationing in early April in Florida and had undergone surgery for a brain aneurysm last week.
Mr. Royko, a lifelong Chicagoland resident, became something of a city monument, the king of newspaper columnists in a city where the craft has long been appreciated. He eventually wrote for three of the four major Chicago daily newspapers of his day, often making headlines when he switched papers.
His column was syndicated in more than 200 papers across the country. He was awarded the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and the 1995 Damon Runyon Award, and he was the author of the 1971 bestseller Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, a biography of the legendary mayor.
Mr. Royko's influence was greatest in his home city. It had been estimated that his column, which appeared on Page 3 of every paper he wrote for, was worth 100,000 copies of circulation.
He was known for the enemies he made. Those included mob thugs, Daley, a legendary Chicago fire commissioner, fellow reporters, his readers, and his own editors and corporate bosses at all three papers.
At his first paper, the Chicago Daily News, he started a "mongrel dog show" in the early 1970s. The paper's publisher and the publisher's wife were "society" leaders who loved to see their pictures in their paper and had a yearly social triumph as sponsors of an exclusive Chicago dog show.
Mr. Royko announced that he was hosting a Chicago dog show that would be open only to children and their mutts. He promised Chicago's gigantic Soldier Field (home of the Chicago Bears) as the site. When the publisher balked at the rent, the columnist threatened to quit. The show was held.
Chicago aldermen were judges—they had agreed to be frisked to demonstrate that they had not been bribed—and the grand prize went to the dog that most resembled Mr. Royko's publisher. Mug shots of the two ran side by side in the extensive coverage the Daily News gave the event.
Other "happenings" included his 1968 column endorsing candidates for political office who somehow were the opposite of candidates endorsed by his paper on its editorial page.
He also hired one of the city's leading criminal lawyers to defend several elementary school children who had been arrested by suburban police for "penny pitching," a Chicago sport, and charged with gambling. Mr. Royko celebrated their mass acquittal by hosting a penny-pitching tournament in his paper's parking lot.
After the invasion of Afghanistan, he wrote memorable columns pondering the question of whether the United States should go to war with the Soviets if they occupied, say, Indiana. Upon reflection, Mr. Royko—who was not popular in the Hoosier state—decided that the United States should not fight.
Mr. Royko grew up above the Armitage Avenue tavern that his father, a Ukrainian immigrant, owned, the future columnist tended bar as a teenager. He once told a Washington Post reporter just how things worked in Chicago"
"You gave the police sergeant money every Saturday morning. If there were any fights, they'd respond quickly. You were making book, you were taking bets on horses, and they would ignore that. The sergeant would come around and I'd give him the envelope."
That may have led to his longtime campaign to change Chicago's motto from "Urbs in Horto" (a City in a Garden) to "Ubi Est Mea" (Where's Mine?).
Mr. Royko attended college only in the loosest sense, and he found his profession while serving in the Air Force in Korea. He ran the base newspaper, finding that enlisted men can ask more pointed questions as a "reporter" than in normal guise.
After the service, he worked for the Chicago City News Bureau, something of a news cooperative for the dailies that is largely staffed by beginning reporters. In 1959, he joined the Daily News as a police reporter. He began his column in 1963. When the Daily News folded in 1978, he moved to its sister publication, the Sun-Times. In 1984, he jumped from that paper to the rival morning paper, the Chicago Tribune, a publication he had always reviled in print.
Rupert Murdoch had bought the Sun-Times, and Mr. Royko announced to the world that "no self-respecting fish" would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper and that he was quitting.
Outside Chicago, he probably will be best remembered for his biography of Daley, the story of a quintessential figure who served as mayor from 1955 until his death in 1976. The media, aside from Mr. Royko, were well-nigh worshipful toward hizzoner. When the biography came out, Daley's wife persuaded one of the city's leading book chains not to carry the book. The book also was unavailable at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport—where even bookstores listen to the city government.
In recent years, Mr. Royko had lost his old machine targets, whom he had attacked as racist, lazy and more than a little crooked. He had become something of a target himself, coming under attack at different times by blacks, Latinos, women, gay men and lesbians, and even fellow journalists.
His image was also shaken by his convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol and perhaps most shaken by the fact that the chain-smoking, beer-drinking man of the people, creator of the legendary news source Slats Grobnik, drove a Lincoln Continental.
MSNBC News Services (obituary date 30 April 1997)
SOURCE: "Columnist Mike Royko Dies at Age 64," MSNBC New Services, April 30, 1997.
[In the following excerpt, the author discusses Royko's death and relates some of the columnist's famous quotations.]
Many of America's newspapers have lost one of their most popular voices.
Mike Royko, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist whose biting sarcasm and empathy for the common man captured the gritty essence of Chicago for more than three decades, died Tuesday. He was 64.
The Chicago Tribune announced Royko's death on its World Wide Web site.
Royko, whose Chicago Tribune column was syndicated to more than 600 newspapers nationwide, died at 3:30 p.m. at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He underwent surgery there last week for an aneurysm, a rupture or weakening of a blood vessel.
Royko's column was a cornerstone of the daily newspaper for generations of Chicago readers, first in the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, alter with the Chicago Sun-Times, and since 1984 with the Tribune. For most of his career he wrote five days a week. He gained stature as a critic of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley at a time when most prominent Chicagoans treated Daley with cautious respect. Royko's 1971 biography, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago portrayed Daley as a shrewd, autocratic politician who tolerated racism and corruption.
The book so infuriated the Daley family that the mayor's wife persuaded a grocery-store chain to remove the book from its stores.
After Royko's death, Richard M. Daley—the mayor's son, said: "Through the years, my family filled many of his columns, some critical and some supportive, but whether you agreed with him or not, you had to respect his honesty and his love for the city."
Royko tempered his political commentary with wry observations on news, social trends, his beloved Chicago Cubs and the foibles of everyday life. Many were presented in imagined conversations with Slats Grobnik, Royko's fictitious, blue-collar alter ego from the Polish neighborhood where Royko grew up.
Known for his gruff, often sarcastic tone, Royko's scorn could be withering.
In 1992, a woman called him to complain. She had found a 2,000-year-old Roman coin on the floor in her bank and returned it. To her dismay, she was not offered a reward.
"If you don't at least try to return it, you're a thief," Royko wrote. "So should we hold parades for people because they aren't thieves?"
He had no use for yuppies, as a column on buying practical gifts for spouses made clear:
"Many men love tools. Even those who don't know how to use them. I know one yuppie male who was thrilled when he got a set of screwdrivers. He said: 'Oh, these will be perfect for prying open shellfish.'"
When Tampa, Fla., tried to lure the White Sox away from Chicago in 1988, he urged city baseball fans to send their dirty socks to Florida officials. In return, Royko received citrus seeds from Florida fans.
But others didn't take the jibes so lightly, and in later years some readers wondered whether Royko was going too far. Where once his venom was reserved for politicians, he had begun to write more about ethnic minorities and gays, to the pleasure of neither.
Twice in March 1996, Hispanic protesters gathered at the Tribune Tower to demand an apology for remarks in his columns. Royko had written that tequila is the best thing Mexico has offered this century. Another column took a jaundiced view of anti-Castro Cubans. The protesters said Royko perpetuated stereotypes.
Royko himself got into legal trouble because of alcohol. In 1995, Royko pleaded guilty to drunken driving and resisting arrest after a traffic accident near his Winnetka home. According to court testimony, Royko had begun treatment for alcoholism a month before the accident and had enrolled in an after-care addiction program.
.In October 1995, Royko received the Damon Runyon Award, given annually to the journalist who best exemplifies the style that made Runyon one of the best columnists of his day.
In his acceptance speech, Royko reflected on how the newsroom had changed during his years in journalism.
"Forty years ago, we were on the tail of the Front Page era," Royko said. "There was a different point of view. Reporters and editors were more forgiving of public people. They didn't think they had to stick someone in jail to make a career."
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