Remembering a friend: Mike Royko

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Mike Royko at his office in Chicago (Photo via PBS, Chicago Tribune)

During my 12 years as a reporter, photographer and columnist for The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, I had the fortune to appear on a panel discussion in Chicago with legendary columnist Mike Royko.

Royko was classic Chicago, born and raised in the Windy City and worked as a newspaperman all of his life. He wrote columns for the Chicago Daily News when we met and I was surprised when he said he read my stuff and talked about about some of them, praising the ones he thought were good and noting others he said “really blew it.  You missed the point.”

Finley Peter Dunne
Finley Peter Dunne

Royko was a fan of another Chicago legend, humorist and writer Finley Peter Dunne, who wrote a column of syndicated sketches about the fictional “Mr. Dooley,” a thick-brogue Irishman who offered opinions on politics and other oddities of the day.

It was Mr. Dooley, as quoted by Dunne, who defined the role of a newspaperman as one who “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”

“That’s what we do,” Royko told me after the panel discussion over drinks at The Billy Goat Tavern.  “If we do that well then we are serving the public.”

Royko won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1972.  When the Daily News folded, he started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times.  One of his targets was the conservative Chicago Tribune but when right-wing publisher Rubert Murdoch and owner of Fox News bought the Sun-Times, he left the paper and finished out his career with the Tribune.

He turned down a number of offers to leave Chicago and write from Washington. His acerbic wit, many felt, was needed in the Nation’s Capitol.

“Can’t do that,” he told me.  “I don’t hate anyone in Washington.”  After saying that he added that the claim of not hating anyone in Washington was a quote incorrectly attributed to him years earlier.

“It was a good line,” he said.  “I wish I had said it so now I do.”

Royko was a constant thorn in the side of longtime mayor and political boss Richard Daley but actually endorsed Daley for re-election one year, writing that under Daley “we at least know who to pay off to get things done.  It would take too long to learn the new bribe-takers.”

His book, “Boss,” an “unauthorized biography” of the mayor, became a best seller and was on the New York Times best seller list for six months.

During my time at The National Association of Realtors political programs office in Washington, I had to fly to Chicago often for meetings at the national office and I met Royko at the Billy Goat as often as possible.

“You’ve sold out,” he described my job as vice president of political programs for the trade association.  “Get your ass back to a real job at a real paper before it is too late.  I’m ashamed to be seen with you.”

Royko was right.  I finally returned to journalism but it was almost too late.  I sometimes wonder if I will outlive my chosen profession of newspaperman.

He did come to Washington from time to time and we met for drinks and talked about what was working, or in most cases not working, in DC.

“It’s too crazy in DC,” said.  “At least the pols in Chicago admit they are crooks and if you pay them off they will deliver.”

In 1967, he wrote a Christmas column about “Mary and Joe.”  It told the story of a couple in Chicago who could find a room at the inn on Christmas Eve.

Mary and Joe were flat broke when they got off the bus in Chicago. They didn’t know anybody and she was expecting a baby.

They went to a cheap hotel. But the clerk jerked his thumb at the door when they couldn’t show a day’s rent in advance.

It was vintage Royko.  Joe was mugged and the pregnant Mary ended up in a hospital ward after giving birth.  He wrote:

Mary had a baby boy during the night. She didn’t know it, but three foreign-looking men in strange, colorful robes came to the hospital asking about her and the baby. A guard took them for hippies and called the police.

They found odd spices on the men so the narcotics detail took them downtown for further questioning.

The next day Mary awoke in a crowded ward. She asked for Joe. Instead, a representative of the Planned Parenthood Committee came by to give her a lecture on birth control.

This was classic Royko.  Mary and Joe fled Chicago on a bus after getting bounced around to various bureaucracies.  The three Wise men?  “At last report they were pinched on suspicion of being foreigners in illegal possession of gold,” he wrote.

The Daily News reran the column every year until it folded in 1978.

“I didn’t really like the column when I first wrote it,” Royko said.  “I put it away in a drawer more than once before handing it in.”

Royko died at age 64 of an a brain aneurysm in 1997.  He was still in Chicago, his city and his beat.

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