It was 20 years ago this month that I — along with everyone else in Chicago — woke up to the news that Mike Royko was gone.
Sometime in the predawn hours of April 30, that day’s copy of the Chicago Tribune, where Royko had been on staff since 1984, but had not filed a column in weeks because of a brain aneurysm, landed outside my apartment door.
I remember picking up the paper, seeing the headline, and cursing in the early morning darkness as I gathered my things for the daily El ride to work.
It seemed like everyone was reading the same story as the Red Line train pulled into the Chicago Avenue station; and I emerged, street-side in the still frigid morning, to walk down Ontario Street to work.
As I looked south down Michigan Avenue, I could see Tribune Tower cutting against the skyline.
Across the street, and down a bit, there was the The Sun-Times, where Royko had worked for six years, starting in 1978. The Chicago Daily Times, where he’d gotten his start writing columns in 1964, existed only in memory.
And that’s where Royko resides for most of us now who are old enough to remember him.
He filed columns an impossible five days a week, rarely missing a step off the trot, for a total of some 8,000 over the course of his career, according to a remembrance by The Trib’s Rick Kogan that landed in my inbox on Easter Sunday morning, instantly catapulting me back to those days when I lived in a city with only two seasons: Winter and August.
As Kogan notes, there are thousands of young journalists who have come into the business in that intervening two decades who may have heard of Royko, but may have never read him.
And if they have, it’s because of “Boss,” his 1971 biography of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley that’s still required reading (or should be) for any journalist who aspires to cover city government, large or small.
Like few others, Royko captured the tribalism of city government; the patronage and ward machines that, for good or for ill, still fire big-city politics.
Royko captured the rhythms and cadences of his hometown; he took readers through the trash-strewn alleys and into the two-flats where families came home after a hard day’s work.
In his youth, he was the flat-above-a-tavern kid from the northwest side. Later, he wrote, he was a Bungalow man. And he was always the Cubs fan who knew all about what it was like to suffer with your team.
He never lived farther, he wrote, than “staggering distance from Milwaukee Avenue.”
He wrote before the age of online journalism, when the Internet was still in its infancy and every newsroom had an “Internet Computer” where you had to sign up for time, log-on and then wait as the chorus of bings and boops and the rasp of static signaled your connection to the Web.
“It’s been my policy to view the internet not as an ‘information highway,’ but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies,” he once wrote, being more prescient than he ever could have known at the time.
I wonder now what Royko would make of his hometown, riven by violence, still falling prey to the same political foibles he skewered so expertly for years.
And how he would feel to know that his beloved Cubs had done the impossible and finally won a World Series?
Of The Cubs in March 1997, Royko wrote that it was “about time that we stopped blaming the failings of the Cubs on a poor, dumb creature that is a billy goat. …Yes, blame for many of the Cubs’ failings since 1945 can be placed on a dumb creature. Not a poor, dumb creature but a rich one. I’m talking about P.K. Wrigley, head of the chewing gum company and the owner of the Cubs until he died in 1977. … (He ran) the worst franchise in baseball.”
You could write most of that about any big league owner today and not be too far off the mark.
Newspaper journalism is supposed to be to disposable; vividly capturing fleeting moments; headlines, personalities and events. But rarely lasting beyond the day.
Columns are no different. But the best expose a greater truth that lasts beyond the headline, shading in our knowledge of the events that shape our times.
They bring a city, in all its messy glory, to life. They define it. They make it theirs.
And few did it better. And for longer, than Mike Royko.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.