Anatomy of a strike

I don’t think many of my Sun-Times colleagues realized what a great job I had covering labor unions. They probably considered the beat to be boring. So did I, before I was offered it and discovered what a mother lode of stories flowed from unions and their clashes with both managements and each other. Think of contract talks as you might think of negotiations between opposing armies. And think of a strike or lockout as economic warfare. Does that whet your interest? My job was to keep score and explain what was happening. Never was I more challenged than during the 85-day trucking strike and lockout of 1970.

The country then was in the clutch of surging inflation. The consumer price index rose 4 and 5 percent year after year—rates unseen since World War II. Of course, as prices rose, your money bought fewer and fewer goods and services. So when a contract came up for renewal in that era, unions pounced on employers like hungry jaguars would a rabbit in an open field. Believe me, the Teamsters in Chicago knew how to do this.

Your image of the Teamsters may reflect memories of its infamous national president, Jimmy Hoffa, or some of its more corrupt affiliates in many of the big cities. Chicago Teamsters had their bad apples, like Salerno-born Joey Glimco, whose mob-affiliated Local 777 represented the city’s taxi drivers. (I never met the man because he never returned my phone calls.) But Chicago also harbored some honest Teamsters, including the savviest negotiator I ever met.

Louis Peick in 1970 was 57 years old and held the innocuous title of secretary-treasurer of Local 705, which bargained for 40,000 local truck deliverymen from Waukegan near the Wisconsin border to Gary in Indiana. Job title aside, he was the key player. If Local 705 had a president, the position was honorific.

How big was Peick’s ambition that year? I’ll tell you. Drivers then earned between $3.74 and $4.15 an hour an wages, depending upon the size of the truck. Peick, in league with Ed Fenner, head of a much smaller independent trucker’s union, started with a demand for $3 an hour in wage hikes over three years—equivalent to about three-fourths the existing pay scale—plus increased fringe benefits costing another $2 an hour.

Peick, a slightly overweight, cigarette-smoking fellow with thinning hair, possessed a flair for the dramatic. He was apt to burst through the closed doors of a negotiating session minutes after it began, to denounce the inadequacies of the employers’ offer, whatever it might be at the time. Yes, he loved microphones, and he at least tolerated reporters who didn’t ask him stupid questions. Early on, I had his private phone number, which I dialed frequently.

Talks went on past the March 31, 1970, deadline. By then the wage demand had been whittled to $1.70 an hour over three years, roughly a 40 percent raise. Complicating everything was that, concurrent with the local negotiations, the Teamsters’ national leaders were negotiating a new contract for over-the-road drivers. When a national settlement was reached April 2 that provided $1.10 an hour in raises over three years, that became the floor on which Peick sought to build his achievement. Louie’s opinion that $1.10 was too little was quickly affirmed when the national agreement fell apart.

Peick was smart enough to know his members needed public sympathy if they were to strike for weeks or months and greatly inconvenience people. Local 705 began its war on April 7 by striking only a few employers, warning grocery chains that they could be next if they didn’t sign on to the $1.70-an-hour demand. Rather than watch employers be picked off one by one, 750 trucking companies declared a general lockout of workers on April 9. Advantage Teamsters. Maybe it didn’t mean a lot in the end, but in a way Peick had gone from being the bad guy threatening a strike to the good guy whose people were locked out of their jobs. If nothing else, it helped the morale of his members.

As days became weeks and weeks became months, where was I? In the middle of it. I was my newspaper’s go-to guy, there at every nip and tuck. I can find 44 bylines over this 12-week period. Many more stories didn’t bear my name. I’d visit Louie at his office on the West Side, and the chief negotiator for the truckers north of the Loop, careful to be sure I didn’t step over any line into advocacy.

Here’s what that experience did for me: Make me confident that I could tackle any subject, if I gave enough of myself to learning its intricacies. When you’re 26 years old and under this kind of competitive stress, with editors hounding you for copy and fearing what Jim Strong of the Tribune might be learning that you are not, you grow up quickly. I loved every minute of it. A great deal of my satisfaction came from being able to discern the tactics employed by both sides in this economic struggle and explaining it in plain language to readers of the newspaper.

All wars end, eventually. This conflict became a war of attrition. Six weeks into it, I wrote that thousands of idled Teamsters had applied for food stamps. But it was the employers who finally ran up the white flag. On June 2, the two sides agreed upon a $1.65-an-hour settlement spread across three years, a nickel less than what the Teamsters had sought when the fireworks started. So great was the influence of this settlement that the Teamsters’ national leadership said its pending agreement for over-the-road truckers would be amended to match what the Chicago Teamsters achieved.

I loved those months in my life. I swam in the competitive challenges, I reveled in my stories that explained, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, what was going on. And, frankly, I loved the attention.

So much of daily journalism is situational. I would remain at the Sun-Times another year on the labor beat, before moving elsewhere, and I don’t think Peick and I ever spoke again, because we didn’t need to. That Christmas came a case of expensive booze from the Joint Council of Teamsters, which I returned with regrets. Still, and all, never since have I met someone with the interpersonal and negotiating skills exceeding those of high school-educated Louis Peick.

December 4, 1969

Every so often the entertainment world tries to put on a newspaper drama that grabs peoples’ attention. Those efforts almost always fail. The stories reporters write may be fascinating, but the process of producing them is not. Interviews are usually dull affairs unless you’re a participant. And how do you dramatize the thinking process as a story is written or edited?

Then there are days like Thursday, December 4, 1969.

At 5 o’clock that morning, Bill Harsh is awakened by a call from the graveyard editor at the Sun-Times. Its presses had just finished the final run of the night, but someone is always there. Bill is six months out of college and covers the Cook County criminal courts and the office of state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan. He’s told that 14 policemen assigned to Hanrahan had just raided the apartment of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton on West Monroe Street with a warrant to seize illegal weapons and that a furious gunfight ensued. In minutes, Bill is on his way there.

He arrives to find the place swarming with cops but can walk around as he pleases. He stands over the bodies of Hampton and another Black Panther leader, Mark Clark, lying on the floor. Ambulances had taken away four other injured occupants of the apartment and a wounded policeman. Bill notices that the walls of the apartment are riddled with bullet holes—and that strangely, almost all the holes appear to have been made by bullets coming from outside the apartment rather than from its interior. When he’s seen all he can, Bill goes to the newsroom, types his notes, and turns them in for others to use in their stories.

At 6, Brian Boyer’s radio alarm turns itself on, and news of the killings brings him instantly awake. Brian worked nights at the Sun-Times and had gotten off work just a few hours earlier. He’d never met or written about Fred Hampton, but his instincts yell at him to get to the scene at once, and he does.

By then the bodies had been carted away and police had left. Nothing prevents Brian from inspecting the rooms and blood-stained floors. He sees the same bullet holes that Bill Harsh had, and comes to the same conclusion that almost all the bullets appeared to have come from the guns of police outside the apartment.

If Bill was surprised by this, Brian is stunned. Why, it looked like a gangland assassination! But who would believe him if he said this?

Brian decides to do something either nutty or shrewd—it was hard to know which at the time. He phones Alice Hoge, wife of his boss, Jim Hoge, then the editor in chief. They knew each other from their shared interest in art. Brian asks if Alice would witness what he had seen. He also asks Marshall Rosenthal, editor of the new Chicago Journalism Review, to join them. Back Boyer goes to West Monroe Street. Brian told me later he wanted an ally to affirm the bullet-hole evidence he had seen. Later that day, incredulous, Hoge himself goes to the apartment and brings with him both Brian and a Sun-Times photographer, who documents the bullet hole evidence.

Early that Thursday evening, Brian writes a story describing what he had seen that day on West Monroe. It begins:

It is 12 hours after two Black Panthers died and four others were wounded in a 5 a.m. raid in an apartment at 2337 W. Monroe, and the signs of death are everywhere.

In the back bedroom where Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton was killed, blood had still not completely dried at the head and foot of the bullet-punctured double mattress.

A deep, 4-foot-long puddle of his blood still coagulates on the floor where the bedroom door opens into the dining room—perhaps the spot where 21-year-old Hampton collapsed and died.

Just inside the front door is another puddle where 22-year-old Mark Clark of Peoria is believed to have died. There are powder burns on the outside of the door where a bullet had passed through.

Only then does Brian begin to describe the critical bullet-hole evidence that suggests the gunfight was largely a one-way affair. I asked him recently why he didn’t address the real issue head-on, by starting his story like this: “Evidence uncovered by The Sun-Times at the apartment where Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed by police gunfire in a predawn raid Thursday appears to starkly contradict the account given by state’s attorney police.” Brian replied that he wrote the story before he knew that Hanrahan’s people claimed they were under intense gunfire.

But as the evening begins, it becomes apparent the newspaper is unwilling to seriously challenge the account of Hanrahan’s policemen. Hoge alerts vice president and editorial director (and former editor) Emmett Dedmon about the trajectories of those bullet holes. Dedmon, possessor of a volcanic temper, refuses to believe that the police would give a dishonest version of events. Says Tom Stites, night city editor and witness to the unfolding drama: “[Editorial cartoonist] Bill Mauldin came into the newsroom and threatened to beat the shit out of Dedmon if he wouldn’t allow the story to be printed, and there was a big standoff with lots of shouting.”

Finally, Dedmon relents, slightly. Brian’s story is put on page 32—which is to say, buried. The lead story on page 3 hues to the official police account of what happened, and to the newspaper’s credit it labels it just that way in the page 3 headline (“How 2 Panther Leaders Died Is Told by Sergeant”).

Brian Boyer goes out for supper after the 9:30 p.m. home-edition deadline. He returns at 11 to see his story relegated to the rear of the news section and resigns on the spot. For decades, he and Hoge never speak.

In due course, no thanks to Emmett Dedmon and other Chicago newspaper editors, those bullet holes do raise a public outcry, and matters quickly go downhill for State’s Attorney Hanrahan. By Saturday New York Times correspondent John Kifner is writing about the one-way bullet holes, and ultimately only a single shot of at least 72 fired is determined to have come from a Panther. To counter what he called sensationalism, Hanrahan gives an exclusive account of the raid to the Chicago Tribune. A photo that accompanied the piece purports to show a bullet hole from a weapon fired inside the apartment. One of my Sun-Times colleagues quickly proves that the “bullet hole” is a nail head.

Two months after the shootings, the uproar had not subsided. I covered the taping of a weekend TV show on which Hanrahan appeared, still on the defensive. Again and again, I noticed, Hanrahan decried the press “sensationalism.” And he seemed to say, I wrote, that he had given the Tribune its exclusive account in exchange for not having his words edited. In any event, the raid ended his political career. Republican Bernard Carey defeated Hanrahan in the 1970 election for state’s attorney.

I felt then and I believe now that whatever their intent, the police who descended on that apartment almost half a century ago effectively murdered Hampton and Clark. Maybe they were too much on edge, too scared, to react any other way when Sergeant Daniel Groth smashed through the front door. But put police motives aside. Chicago Sun-Times reporters Harsh and Boyer held the truth in their hands about the gunfight, and their newspaper couldn’t gather the courage that night to stand behind them. What should have been the birth of a Pulitzer Prize for Reporting became a newsroom tragedy.

Brian Boyer went on to a sterling career at the Detroit Free Press, WBBM-TV in Chicago, and ABC’s 20-20, among other places. He would win three Emmys (and write a series of detective novels). Bill Harsh held down several other beats at the Sun-Times, including that of labor writer when I left. Like me, he had a thing for railroads, and for decades worked as a consultant to that industry for the firm Oliver Wyman & Company.

Bill and I talked about those turbulent days recently while we sat on a picnic bench in Georgia and enjoyed smoked brisket. “One thing I’ll never forget,” he said. “In the midst of all this, Hanrahan pulls me aside at the criminal courts one day and says, ‘I don’t care if I ever see you alive again.’”

The mother of all railroad stories

When I showed up for work the morning of Tuesday, March 3, 1970, Leighton McLaughlin, the day assistant city editor, leapt to greet me as if I were his long-lost son. Thank goodness, he was smiling. I’d been in Pittsburgh the day before at a United Steelworkers event and, being who I was, took an overnight train back to Chicago, then went directly to work. “We tried to find you last night,” Mac said, but this was decades before cell phones. Then he laid an amazing story at my feet.

Two years earlier, the two biggest eastern railroads merged to form Penn Central. On the surface, things went smoothly at first. But Penn Central was a terrible idea terribly executed, and losses began to cascade. Now there were rumors the company was in real trouble, but nobody knew the truth, which was that PC would declare bankruptcy that June after just over two years of existence.

That was the backdrop, so now the drama: The evening before, while I was about to board that train, night reporter Bill Granger was at some event chatting up a Penn Central officer. The details escape me now, but this man said something inadvertently that led Bill to believe PC was about to announce it would seek to jettison dozens of its passenger trains—just about everything west of the Atlantic seaboard. It would effectively cut off Chicago from the east coast by train.

Bill had no way to confirm this the evening before, and of course I was unreachable. The challenge Mac gave me that morning was to find out if Bill’s suspicion was correct. I had less than six hours, but time didn’t matter. I knew my best hope lay in one phone call. I needed to talk to Saul Resnick.

I liked Saul almost the instant we met in the spring of 1968. Penn Central had just been formed, and he was hired from the Philadelphia Daily News as its Chicago press guy. Saul was pure tabloid—gutsy, in your face, what’s-it-to-you. That turns off a lot of people, but not me. And it seemed that my respect for Saul was reciprocated. Half a century later, we’re still in touch.

I wasn’t acquainted with many Penn Central people, just Saul. I took a deep breath and called him. Here is how he remembers the conversation, after the initial minutes of parry and thrust:

Fred: If I go with this story, will I be embarrassed?

Saul: I can’t really say. But something is happening.

Fred (exasperated): I’ve told you what I’ve heard. Again, will I be wrong and regret having written it?

Saul (measuring his words carefully): If I were you and I were still a journalist, I would consider going with what you have. But of course, you can’t attribute it to me.

I hung up and told Mac that Bill’s lead was solid. Meanwhile, Bill had come in early and worked the phone, too, finding out that Penn Central people had briefed the Interstate Commerce Commission the week before on this matter.

We knew the big picture. What we didn’t know were nagging little facts, such as just which passenger trains would go on the block. Back then PC still had an extensive network of passenger trains between New York and Chicago (via both Buffalo and Pittsburgh), New York and St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago, and Cincinnati and Chicago.

The question Bill and I had to answer was where the cutoff points were. In other words, was Penn Central about to seek to get rid of all its passenger trains west of Albany, N.Y., or Buffalo? And west of Harrisburg, Pa., or Pittsburgh? The deadline for the first edition approached, and nobody—even Saul (who told his bosses he had said “no comment” to all my questions)—was being helpful.

So I made an educated guess—what other choice did I have?—and began to write. My guess was that the railroad was losing so much money on its passenger trains, and was in so much difficulty meeting payroll, that it wanted to toss out everything west of Albany and Harrisburg.

I was half right. A couple of days later, when the railroad really did ask the ICC to chop its passenger trains off the block, the dividing lines were revealed as Harrisburg (right) and Buffalo rather than Albany (wrong). At the newspaper, I don’t think anyone but Bill and I knew of our minor error. We were heroes.

You’re right to wonder why this mattered. Penn Central’s train-off case became the critical event on the road to creation of Amtrak, the government-subsidized company that took over intercity passenger rail responsibility from the freight railroads on May 1, 1971. Rail passenger service had been in serious decline for a decade. But the loss of almost all U.S. mail revenue in 1967 kicked the chair from beneath the privately-owned railroads. Now what had been serious losses from passenger trains turned into gushers of red ink, and Penn Central of all railroads was most exposed because of its huge passenger network. When Penn Central essentially gave up on passenger trains that March, wheels began to turn in Congress that led to Amtrak.

This was as big an exclusive as I ever had, and it really wasn’t mine. I owe it entirely to Bill Granger’s intuition and Saul Resnick’s honesty. In years thereafter, I crossed paths with Saul many times. He became vice president of public affairs of Conrail, the successor railroad to Penn Central, and I never mistook his no-bullshit demeanor for anything but the street-smart attitude of a tabloid reporter from Philly. In other words, I saw through his bluster and liked him. At last report, officially retired for many years, he was writing feature stories for a suburban Philadelphia newspaper, for the fun of it but really to spotlight deserving people in his community.

Bill Granger’s life is fascinating as well. After the Army, he worked for United Press International and the Chicago Tribune before coming to the Sun-Times in 1969. Bill stayed a decade, and by the end of that tenure had begun publishing what finally amounted to 20 mystery novels over a 15-year span. The man had energy to burn, in other words. I still picture him as big, gangly, a bit overweight and with this unruly shock of blond hair. A stroke in 2000 ended his professional life, and the last decade of his life was spent in a veterans’ hospital.

One feature story he wrote stuck to my mind. He called the makers of shampoos and asked, why do you tell people to apply shampoo, rinse if off and repeat? What is being accomplished? Aren’t you just trying to sell more product? For years, I had wondered the same thing, and here was Bill doing my work for me. The shampoo manufacturers hemmed and hawed and gave various explanations. The tenor of Bill’s piece was not one of righteous indignation but mirth and humor. It fit so well with his sunny personality.

By the way, the Interstate Commerce Commission never gave Penn Central permission to remove a one of those passenger trains. It hemmed and hawed, too, and that summer of 1970 declared a moratorium on train-off cases while Congress wrestled with the legislation that would create Amtrak the next year.

Stories that made me proud

During those five years at 401 North Wabash, I easily wrote a thousand stories. If you count the shorts and obituaries and rewrites, the number is easily twice that much. The vast majority were as fleeting as yesterday’s sunrise. A precious few stick with me decades later. I’ll mention three.

The union organizer. For the paper’s Sunday magazine of June 15, 1969, I profiled a union’s effort to win bargaining rights for employees of a hospital in suburban Oak Park. The organizer was Harry Kurshenbaum, who agreed to let me be his shadow during a months-long campaign to win over the hospital’s workers. It was an ambitious effort by me at what is today called “long form journalism” and what I think of as simply good magazine writing. Happily, it worked, although not for Harry Kurshenbaum. The story begins:

Late one March afternoon some 35 men and women, most of them black, filed into a sunlit room at the Oak Park YMCA and, looking a bit nervous, sat in chairs.

They had just gotten off the day shift at Oak Park Hospital, and they formed the nucleus from which the Hospital Employes Labor Program hoped to unionize the Roman Catholic hospital’s 300 nonprofessional workers.

Harry Kurshenbaum waited while several at the table in the front of the room reported on the union’s just-completed strike at Walther Memorial Hospital and the subsequent representation election which HELP had handily won. Then he got up to speak.

Kurshenbaum is a union organizer. A good one, too. He and Robert Simpson, a street-wise teamster, has masterminded the organizing campaigns in a dozen Chicago area hospitals up to that time, and their “won” record in employe elections was good—10 out of 12. Success like this, when the national average of unions in organizing elections is just over 50 per cent, has made HELP probably the strongest labor union venture in Chicago today.

When Kurshenbaum speaks, people listen. A short, stocky, well-dressed man, he commands attention by voice rather than appearance. The voice is loud. It bounces off walls and bombards listener’s ears. The voice is indignant, it is excited, it is often sarcastic, sometimes sneering but never tired, never bored.

The culprits of whom Kurshenbaum spoke that afternoon were Sister Jennine, the hospital’s administrator, and two “high-priced LaSalle St. lawyers” hired to “thwart the efforts of the workers to be represented and get a living wage.” The nun who ran the hospital and those immediately below her in the hierarchy were authority figures in the minds of these employes and Kurshenbaum’s intent was to destroy that image.

I quoted from Harry’s talk at great length because his words were his strongest weapon. Then the story looped back to his background in unions, starting with a 48-hour sit-down strike at a radio-assembly company that he spontaneously started and successfully led. I recounted the long, frustrating effort to get Oak Park Hospital to agree to an employee vote (non-for-profit workers were not well protected by the National Labor Relations Act). Then the vote itself, a surprising and humiliating defeat for the union. Sister Jennine had gotten the better of Harry Kurshenbaum.

A chat with Cyrus Eaton. So read the headline above a profile of an 85-year-old Cleveland industrialist, one of the richest men in the U.S., who unabashedly mixed a love of capitalism with an affinity for the Soviet Union. Eaton was staying at the Sheraton Blackstone Hotel, and his publicist invited the Sun-Times to send someone to interview him. I must have not looked busy enough, because Jim Peneff called me to the city desk and said it was my lucky day. Off I went, quite uninformed about Eaton or his background.

For all of that, the story that made page 10 on November 17, 1968, reads as if it were written by a seasoned pro and not a 24-year-old kid who was in over his head. Eaton traced his fascination with Russia to 1901, when he was a secretary to John David Rockefeller. The oil baron was visited by the president of the University of Chicago, who had just come back from Russia and spoke glowingly of its potential. Young Cyrus Eaton listened and was mesmerized. Decades later, Eaton got to know Nikita Khrushchev and his successors as Soviet prime minister, Alexi Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev. He took upon himself the mission of being a healing force between the two leading participants in the Cold War.

Richard Nixon had just been elected president, and Eaton saw the possibility of friendlier relations. “My attitude is this: I do not believe that any American is likely to become a Communist. We are satisfied with our capitalistic system and our democracy. Therefore, I feel I can point out favorable things about the Soviet Union without being accused of trying to sell communism to anyone or of becoming one myself.”

I threw everything I could think of at him. For instance, the Soviets had just invaded Czechoslovakia for showing unwelcome signs of independence from Moscow. Shot back Eaton: “The Russians use many arguments to justify the invasion and they are the same ones we use to defend our backing of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the war in Vietnam.”

So were the Soviets right to enter Czechoslovakia, I asked, again hoping to trip him up. “They well know my conviction that force is not the sound way of changing people’s minds,” Eaton replied.

I spent an interesting hour with a man more than three times my age, then went back to the newspaper to learn more about the fellow. The story that appeared a couple of days later remains a favorite of mine.

Death at 100 mph. The morning of Friday, January 17, 1969, began cold and overcast. Over the radio came news of a head-on collision just after midnight between two Illinois Central trains 50 miles south of Chicago—one a passenger train, The Campus, doing 100 mph. Three crew members died, including both locomotive engineers. I called the city desk from our apartment and got permission to go to the accident site, in hopes of figuring out what really happened.

The scene was the community of Indian Oaks, population 25. The railroad had two main tracks from there to Chicago over which trains ran in either direction, directed by signals controlled by the train dispatcher in Champaign. South of Indian Oaks was a third main track, also dispatcher-controlled.

I talked to police, then went in search of Illinois Central’s Chicago Division superintendent, who I found in the cook car of the derrick train picking up the wreckage. I told him what I suspected had happened, and he concurred, adding some other details. I found a pay phone and decided to compose the story on the spot rather than just dump my notes on a rewrite reporter; there were too many technical details. This is the explanation I dictated:

The dispatcher early Friday had routed an 81-car, northbound freight train on the track that ended at Indian Oaks. At this point, the block signal was switched from green (proceed) to red (stop) to halt the freight, because the southbound Campus train first had to pass on the remaining main track.

Three miles before the freight train reached Indiana Oaks, it passed an advance signal that showed yellow. This meant that the freight was to reduce speed to 30 mph or less—whatever necessary to enable it to stop at the next signal at the Indiana Oaks track junction.

But engineer R. W. Dinkleman was hampered by fog, which cut visibility to 75 to 100 feet. Division Supt. F. K. Stanford said he believes Dinkleman, because of the dense fog, misjudged where the Indian Oaks signal would be.

And when Dinkleman did see the signal pop into view at a distance of only a few feet—the signal that showed bright red—his train was still traveling too fast to come to a quick stop, Stanford believes.

As a result, the freight train stopped in the middle of the switch joining Tracks 2 and 3.

Two factors that could have prevented the accident even then did not happen. When the freight fouled Track 2, the block signals for the southbound passenger train automatically turned from green to red. Apparently, though, the Campus had already passed its last precautionary block signal before the accident scene, and the fog prevented the engineer from seeing the red light facing him at Indian Oaks until just before his speeding train hit the freight.

Months later, the Interstate Commerce Commission confirmed every fact in that narrative in its exhaustive report of the accident. I wonder whether any other reporter in Chicago could have deduced what happened or explained it as accurately. In any event, no other reporter bothered to show up.

Jesse Jackson writes me a letter

In July of 1969, 17 black youths seized the offices of the Chicago Building Trades Council, the federation of construction unions, to demand that high-paying construction jobs be opened up to African-Americans. It was the start of an uprising that would shake the city’s most politically powerful unions for months. The building trades were unions whose apprenticeships were handed down by fathers to sons, or by uncles to nephews, and nonwhites need not apply. For example, in 1969 blacks constituted just 6 percent of the apprentices in 12 construction unions and only 3 percent of the journeyman members.

By August pressure came to bear big time. The Coalition for United Community Action, representing 61 groups and led by a black minister, began picketing union construction sites on the South Side. The coalition wanted 10,000 blacks admitted to the building trades. Of course, this didn’t sit well with the unions, and they resisted. Then the Southern Christian Leadership Conference weighed in, and by late August talks between CUCA and the building trades began. But by then the demand was for 40,000 jobs, ten times the number being suggested by the unions. All this time I was writing news stories almost daily, unsure where all of this was headed.

Then the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a young Martin Luther King Jr. protege and director of Operation Breadbasket, an economic uplift organization for blacks, threw himself into the fray. At a construction side on the University of Illinois Chicago Circle campus, he was among 500 demonstrators and one of five arrested for trespassing. Rather than post $25 bail, he opted for the Cook County Jail.

The next morning, Jim Hoge, by then my newspaper’s editor in chief, visited me in the city room. Did I remember Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Jim asked? I said yes, vaguely. In 1963, Dr. King had been arrested in the Alabama city during a demonstration and did not make bond. A group of white clergymen issued a statement saying the battle against racism should be fought in the courts rather than the streets. Thus provoked, Dr. King penned “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to argue for nonviolent resistance to racism. He said people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.

What Hoge wanted me to do was to ask Jackson to write a public letter from Cook County Jail explaining why he was willing to be arrested and remain in custody. I told Jim I’d get right on it. I didn’t give myself much chance of getting that letter.

I called Operation Breadbasket and spoke to one of Jackson’s assistants, who I knew. We need to talk, I said. At Breadbasket headquarters, I explained what I wanted and why it was to Jackson’s advantage to follow through on the idea. The young man shook his head, but said he’d try.

The next morning, my phone rang. I’ve got what you want, said my contact. Jackson’s wife Jacqueline had visited him and was given a letter to deliver to me. “We are seeking meaningful participation in the American economy . . . not just a minimum wage but a livable wage,” he began. The letter went on to say why it was important for white and black workers to band together to achieve justice for all.

Hoge was elated that his idea had worked. The letter was splashed across the bottom half of the front page on September 11. Two days later, weakened by bronchial pneumonia contracted in the jail, Jackson was released on his recognizance.

My own feelings were mixed. On the one hand, being involved in this little stunt gave me a day’s notoriety, and perhaps I felt socially useful in achieving the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. But it was a stunt, no getting around that. It played on the memory of the bravery of Dr. King, dead just over a year from an assassin’s bullet.

It’s undeniable, however, that immediately thereafter Mayor Richard J. Daley abandoned his neutrality and tried to mediate a settlement. At that, he was quite unsuccessful. Tensions only kept escalating, and now white union members were facing off against the black demonstrators.

Matters reached a head on September 25 on South Canal Street. I could hear gunfire behind my back as a group of white building tradesmen fought a pitched battle with police and four black protestors outside a federal government office building where a hearing into the matter was being conducted. When order was restored ten minutes later, six blacks and four whites were in custody, four cops and a construction worker required ambulances and two guns and four expended cartridges lay unclaimed in the street.

That night, at home, I gave myself a pat on the back. I was in the midst of a big melee—a mini-riot—and had kept my cool. When the first edition deadline had approached, I found a pay phone, told the rewrite man I’d dictate the complete story from top to bottom and did just that, propping the phone against my shoulder as I consulted my notes. Any reporter will tell you that composing a news story on the phone is an acquired skill, and at age 25 I had acquired it.

I have no doubt that Mayor Daley told the building trades to stop the violence at once, or else. Talks dragged on for months, until early 1970. Then one Friday morning, January 9, I got a call from someone intimately involved in the negotiations, someone who swore he would get in touch if an agreement were ever reached. That person was Charles Swibel, chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. Swibel was trusted by both Mayor Daley and the coalition of black groups to mediate the dispute, which he had patiently done for months. I had gotten to know Swibel through a mutual friend and had even been in his home in Skokie a time or two. Charlie got right to the point. There’s a deal, he said, but you can’t say I said it. He even let me read the official, signed document in his office and take notes from it. I phoned Tom Nayder, the number-two person at the Chicago Building Trades Council—he and I had a grudging respect for each other. It’s true, he said, reluctant as he was to let anything out before an official announcement the following Monday. He confirmed the basic outline of the agreement, which was to train 4,000 black youths for construction jobs over the next three years. This was essentially the deal the black groups had rejected months earlier.

At 3:35 p.m. that afternoon, after the first edition deadlines of both morning papers, I called “Jimmy Hoffa”—Jim Strong—at the Tribune. Here’s what the Sun-Times will publish, I said, for once stealing a beat on my dear friend and chief rival. When the One-Star Edition came up at 5 o’clock, my story was on the top of Page One. And best of all, it carried a 20-point tag line that warms any reporter’s heart: EXCLUSIVE.

George Meany liked to play golf

I didn’t realize when I started covering the labor movement that it came with a huge fringe benefit—a gift that kept on giving, year after year. In fact, if you count the time I spent on this beat at both the Sun-Times and later at U.S. News & World Report, this fringe benefit amounted to ten weeks of warm vacation at a luxury hotel near Miami Beach in the middle of winter, all my expenses paid.

I’m talking about the annual pilgrimage of the AFL-CIO Executive Council to the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour, Fla. The council was made up of almost three dozen presidents of the biggest unions affiliated with the labor federation. They would confer for a week every morning among themselves or with invited guests, privately. Then George Meany, the formidable president of the AFL-CIO, would emerge to brief reporters on what had transpired, react to the news of the day, and answer our questions until we were all exhausted. After that, Meany would gather a few friends and play golf the rest of the afternoon at the Doral Golf Club (later, of course, a Donald Trump property). Even at age 75, he could sometimes score in the low 80s.

Today, decades later, I miss George Meany. Compared to his successors at the AFL-CIO—and if you want to be truthful, to just about everyone else in American life now—he was a giant. Squat and plump, with thick glasses and his ever-present cigar, this former plumber didn’t impress you with his looks. Rather, he led with his integrity. Personally, he was morally incorruptible. He wanted what was best for American working men and women, and would work with either political party to achieve such goals. He was a patriot, too, in the Cold War a staunch anti-Communist who lent the AFL-CIO’s powerful connections with labor unions in western and eastern Europe to the services of his government. Few people realize what a vital role the AFL-CIO quietly played in helping unions behind the Iron Curtain break away from Soviet domination.

So when George Meany spoke, he made news. His utterances were blunt, plain-spoken. Deriding a proposed tax cut by President Richard Nixon in 1969, he said it would hand the Average Joe $50, “which he’ll hand over to the first head waiter he sees.”

My routine at these meetings during 1969-1971 went like this: At the Americana, I’d spend the morning on the beach and the early afternoon writing one, two or even three stories for the next morning’s Sun-Times that arose from Meany’s mid-day briefing. Usually I also snatched interviews all week for a Sunday feature story. Most evenings I and other reporters snared a union president to take to dinner—or a union president snared us. Late-evening entertainment was watching hookers wait for business to develop in the Americana’s crowded bar.

In 1970 in Bal Harbour, my Sunday story resulted from a two-hour interview with Meany—a real coup because he didn’t often sit down with individual reporters. I steered clear of issues of the day. Instead I asked when he’d know it was time to step down. We talked about the health and strength of the labor movement. How effective was the AFL-CIO with Congress?

Of special interest was a split that had developed within labor’s ranks. The United Auto Workers, led by its founder Walter Reuther, had just withdrawn from the AFL-CIO and formed an alliance with the Teamsters Union. Together, the two biggest unions in the country seemed to signal they would form a labor confederation to compete against the AFL-CIO. I asked Meany what he thought.

“This is history repeating itself,” he replied. In 1934, John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers indicted the American Federation of Labor for failing to organize mass-production industries. “I was at the 1934 AFL convention,” Meany said, “and Lewis made quite a showing. He came to the convention in 1935 in Atlantic City, and his strength had grown tremendously. Some of the old-timers said, ‘Give him another year and he’ll be all right’

“But Lewis didn’t want another year. He wanted to split.” Lewis took the UMW out of the AFL and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which in often-violent campaigns swiftly organized the auto, steel, tire, meatpacking and other big industries spurned by the craft-oriented AFL. Three decades passed before the two federations united as the AFL-CIO. Now Meany feared it was happening again. “The formation of the CIO was a shot in the arm to the labor movement. We don’t need a shot in the arm now.”

In fact, the AFL-CIO did need a shot in the arm, but the normally astute Meany failed to recognize that. Organized labor in 1970 was at the height of its power and influence. From that point, it would all be a slow downhill roll. Outside of government and a few key industries, the role of unions today is peripheral.

The story I wrote from Bal Harbour for Sunday’s paper as a result of that chat revealed a reflective side of a public figure who seldom let his guard down in public. Emmet Dedmon, the executive editor, came out of his lair when I returned to Chicago to give me a loud attaboy in the city room. Emmet, he of the mighty temper, didn’t do that often.

One more thing about Bal Harbour and those mid-February meetings of the AFL-CIO. In 1974 I would again cover the workplace, this time for U.S. News & World Report newsmagazine. The beauty of working for a weekly publication was that I wrote only one story that week, on whatever theme seemed most appropriate. At U.S. News, I’d go to Florida two weeks instead of one, to also cover meetings of the AFL-CIO building-trades unions. Ultimately, I would secretly report and write my Bal Harbour stories before I even left Washington, D.C., taking them with me to turn in on deadline. You can imagine how relaxing such weeks were for me in Florida. I watched those newspaper and wire service reporters batting out stories all afternoon with wry amusement.

Burying Colonel McCormick

When I joined the Sun-Times, it was an article of faith on my part that, given time, my newspaper could overtake and eclipse the mighty Chicago Tribune. The Trib was “caught in a time warp,” as it later admitted on its own pages. Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, known as The Colonel (or just Bertie to his family) had ruled the Tribune Company for almost half a century before his death on April 1, 1955. He was staunchly conservative, and the news columns of the Tribune plainly reflected McCormick’s partisanship.

Shortly before his death, McCormick summoned his three most loyal lieutenants to his winter home in Florida. One he made publisher of the Tribune and one its general manager. To Don Maxwell he bestowed the big prize, that of editor. It seemed to even casual readers of the Tribune more than a dozen years later that Maxwell’s main goal in life thereafter became keeping The Colonel’s spirit alive. The paper was and remained a typographical mess, something that belonged in the 1930s. The pro-Republican partisanship it was so well known for (remember “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” in 1948?) lived on in the news columns, too. The world was changing, but not the Chicago Tribune. Therein resided my hope that the Sun-Times could dominate the city’s newspaper world.

The “Ho Chi Kennedy” editorial of February 21, 1966, became a classic example of the strident voice of the Tribune. The Vietnam war was being ramped up by President Lyndon Johnson at a rapid pace, but evidence that the North Vietnamese-backed Viet Cong were being defeated in South Vietnam was scant. Massachusetts Senator Robert Kennedy proposed a political solution that would give the Viet Cong a voice in South Vietnam’s government.

The Tribune reacted as if Kennedy had suggested that Nikita Khrushchev be made vice president of the United States. It plastered on its front page an editorial titled “Ho Chi Kennedy” that all but called the senator a traitor. It did, in fact, label Kennedy the “senior senator from Communist North Vietnam.”

When a bundle of the home edition of the Tribune was delivered to the Sun-Times at 11 that evening, my future colleague John Adam Moreau couldn’t believe his eyes. He decided upon little practical joke. John Adam later said that another night-side reporter, Dick Foster, put him up to it, but Foster claims his hands were clean.

What John Adam did was open the north suburban phone book, find Maxwell’s home phone number in Evanston, and dial it. Maxwell’s groggy voice answered.

“Mista Maxwell, diss is Louie, down at the union hall,” John Adam said. “We’s don’t like the editorial about Senator Kennedy. Very disrespectful. He was the president’s brudda. So we’s and a bunch of other unions guys are gonna to throw up picket lines at the Tribune tomorrow morning at 10, to teach yous bums a lesson. Be there.” And he hung up. When a newspaper behaves like a bully, you can play the jolly prankster with a clear conscience.

Maxwell retired and in 1969 was succeeded by Clayton Kirkpatrick, who had been the Trib’s executive editor. Outwardly, Kirkpatrick seemed just another loyal Tribune lifer, but in fact he became the undertaker who quickly, effectively buried The Colonel. Quoting the New York Times’ 2004 obituary: “Mr. Kirkpatrick immediately wrote an editorial telling Tribune readers that they could expect changes in both the editorial page and news columns, and that ‘no political party’ should take the Tribune for granted.”

Jump ahead to 1973. I was Chicago bureau chief for the newsmagazine U.S.News & World Report and was told by my editor, Marvin Stone, to arrange some visits with Chicago movers and shakers when he came to town for a visit. I immediately booked a dinner reservation for the Stones, Kirkpatricks, and Fraileys, for the sole purpose of learning for myself who was this guy kicking the Tribune into fighting form. By the time that dinner ended, after listening to Kirkpatrick expand on his vision of what the Chicago Tribune could be without Colonel McCormick’s ghost hanging around, I knew the Sun-Times would forever have to fight like hell to survive.

Murder, mayhem, and Art Petacque

Art Petacque in 1991

Chicago once was and still remained when I got there a raucous newspaper town. In 1910, at age 16, Ben Hecht fled the University of Wisconsin and came to Chicago with $50 in his pocket. A relative recognized him on the street and found him a job at the Chicago Journal. There his task each workday was to steal photographs of people who died violent deaths, it being unseemly to publish graphic photos of the dead and mutilated. Benny Hecht was good at sneaking into bedrooms and opening cabinets while relatives sobbed nearby. Once he came back with a 4-by-6 foot oil painting of the deceased (it was returned). The head copy boy at the Journal then was a youngster named Harry Romanoff, age 19, who yearned to be a reporter.

Fast-forward to 1966, and I’m a newly minted reporter at the Sun-Times. Across Michigan Avenue at Chicago’s American still labored roly-poly Harry Romanoff, then the night city editor. A legendary figure in newspaper circles, he remained capable of old tricks. When Richard Speck that summer was identified as the murderer of eight Filipino nurses, Romanoff swung into action. According to Walter Jacobson, Harry phoned a cop involved in the probe, identified himself as a deputy Cook County coroner, asked for detailed descriptions of the deadly wounds—and got them. Then, posing as Speck’s attorney, he called the accused man’s mother and got exclusive details on the Speck’s troubled boyhood and early adulthood. This was classic Chicago journalism, immortalized by none other than Hecht (and co-conspirator Charles MacArthur) in the 1928 play “The Front Page,” made into a Billy Wilder-directed movie in 1974 starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. And lest I forget, upon his death in December 1970, Harry Romanoff rated a splendid sendoff in the New York Times.

In “A Child of the Century,” published in 1954, Hecht writes of the newspaper world he inhabited: “There was the reporter who had written a book called ‘The Lights and Shadows in a Chorus Girl’s Life,’ the reporter who had been to London and smelled of high-priced cologne, the reporter who had tried for several years to be a priest, the reporter who had mysterious connections with a West Side pawnshop and was an authority on the underworld, the reporter whose father was a general in the U.S. Army and who phoned in his story of a court trial with the opening words, ‘The State’s Attorney won a Fabian victory today.’ There was the reporter who was taking a correspondence course in embalming (hoping thus to rise in the world), the reporter who stood in the local-room window during a thunderstorm and defied God, if there was a God, to strike him (and the city editor) with lightning, the reporter who drew geometrical figures on paper illustrating some peculiar Hindu concept of the sexuality of the universe, the reporter whose wife was always dying, the reporter embittered by gonorrhea, and the reporter who, like Charlemagne in the land of the Saracens, had futtered an entire whore house of twenty-five damsels in one night. . . . Scores of them return vaguely to my mind.”

A glimpse into the times: In August 1914, Hecht stayed up all night drinking beside the gallows with fellow reporters. They awaited the hanging in suburban Wheaton of Henry Spencer, convicted of bludgeoning to death his old maid lover, who in exchange for his caresses and promise of marriage had let him empty her bank account. The knot was inexpertly tied, and as Spencer choked to death at the end of a rope, the city desk wired him to keep the story short; World War I had begun moments before.

The cast of characters I encountered was different, of course, but no less interesting or varied—see Inhabitants of the Zoo. One of them in particular brings back images of “The Front Page” days, because for three years I sat in the desk in front of his and listened to him do his thing. I’m talking about Art Petacque.

Before I knew Art Petacque (pea-TACK), I knew of Art Petacque. Absorbing the Sun-Times in the University of Kansas reading room, I saw his fingerprints on almost every story about violent, sensational murders. And his specialty was what I came to call the fourth-day lead. The first day’s story was the crime, the second day’s the initial trail of suspicion, the third day’s the widening investigation. But at that point, absent an arrest or other startling new development, most crime stories started heading toward the ditch. What else was there to say? Ask Art Petacque, who by then was only warming up. Calling cops or prosecutors or family members or whoever, he would come up with an angle that made the fourth day lead and kept the story alive and on the front page. Never ask yourself too long whether this was truth or bullshit, because it was usually a mix of both, which is the essence of Chicago crime reporting. Then Art would gather his notes and other background material and pull up a chair beside Hugh Hough, the newspaper’s lead rewrite man, and start talking.

You see, Art didn’t write his own stories, or at least very seldom did (I vaguely recall a few exceptions). After Petacque’s death in 2001, my former colleague Jon Anderson wrote The Chicago Reader: “He was illiterate. And like many adults who cannot read or write, he developed his own coping mechanisms.”

Jon was mistaken. Art could read as well as anyone. He just couldn’t write an arresting newspaper story, or write it fast enough to satisfy his editors. So for decades he worked mainly with his friend Hough, whose specialty on rewrite was to take the notes of other reporters (usually over the phone) and turn them in minutes into tantalizing stories ready to be set in type. I’ve known countless others like Art who could talk the story but froze up and couldn’t put it on paper. But of such people, only Art had a collaborator as fast and cool and poetic as Hugh Hough.

They became such an inseparable team that when they were announced as winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Reporting in 1974, Art climbed atop a desk in the city room and said, “I wish Hugh were here to tell you how I feel.” (Hough had the day off and was playing a spectacular round of golf when summoned by a caddy to call the city desk. He replied, “I’m breaking 80. This had better be good.”)

In his obituary, Sun-Times reporter Neil Steinberg described Petacque quite accurately: “He was a colorful presence from a vanished age, with wild, unkempt eyebrows and a soggy cigar, drawing scraps of paper and matchbooks out of his pockets, reading notes on the doings of mobsters and madams.” Continued Steinberg: “Art Petacque was a police captain when he needed to be a police captain, and a doctor when he needed to be a doctor. He could be a burglar, too, if necessary, slipping into a basement window to snatch a photo for a story.”

The Art Petacque I got to know was a sweetheart of a guy, cracking jokes in his loud, hoarse voice one minute and getting his wife’s grocery list over the phone the next. He had a direct line to Chicago’s police superintendent, whoever that might be at the time; I know because I listened to Art’s side of their conversations. I never heard him impersonate a police captain to gain information, but I did hear him once turn into the coroner.

He took retirement in 1991 after an editor in chief decided Art and his reporting methods were an embarrassment to the newspaper. Well, let me tell you this: I still read the Chicago Sun-Times. Art Petacque could walk in there tomorrow and fit right in, and I mean no disrespect.

Looking for the union label

I wasn’t kidding Jim Peneff. I may have been a union member (The Newspaper Guild represented newsroom employees of the Sun-Times), but I didn’t know the first thing about them—their histories, their governance, their people, their goals or their foibles. One of the first calls I got was from a business agent for a Service Employees International Union local that represented Chicago area hospital workers. Irving Kurash invited me to lunch, where I learned two things. One was that when eating fiery-hot Chinese food, use rice rather than cold water to quell the heat; I’ve near forgotten that. Irv also said that Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago was about to offer an eight-week night course on how labor unions function. I immediately enrolled. Irv became a good friend and a valuable source (his calls often beginning, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but . . .”).

Next I visited bookstores and made a pleasant discovery. Historian Irving Bernstein had recently written a pair of books chronicling the struggles of the American labor movement: The Lean Years, focused on the 1920s, and The Turbulent Years, about the birth of industrial unions during the 1930s. Bernstein had a way of writing that made the pages come alive. Reading late at night of the conflicts of the 1930s, I realized the bravery of men and women who put their desire for a living wage above their own safety and immediate security. I thought, who do I know in my own life with this courage? Nobody. Their sons and daughters probably attended college with me because they fought so hard, when it wasn’t easy, for the right to collective bargaining. It began to dawn on me I would be writing about (and sometimes criticizing) an institution and the people within it that had profoundly changed our nation. The people are not politicians or captains of industry, but at heart, ordinary people. Thank you, Irving Bernstein. I still own both books.

For the most part, I enjoyed being around union people. Few were college graduates, and most got where they were by seeking and winning elections for union office. They were people persons, in other words—easy to talk to, respectful of the fact there would be no union workers without union employers, and usually at least a wee bit idealistic. There were bad apples, too. I’d hear that this person or that was mobbed up, and invariably they were the ones who would never return my phone calls.

In the late 1960s unions were at the peak of their power. About one in every four non-management workers carried a union card. In Chicago, the ratio was probably one in three, or even one in two. When George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO spoke, people listened. Today I dare you to name the president of the AFL-CIO. This was before Japanese and German and Korean automobiles flooded our shores, before apparel makers moved their manufacturing to Asia, before nonunion mini-mills hollowed-out the big steel companies, before the nation’s manufacturing sector withered. I quickly realized the importance of the beat I’d just been assigned to. It almost guaranteed me daily bylines.

My first big assignment was a convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO in Springfield, at the end of September 1968. At either the state or national level, the AFL-CIO is a sort of trade association of labor unions. A lot of good stories came out of those three days. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the Democratic nominee for president that fall, cancelled his keynote address to the group at the last minute. Humphrey made no friends when it was learned he stiffed the Illinois unions to address the Minnesota AFL-CIO convention instead.

I got to observe the state AFL-CIO president, Reuben Soderstrom, then a young 80 years of age. I felt a bit of kinship with Soderstrom, because he too was a newspaperman—by training, a Linotype operator for the daily newspaper in Streator, a county seat not too far from Springfield. Of course, he had forsaken that job to be a union politician. A motion at the convention to forcibly retire the fellow in 1972 when his term ended (and he would be age 84) was narrowly defeated. Asked if he had any plan to retire then anyway, Soderstrom told me, “Unfortunately not.” The secretary-treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO and heir apparent was himself 68 years old.

I could tell already I was going to like the labor beat.

I also got to know three other people who would figure large in my life in years to come: the labor writers for the other three Chicago newspapers. Robert Lewin of the Chicago Daily News, the afternoon sister of the morning Sun-Times, was the dean of this trio, having covered labor since the founding of the city, or so it seemed. Slender and with wispy white hair, wire-rim glasses and a bent-over way of walking, he looked at least a dozen years older than his actual age, whatever it was. But don’t be deceived. Maybe Bob’s writing was flat and dull, but he regularly landed on the front page of his paper with news of strikes that none of his competitors knew were coming. One Lewin story: I got word one day that Bob had been struck by a car while crossing a street and tossed into the air. Knowing how frail he looked, I told folks he might never work again. A day later, there was Bob Lewin at a news conference, not a bandage in sight. “I don’t give up easily,” he told me with a smile.

Don Harris covered the beat for Chicago’s American, the afternoon paper owned by the Chicago Tribune. Don, who replaced Marty O’Connor, was comparatively new to the beat. He remembers watching Lewin compose a story by writing longhand in a notebook, and then phoning it to his office—this was decades before iPads and laptops. “We were on deadline, and that’s when I decided I had to learn how to write a story in longhand,” Don later said. He would stick it out until just before his newspaper went out of business in 1974, landing the same job in Phoenix with the Arizona Republic. There, surrounded in a pitched battle between striking copper miners and the Arizona state police, Don heard rubber bullets whiz by and dodged flying rocks, wondering all the time why he wasn’t in another line of work. We corresponded recently, and way past everyone else’s retirement age, Don Harris remains a newspaperman, editing stories part time for a Phoenix publication.

The competitor I came to know best was James Strong of the mighty Tribune. I called him Jimmy, as in Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters Union. Jimmy was then in his 30s, of medium build and a shiny bald head. His gift was his ebullient personality. He could talk to a lamppost and get it to respond. In other words, he was a fearsome fellow to compete against, especially if you are an introvert like me, because he cultivated sources easily.

Of all the reporters and writers I’ve worked side by side with and against, I like and respect Jim Strong above all. This is how tight we quickly became, even as rivals, each working for competing morning newspapers: Our first edition deadlines were both at 3:30 p.m., with presses starting 90 minutes later. I mention this because if one of us scooped the other, by the time the loser realized his predicament, it would be after business hours, and sources would be hard to find. So we came to an agreement. If I scooped him, I’d call him from my desk at 3:35 p.m. and give him the gist of what the first edition of the Sun-Times would say. Far more often, I would be the one getting that 3:35 p.m. call. I’d answer and hear him say in a whisper, “This is Jimmy Hoffa.” After the call, I’d walk to the city desk. “Jim,” I’d tell Peneff, “I just learned that such-and-such is happening. I’ll jump right on it and write something for the home edition before I go home,” and my boss would nod his assent. Then I’d add, “Oh, my source also said he told the Trib about this, and it may be in their first press run.” Our One-Star edition was a short run, for local newsstands.

I guess the term for this arrangement is honor among thieves.

Me cover unions? No way!

On Friday, August 9, 1968, Jim Peneff, the day assistant city editor, called me in from Mount Prospect for a chat. I had an idea of his agenda. I’d been covering the northwest suburbs for more than two years and done a pretty good job. I faulted myself (although not to others) for not being more aggressive in meeting people and sniffing out good stories. But I was as dependable as a railroad watch. I hoped Peneff would suggest a new assignment, one that would bring me downtown to the city room.

First, I need to digress: Everybody loved Jim Peneff. He was then 56 years old and proving to be a leader reporters wanted to please. Born in Ruse, Bulgaria, his parents brought him to the U.S. at age 11 months. Bob Greene once wrote of him: “In a world of soaring and clashing egos, Peneff is a man of humility; those of us who worked for him never saw him try to make himself look good on the strength of his reporters’ work.” When he talked to you, Jim would lean forward, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up and his tie askew to reveal salt-and-pepper chest hair. He wouldn’t look you in the eye, but instead come close to talk to your ear rather than your face. You felt you were getting the confidential skinny on whatever the topic of conversation was.

What Peneff said to me that Friday was simply this: “Fred, how would you like to be our labor writer? It’s a tough assignment but I think you’re ready for it.” What you need to understand is that to Jim Peneff, the labor beat was the best job on the newspaper. After banging around during the Great Depression—he attended but I do not think graduated from a small Illinois college—Jim landed a job on the pre-merger Chicago Times in 1944 and soon was covering labor. He stayed on that beat for 15 years. His experiences on that beat defined the man. So what he was offering me was what he would call the crown jewel.

And how did I react? “I’m not so sure, Jim. I don’t know much about unions and don’t really care, either.” But he persisted. “Good, then you’ll play things right down the middle.” What happened to the guy who got this beat six months ago, I asked? He was too weak, Jim replied, adding that poor Paul would henceforth cover real estate from a desk far back in the city room.

I am forever grateful that Peneff didn’t lose patience with me. “Look,” he finally said, “the United Steelworkers are having their convention here in nine days. Let’s do this. You come downtown next week and work up a story for that Sunday’s paper about the issues that will be on the table. Then cover the convention for us and see me in a week. If you’re still not interested, I’ll find something else for you to do.” What’s there to lose, I thought? I said yes.

I’ll stop again and retell an old Chicago story. Managing Editor Henry Justin Smith of the Chicago Daily News hired Carl Sandburg as a reporter in 1914, impressed as he was by the young man’s plain-spoken poetry (“. . . hog butcher of the world” and all that). But Smith didn’t know what to do with Sandburg, who didn’t display much initiative. So he sent him to cover the convention of the American Federation of Labor in Minneapolis. For three days, not a word from his correspondent, so Smith used Associated Press reports. On day four, violence and gunfire erupted at the tumultuous labor meeting, and still nothing from Sandburg. Defeated, Smith wired him to come home. Wired back Sandburg: “Dear Boss: Can’t leave now. Everything too important and exciting. Sandburg.”

So this was my Sandburg moment, to put up or shut up. The next Monday I made some phone calls and put my hook in the mouth of a whale, so to speak. One fourth of the Steelworkers’ 1.2 million members were blacks. But not one black sat on the union’s 32-member executive committee. Only one of its 14 department heads was black (and he ran the civil rights department). The leader of a protest group named the National Ad Hoc Committee told me his group of delegates, backed by non-delegate supporters of the cause to put blacks on the executive committee, would picket the convention on its second day.

This was a juicy story. Unions like the United Steelworkers called themselves champions of social justice, and here, at least at first glance, they weren’t walking the walk. And matters were made more complicated by the fact that all of the executive committee members were elected, three as national officers and the other 29 as district directors. This meant the union’s president, I. W. Abel, could not simply appoint a handful of blacks to an enlarged board.

To make a long story short, I hauled in that whale of a story. The other three Chicago newspapers (and their experienced labor writers) had not a clue this was going to happen. And the story I broke dominated the convention. By a 2-to-1 voice vote, delegates decided against creating a 33d seat on the executive committee to represent black members. Many delegates voting no were themselves black. Shouted Jimmy Jones of Pittsburgh during the debate: “I say to my black brothers: Get yourselves elected in your district. Then you can stand up like a man—not as somebody appointed by president Abel.”

In the end, the National Ad Hoc Committee sat down in private with Abel for a heart to heart. As did Jimmy Jones, he encouraged them to seek office in the next winter’s district director elections. And soon enough, black Steelworkers showed up on the executive committee.

And I was there when Jim Peneff got to work that Thursday morning, to inform him I absolutely, positively wanted to be the labor writer. Jim grinned and shook my hand. I was launched on a great adventure, one that would long outlast my tenure at the Sun-Times.

Great ball of fire!

Steam locomotive 844 and I entered this world months apart in 1944. The last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific, it never left that railroad’s active roster. Instead, it has served for half a century as UP’s good-will ambassador. With its 80-inch driving wheels, it is a magnificent machine that impresses people of all ages. Yesterday, Cathie and I rode behind the 844 from Denver to Cheyenne and back aboard the train the Denver Post and UP sponsor to celebrate Frontier Days in Cheyenne and benefit Colorado charities. We had seats in the dome of the coach named “Challenger.” My thanks to Chip Paquelet for giving hard-to-get tickets he couldn’t use to Dick Strong, and to Dick and Donna Strong for thinking of us.

Greeley, Colo., greets the 844 on its return trip to Denver.

“Where did all these people come from?” Cathie asked soon after we left the Denver yards. At every street crossing, at 7 on a Saturday morning, people were there to photograph our 18-car train or to wave us by (the men took photos, the women waved). I explained that there is a Cult of 844, and that notwithstanding the publicity that the Denver Post gave this round trip—our schedule was posted online for one and all to see—this locomotive goes nowhere without tens of thousands of people knowing.

844 on a 2009 outing in Nevada.

It really didn’t matter how far we got from Denver—the crowds were everywhere to watch this train pass. Pretty soon I abandoned my seat in the dome to go to the dance car immediately behind car “Challenger.” I found a spot in an opening of what had been a baggage car door, where I could listen to a western swing band play Bob Wills tunes and stuff of more recent vintage while feeling the breeze and inhaling the smoke from the locomotive ahead of us and waving to people celebrating an event of this nature.

My mind drifted back to another encounter with the 844, 48 years ago. We were both age 25 in 1969. The Sun-Times had sent me on a train-lover’s adventure of a lifetime. On a Tuesday and Wednesday, I had ridden Santa Fe Railway’s Super C, the fastest freight train ever scheduled, from Chicago to Los Angeles in 36 hours. I would write a Sunday magazine piece about the experience. On Thursday I had a parlor car seat in the observation car of Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight from LA to San Francisco. Friday had me leaving Oakland on the fabled domeliner, the California Zephyr, arriving in Salt Lake City Saturday morning. The beautiful Zephyr was on its last legs, soon to make its final run (luckily, Amtrak later revived it) and that was the topic of a second story.

In Utah, it was May 10, the centennial day of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. The meeting of locomotive cowcatchers was to be reenacted that morning at a new national park where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met, north of the Great Salt Lake at Promontory—yet another story for me. Buses took us to and from Promontory, by then a desolate locale in Box Elder County far from practically anywhere. Still, 15,000 people attended the ceremony. Transportation Secretary John Volpe took the original gold spike of 1869 and gently tapped it into a pre-drilled hole. Then Brigham City residents, outfitted in whiskers and clothes appropriate to that earlier day, presented a pageant depicting the moment 100 years earlier when America was linked by rail coast to coast. I wrote for the next day’s Sun-Times:

The actors said their words perfectly and the pageant was roundly applauded. The trouble with the reenactment was that it didn’t show everything. Gone were the bawdy Irish tracklayers and their quiet Chinese counterparts, the gamblers, the whores, and the saloon keepers who together had made the first transcontinental railroad an institution before it was even finished.

Afterward, back in Ogden, Utah, invited guests boarded a special train to Salt Lake City headed by, yes indeed, locomotive 844. I was stunned by the virtually nonstop crowds of people waiting to see this beautiful locomotive and its string of trailing passenger cars pass. Once back in Salt Lake City, I couldn’t help phoning in a sidebar to my main story:

The Union Pacific R.R. put a giant steam locomotive in front of a passenger train Saturday, and it nearly brought Ogden and Salt Lake City to a standstill. Some 50,000 to 75,000 persons, most of them under 30, lined the tracks along the 45 miles between the city. Nostalgic railroad employes in the yards were rapt. What they saw was the last steam locomotive UP owns and perhaps the largest anywhere that still runs.

So locomotive 844 and I have a long-standing relationship. It was a thrill to renew it yesterday. We’re both still going strong, in particular my friend, that great ball of fire.—Fred W. Frailey

My thing about trains

Without really intending to, I fairly quickly established a new beat at the Sun-Times: railroads. They blanketed Chicagoland and constituted one of the biggest concentrations of jobs. Five major railroads had their general offices downtown. Yet neither my paper nor the other three Chicago newspapers paid railroads much attention. Myself, I’ve been crazy about railroads all my life, and by 1968 I was peppering the city desk with ideas from my perch in suburban Mount Prospect.

The railroad business, under siege by truckers for freight business and by airlines and new interstate highways for passenger traffic, was visibly shrinking. Especially perilous was the predicament of passenger trains, then privately operated by railroads in that pre-Amtrak era. The October 1, 1967 Sunday Sun-Times put this story of mine on page 3:

LOUISVILLE — A railroad with century-old roots in Indiana ran its last regularly scheduled passenger train Saturday. The last runs of No. 5 and 6, the Louisville-to Chicago Thoroughbred on the Monon R.R., had something of a funeral flavor.

It was as if an old friend lay dying, and at stops along the 324-mile route, men and women came for one last time to see and sometimes to ride a slowly vanishing American creature, the intercity passenger train.

All too often, it developed upon questioning the riders, the last time they had ridden the Monon was the sunny Sunday afternoon when they went to visit Uncle Andy in, oh, was it 1949?

Aboard in impressive numbers, too, were railroad enthusiasts, that peculiar breed of man who can tell you in an instant how many trains leave LaSalle St. Station in Chicago on Sundays, and who can describe the descent of the Fast Mail down Cajon Pass with the sensitivity that a novelist lends to a tender love scene.

The swan song of the Thoroughbred, however, was more than just nostalgic. Many of the passengers were girls en route from Chicago to one of the half-dozen college towns on the railroad to see their boy friends. Others, attending school in Chicago, were headed home for the weekend, sometimes unaware there would be no Thoroughbred to take them back Sunday morning.

Granted, it was a bit out of the ordinary for a reporter stationed in the northwest suburbs to be proposing an Indiana story. But Jim Peneff, the day assistant city editor, snapped up the proposal and brought me into the city room from Mount Prospect for several days to do the reporting. And then of course I rode the final runs. What went unreported in my story was that the president of the Monon had his business car on the rear of the final northbound departure from Louisville. I introduced myself to him and got invited onto his car for breakfast, and then talked my way into a locomotive ride for 104 miles, from Bloomington to Lafayette.

In 1968, I went on something of a tear.

January 13: A Toast: 631 Club on the Rocks

 Patrons of the 631 Club were served their last drinks Friday night and then were cut off forever more. It was enough to bring a lump to a dry throat. The 631 Club is the name about 200 well-off and thirsty North Shore residents gave to the lounge car of the Chicago & North Western Railway’s passenger train that leaves Chicago nightly at 6:31 p.m.

The train travels between Chicago and Green Bay, Wis., but has stops at Highland Park and Lake Forest. For years, suburban executives have slouched comfortably in the lounge car’s swivel chairs and relaxed with a drink or two.

But Friday the North Western took the car out of service because it was losing money. The railway explained that the lounge emptied out at Lake Forest and pretty much stayed that way to Green Bay.

The one 631 Club patron who did not want to speak to me on that farewell run was William Johnson, president of the Illinois Central Railroad. He kept sinking lower and lower in his seat until he was pointed out to me, and I approached. “I don’t think it would be seemly for me to tell the North Western how to run its commuter service,” I quoted him as saying.

February 22, 1968:    LUXURY TRAIN’S LAST RUN

                                               Golden State Slides Into History

The Golden State, for 66 years the pride of its parent railroad, the Rock Island, went out of railroading and into the history books Wednesday night. The last Golden State slid into LaSalle St. Station from Los Angeles in the grand old manner—on time.

April 25, 1968: Train Men Lose Track of the Cat

This concerned a tabby named Tiger Paws who had been adopted by the maintenance workers at the “Zephyr Pit,” where Burlington Lines passenger trains were serviced just north of Roosevelt Road. The cat jumped aboard trains for a ride one too many times and was lost. My story reported that someone had found a haggard cat resembling Tiger Paws near the railroad not far from Aurora. But nobody from the railroad bothered to go out and retrieve the animal. My story concluded: “Too bad for you, Tiger Paws. Or whoever you are.”

August 4, 1968:  Rail Timetables? Collectors Busy Keeping Track

Believe it or not, there was (and still is) an association of collectors of railroad timetables, and they gathered in Chicago for a national convention. I am not making this up! I knew of the convention because I collected them, too, and attended the event at the Ascot House. It was too good an opportunity to write up as a feature, and zap, the 500 word piece was published the next day. The event was the last time I saw Owen Davies, a friend and seller of railroad timetables from a book store on North Clark Street. He died of a heart attack the next week.


 My Sunday magazine story featured Dick Jensen, a railroad enthusiast of such devotion that he bought three retired steam locomotives, one of them a former Grand Trunk Western behemoth still in operating condition and used on excursion passenger trains he organized. The “back story” is that his passion did not turn out well. Jensen was unable to finance the maintenance and storage of his GTW locomotive, which was sold for scrap to pay off his debts.

My partner in crime for many of these stories was Dick Takeuchi, editor of Midwest, the Sun-Times Sunday magazine. Dick had a soft spot for trains. And he was always hard up for good feature stories he could commission on his very limited budget. I ended up writing three Midwest cover stories concerning railroads, one of them my 1969 account of riding a freight train from Chicago to Los Angeles in 36 hours, four hours faster than Santa Fe Railway’s famous Super Chief passenger train. It left Chicago one morning before 10 a.m., and its 14 trailers of U.S. Postal Service mail were being unloaded in LA shortly after 8 o’clock the next evening. Top speed: 80 mph. And to imagine I got paid to experience this!

I have a few more railroad stories to recount, one of them a violent tragedy that still makes me shiver at the horror its victims underwent. But enough of railroads for now.

Inhabitants of the zoo

In an essay written late in his life, the movie critic Roger Ebert called working for the Sun-Times “the best damn job in the whole damn world.” A lot of us would agree. The staff that city editor Jim Hoge put together was a remarkable collection. But who were these people? We had centi-millionaires and perpetual debtors, old men and young women, blacks and whites, snazzy veterans like Harry Golden Jr. and neophytes right out of college like me (and Ebert, for that matter). This is my introduction to a cross-section of that group—impressions of some people I liked and remember fondly.

John Adam Moreau was one of the first people I met at the paper. In appearance, he reminded me of a preppy University of Virginia Law School graduate, right down to the bow tie he sometimes wore to work. In fact, he got his PhD in history there. A newspaper brat like me (he began writing for his dad in New Jersey at age 14), John Adam worked for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk for a spell. Returning from a job interview at the Minneapolis Tribune, he phoned the Sun-Times from Midway Airport to inquire about a job, then taxied downtown. Emmett Dedmon, the managing editor, hired him on the spot. That was September, 1965, nine months before I got there.

John Adam Moreau in the 1960s

Behind his urbane exterior labored one savvy reporter. In the weeks before and during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, while I kept the city safe in an Illinois National Guard uniform, Moreau scored one scoop after another. One exclusive story arose from what I can only call divine inspiration. The headquarters hotel of the convention was the Conrad Hilton, a 3,000-room affair on Michigan Avenue that once had its own movie theater and bowling alley. Prowling around in its basement, John Adam found where the waiters’ uniforms were kept and appropriated one.

Now outfitted as a Hilton employee, he was ready to walk into the meeting of the Texas delegation, where delegates were cooking up a draft-LBJ movement. Oh, but first he needed a small serving tray for the sake of appearance. So he popped into the first open reception room to find one. As luck would have it, he chose the Chicago Sun-Times reception, where Hoge and Dedmon watched him take dirty glasses off a serving tray and prepare to leave with it. Dedmon, who had a volcanic temper, erupted in outrage. What the hell are you doing? he shouted, perhaps not recognizing his own employee. John Adam says Hoge shot him a look that said: Stay cool, I’ll calm the boss. With Dedmon shouting expletives at his back, Moreau entered the Texans’ meeting with his tray. Hiding behind a partition, he scribbled notes as the draft-Lyndon movement tried to sputter to life and thereby got his exclusive. He claims to have returned the uniform.

Jon Anderson and Abra Prentice were the Beautiful People. Jon, a Canadian, possessed wicked good looks, a people personality, and a wonderful writing style. He had worked as a Time and Life correspondent in Montreal, New York, and Chicago before Hoge snared him. One thing you need to know about Abra is that her middle name was Rockefeller, being the great-granddaughter of patriarch John D. Gorgeous? Oh my. And with those looks came a resourceful mind. Jon and Abra met in the newsroom at the coffee stand and married in 1968.

Abra Prentiss in 1969

It’s said that during his trial for murdering eight Filipino nurses in 1966, Richard Speck could not take his eyes off Abra, who was covering the event for her newspaper. But then, neither could most of us in the city room.

I wish this love story had a happier ending. Jon and Abra left the paper to 1970 to co-write a society column called “Jon & Abra” for the Chicago Daily News, sister paper of the Sun-Times. Then they founded and underwrote Chicagoan, a “city magazine” that didn’t survive. Neither did their marriage. Jon spent the rest of his career at the Chicago Tribune, where he authored a popular column on the doings of people high and low. He died in 2014 at age 77, still uncommonly handsome and well mannered. The obituary written of him in the Trib makes me miss him all over again. Abra remarried and became a society figure and philanthropist, but not of the sort you may be thinking. She once posed nude (but in good taste, she said) for her Christmas card.

We thought of Bill Braden as our newsroom intellectual. In his spare time during his 38 years with the paper, Bill wrote three non-fiction books. One of them, The Age of Aquarius, prompted reviewer John Leonard in the New York Times to compare Bill to such social critics as Herbert Marcuse and Marshall McLuhan. In the newspaper, he liked to tackle stories that are hard to get your arms around, like the struggle of South Side neighborhoods to survive as nearby factory and steel mill jobs vanished.

For all of that, Braden was a happy-go-lucky fellow with a desk next to a long row of coat lockers. He would go through as many as five packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day. When the newspaper banned smoking in the newsroom, long after I departed, Bill could be found writing his stories in the smokers’ lounge, where the New York Times reported he formed a social group with other outcasts. Bill retired in 1994 and left us in 2008 at age 77.

Bill’s major failing was a tendency to wander into the weeds when making conversation. One afternoon after the first-edition deadline, political editor and columnist John Dreiske asked Bill to explain The Age of Aquarius to him. As reporter Dick Foster told me later, “Bill started talking about fissures in the technocratic society, influences of the post-constructionist views of the early Sartre, and on and on like that. Very heavy. All the time, Dreiske looked at him with a very sober look on his face, and at the exact right moment, he raised the palm of his hand to his mouth and yawned. And then he said, calmly, ‘Yes, Bill. Go on.’ Deadly.”

John Drieske in 1961

Dreiske never suffered fools. His decades covering Illinois politics, which is a foul field of endeavor, left John with a weary, wrinkled countenance across his wide face and ample forehead. Bill Harsh, who replaced me on the labor beat in 1971, recalls watching Dreiske on the floor of the Illinois senate one afternoon after adjournment. He walked by the desk of a black senator, Bernie Neistein, who represented a district in which he never set foot. Neistein had cast a vote that day that was the opposite of what people expected. Now Neistein appeared to be asleep. “Nice vote, Bernie,” Dreiske muttered as he walked by. Without opening his eyes, the politician replied, “The price was right.”

The image of him that sticks in my mind is that of an impatient Buddha, calm on the outside, maybe not so calm inside. Delores Cahill was an intense woman sitting near Dreiske. Until the late 1960s she covered religion. One day Dreiske said something that made her boiling mad. She stood up and started dressing John down in front of everyone. John listened stoically for a while. Then his face brightened and he said, “Ah, Delores, you’re ravishing when you’re mad.” That stopped Delores in mid sentence, and she sat down, still fuming but silenced.

Okay okay, just one more John Dreiske story. Delores left the “god beat” in 1969, succeeded by Roy Larson, an ordained minister who served five United Methodist congregations before coming to the Sun-Times. Roy was an affable fellow who tolerated my cussing and smoking, even when I put out cigarettes on the floor as we chatted. One day Roy was huddled in conversation with Delores at her desk about some church-related topic. Dreiske, who was nearby, leaned over and whispered, “Having a lovers’ quarrel, are we?” Roy was pissed. Upon Dreiske’s death in 1991, at age 84, his obituary in his own newspaper was so short, 170 words, that you have to wonder if his caustic wit left behind too many enemies. Neil Steinberg, the writer of that obit and today a columnist for the paper, can’t recall why Dreiske got such a perfunctory farewell, although “short-shifting our own was certainly a common practice. I remember an editor who didn’t know who Bill Mauldin was and wanted to give him 35 lines.”

Well, I looked up to that guy. John Dreiske was a fixture of the Chicago Times and later the Sun-Times for almost half a century, starting in the 1930s. I loved listening to his slow, steady voice. He was a reminder to me then that not all wisdom resided in young minds.

I have to mention Ralph Ulrich, who ruled the copy desk for 28 years. When the city desk had edited a story for content, it went to the copy desk to be edited for style and grammar and spelling, and for a headline to be composed. Ulrich was built like a football tackle and wore his hair in a crew cut. Fritz Plous describes him this way: “I can still see Ralph, shaped like a fireplug and clenching half a cigar in his teeth, as he got up from his desk and waddled slowly west through the city room, the offender’s copy hanging like a dead rat from his paw, until he arrived at the desk of the terrified reporter to explain exactly how he’d bollixed up the English language—again—and all the reporters would break off their typing and follow Ralph’s progress to see who was going to get it this time. Fortunately, it never was me.” John Adam Moreau says he and Ulrich “loved one another, the reason being I always went to the copy desk and delivered a thank you if my copy had been improved.”

Finally, there was copy boy Milton Munson. A University of Chicago dropout of indeterminate age, he affected a Fu Manchu mustache and wire-rim glasses, fashioned his brown hair into a pony tail and seemed to glide serenely around the city room. A copy boy’s job was first and foremost to scramble to a reporter’s desk at the sound of “Copy!” to deliver the multiple copies of typed pages to the city desk. Then they did everything else, like carry copies of each Sun-Times edition across Michigan Avenue to the Tribune and return with the latest Tribs. Everybody liked Milt. If you needed some recreational marijuana or hashish, Milt was your go-to man. He’d also take your tenner across the street to Billy Goat’s to fetch you some bourbon in a covered paper cup.

In his essay, Roger Ebert reveals Milt’s downfall. “One day an inspector from the Chicago Post Office came to our editor, James Hoge, with a puzzling discovery. Several hundred empty envelopes addressed to Ann Landers had been found in the trash behind an address in Hyde Park. With an eerie certainty, Jim called in Milton and asked him for his address. Milton, whose jobs included distributing mail, had been stealing the quarters sent in for Ann Landers’ pamphlet, Petting: When Does It Go Too Far? Discussing his firing after work at Billy Goat’s, he was philosophical: ‘Hundreds of kids can thank me that they were conceived.’”

This was the center of my professional life, particularly during my last three years with the paper, when I came in from the Mount Prospect office to work downtown. It was an honor to be around people like these. If I could, I’d have done it for nothing.

I never knew Mike Royko

Studs Terkel and Mike Royko

So don’t ask me what Mike Rokyo was like, because I don’t know. I had five years to walk to the other half (the Chicago Daily News half) of the fourth floor at 401 North Wabash and introduce myself to the legendary columnist, but never did. I met Irv Kupcinet, the Sun-Times gossip columnist for six decades and almost as famous in Chicago as Royko, only because Kup asked me to his private office once to quiz me about some labor skate he wanted to write about. I barely knew the legendary film critic Roger Ebert; we arrived within weeks of each other from state universities but occupied different acres of the big city room. No, I didn’t know Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer), although I could have launched a paper airplane from my desk to hers. And at the Dallas Times Herald I never offered my hand in fellowship to Blackie Sherrod, a sportswriter and columnist of such stature in the Lone Star State that people still avert their eyes in reverence at the mention of his name.

The legendary Blackie Sherrod

But I’m not done. I lunched sometimes at Billy Goat’s, a beer and hamburger joint beneath Wabash frequented by generations of Chicago newspaper reporters. The buns were toasted and the thin beef paddies dripped grease onto the bread—the perfect sandwich when spread with a bit of mustard and ketchup. But I never hung out at night at Riccardo’s, a restaurant and bar a block from the Sun-Times that was the staff’s unofficial watering hole. During periods of his life you’d find Ebert there almost every evening.

What the heck was wrong with me? Nothing, really. Give me a break, please, for being shy. What was I going to say to Blackie? “Mr. Sherrod, I don’t care much for sports so I seldom read your column, but I want to introduce myself anyway.” I terribly admired Rokyo, and read his columns every day at the University of Kansas for two years before settling down 100 feet from Royko’s desk. But such was Rokyo’s reputation that I was afraid how he’d react to my gushing and fawning. “Fuck off, kid,” or “Don’t you have something better to do?” I was not good at small talk and hadn’t the first notion of what to say to Eppie Lederer.

Kup, we called him

Today I wouldn’t make those mistakes. I’d do my damnedest to ingratiate myself with Roger Ebert, who had an ego the size of our building but was worth the effort anyway because he was brilliant. I’d wander to Sherrod’s desk in Dallas and say, “Blackie, I’m Fred, the new dumb kid. Let’s talk in Latin.” I’d tell Mike Royko he was my inspiration but that if I tried writing news stories with the sass that he wrote columns I’d be fired. To Eppie (Ann), whose lovelorn advice I read every day, I’d say, “Will you marry me?” I’d ask Kup if he’d take me to lunch with him at the Pump Room.

As for not hanging out at Riccardo’s, I was married, and Maggie had every right to expect me home after I got off at 6, and not at 10, smashed.

So I never knew Mike Royko. But there were so many interesting people I worked with who I did know that I never felt like an office wallflower. Paul Galloway said it best. What he liked most about the Sun-Times city room when he first saw it in 1969, he told Michael Miner, was its “hyperactive, study-hall kind of atmosphere, full of problem children. And I said to myself, ‘This is where I want to be.’ ” Me, too.

1967: Airport interviews and a mass arrests

I said I liked covering the northwest suburbs in part because my beat included O’Hare Airport. So many reporters hoofed their way there to interview arriving and departing bigwigs that American Airlines, then the largest user of the airport, kept a public relations office there. I was at O’Hare on July 1, 1967, when John Cardinal Cody returned from Rome, where he was elevated to cardinal by Pope Paul VI. Thousands were there to greet him, including Mayor Richard J. Daley. Nine days later I returned to interview evangelist Billy Graham, who returned from a visit to Yugoslavia. He said of Christians in that then-Communist nation: “They reminded me of early Christians in the New Testament.” Also that summer I found New York Senator Robert Kennedy and his large family at O’Hare, on their way to raft down the Colorado River in its namesake state. I asked whether he might challenge President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. This was months before Senator Eugene McCarthy exposed Johnson’s political weakness in early party primaries, and Kennedy brushed aside my questions. I remember thinking, rafting down the Colorado River? How quaint. I would later do it many times.

Also, one of my tasks was to meet President Johnson’s plane on the military side of O’Hare, whenever he came to town. One such time led to an exhilarating experience. The president landed in early evening, about 8 o’clock. Very quickly his entourage got into limos, which inserted themselves inside the protective cocoon of Secret Service and Chicago police vehicles. Then the mini-parade left the airport at high speed, headed for the nearby Kennedy Expressway. I decided, oh what the hell, and slid in behind the last car. Down the Kennedy we flew at 75 mph. I looked in the rear-view mirror, expecting to see cars with flashing red lights pursuing me. Would they shoot out my tires first? Nothing. The lanes were dark and empty behind me. So I just kept on going, staying about 100 yards behind the procession. And when the president and his guard flew off the Kennedy and onto downtown streets, each intersection blocked by squads of Chicago cops, I flew off, too, and got through the intersections before they could be reopened. In fact, I could see Johnson’s limo pull into a garage entrance of the Conrad Hilton off Michigan Avenue. This was decades before iPhones. I quickly drove to 401 N. Wabash, reported my man safe and sound at the Hilton, left and drove home.

But my most memorable assignment in 1967 took me to Milwaukee at the end of August. Why me? I guess I was available when Jerome Watson, who covered the Chicago suburbs nearest Milwaukee, was not. In any event, racial tensions were bubbling over. A white Catholic priest, the Rev. James Groppi, took up the cause of blacks seeking a fair-housing law in that industrial city, a law Milwaukee’s mayor opposed because it would speed the exodus of whites to suburbs. Freedom House, the headquarters of a coalition of black groups, was burned by arsonists, as was a nearby grocery. When hundreds of mostly young black youths marched through a working class white neighborhood the night of August 30, in defiance of a ban against marches proclaimed by the mayor, police in riot gear arrested about 100 of them.

I went to the offices of the Milwaukee Journal to write a long account, which I phoned to the city desk. The next day, I had company on the streets. Gene Roberts from the Atlanta bureau of the New York Times showed up, as did Nicholas Chriss from the Houston bureau of the Los Angeles Times. Roberts, who would later distinguish himself as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, was an imposing reporter parachuting into big regional stories like this. He tirelessly sought out the principals in the dispute for interviews, as well as whites and blacks who lined up on both sides. I did those same things, of course, but I was a kid and Gene was visiting royalty. I guess I’m trying to say that doors opened easily for the New York Times, but Gene Roberts sure knew how to knock.

We got along great. But immediately we got into an argument. Gene was from the Tarheel State, and insisted there was never a Union Station in Goldsboro, N.C. I was right, of course, because I knew my railroad geography from coast to coast, but who is to argue with Gene Roberts? Anyway, we helped each other the next night, August 31, when the tensions in that city again came close to boiling over. Father Groppi led 400 whites and blacks on a planned 25-block march to City Hall. But the procession only made it seven blocks from a church before vans of police pulled up and arrested 168 marchers. Back we reporters went to the Journal to write and phone in our stories.

The third night, all hell broke loose. Again Father Groppi tried to lead a march. Again the police broke it up. But this time the cops used tear gas and clubs, and the marchers hurled rocks and bottles at the police. At one point, police drove marchers into a church basement and then flooded it with tear gas. Each side blamed the other for the melee. I was in the middle, literally, hit by flying missiles and blinded a couple of times by tear gas. Yes, I found it all terribly exciting.

A couple of thoughts: Milwaukee adopted a fair housing law the following spring. James Groppi would lead more than 200 protest marches involving racial equality, the Vietnam war, treatment of American Indians and goodness knows what else, breaking with the Catholic church and marrying before his death at age 54 of brain cancer. Love him or hate him, he had moral clarity. And Fred Frailey, then age 23, didn’t forget watching Gene Roberts and Nick Chriss ply their craft with confidence. I got it into my head that becoming a national correspondent for a news organization was a goal worth pursuing, eventually. The opportunity would arise far sooner than I thought.

Those big stories I missed

THE event of 1967 was the January blizzard that buried Chicago under three feet of snow. It was the show-stopper of all show-stoppers. The city didn’t move—couldn’t move—for days. Tell me about it, please, because I wasn’t there. I spent the Blizzard of ’67 hundreds of miles away, in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., being miserably cold all the same as a basic trainee.

About one week into the job in Chicago, in June of 1966, I had a Monday off. Maggie said not to bother coming home without getting enlisted into the Illinois National Guard. I needed no convincing. The buildup of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was in full swing, and my years of student deferment from the draft were over. But getting that enlistment was no quick and easy feat. I wasn’t the only one trying to avoid the draft. I found an artillery battalion stationed in the Chicago Avenue Armory with openings. But such was the bureaucracy of the Illinois National Guard that it took about three months for me to be sworn in. On Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend I boarded a chartered Greyhound bus for the trip to Missouri and a leave of absence that would last through March 1967.

I was forever grateful not to become cannon fodder. And the fact of the matter is that I had plenty of subsequent opportunities to serve my country in uniform. Every time a major event occurred in Chicagoland—killer tornadoes, riots, political conventions—I found myself ordered to active duty in the Guard rather than writing about the events as a Sun-Times reporter.

Let’s go back to that blizzard. I found a YouTube segment that is worth watching. WFLD was the new Field Enterprises television station in Chicago, and it worked closely with the two Field newspapers, the afternoon Daily News and morning Sun-Times. Cameras were permanently placed below the ceilings inside both fourth floor newsrooms. When important news broke, WFLD switched to either or both city rooms for the latest news. So in this clip we first see a dour Daily News reporter, Harlan Draeger giving a summary of the storm’s impact. He all but puts me to sleep. Then we switch to the Sun-Times, and there’s our Dick Foster, shirt collar unbuttoned, smoking a cigarette. Dick removes the smoke, turns around to face the camera and says, “Well, it’s just about over.” Then he stands up and the camera recedes to reveal an almost empty newsroom. Unlike Harlan, who worked from a script, Dick speaks extemporaneously. He remarks that his own newspaper published only two of its five editions—“circulation trucks couldn’t get to the newsstands.” This was vintage Dick Foster—cherubic, happy-go-lucky, a damn good communicator. The other day, I emailed Dick a link to the YouTube clips—he was unaware of it.

On April 21, 1967, days after my return to the newspaper from basic training, our windows at the Mount Prospect office were pelted by heavy afternoon rain. Then the phone rang. It was Cecil Neth downtown. “Fred, a tornado just tore through Belvidere. Get out there and start phoning stuff in.” Belvidere is a town of 13,000, 50 miles northwest of Mount Prospect, and I got there at last light to see utter devastation. I took careful notes of the damage I saw, including a roofless high school (classes had just dismissed when the tornado came through). On the floor of the high school gym a morgue was established so 21 bodies could be identified. I interviewed dozens of people and phoned all of this to two other Sun-Times reporters in Chicago, one writing the main story and another a sidebar. Some time after midnight I said good night to the city desk and found a motel in nearby Rockford.

By 8 the next morning, a Saturday, I was back in Belvidere, but not for long. From a pay phone I called the city desk, which said the National Guard was looking for me—my unit had been activated by the governor to aid in disaster relief in Belvidere. So back to Chicago I went, to change into my olive uniform and combat boots and report to the armory, so that by mid afternoon I could be back in Belvidere, in a vastly different role. The active duty lasted only that one day. Sunday found me again in Belvidere to report and write a follow-up about the grieving, and believe me, there was plenty of it.

On April 5, 1968, the morning after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Chicago was as tense as a piano wire. Jim Casey, normally stationed at police headquarters for the Sun-Times, was touring the West Side in a patrol car. I was called in from Mount Prospect to stand in for him downtown. I had never been to Chicago police headquarters or its press room, and knew not the first thing to do about reporting what police knew about the rapidly decaying state of safety in the city. Reporters from the other newspapers and broadcast stations were too busy to help me, too. Do you ever have dreams in which you try to accomplish something and can’t seem to get it done? That was me. At 4 o’clock, just after the first edition deadline, Jim Peneff phoned from the city desk to say the governor had activated the National Guard. That night found me in a truck, patrolling the streets of the South Side in company with Chicago police cruisers. That was Friday.

This time, active duty lasted a week. On Saturday, Peneff called to ask that I write about my experiences for the newspaper. I sought permission from the National Guard and was told no—not permitted. Then someone in the guard had an idea. Why not write Maggie a letter? And if the letter read like a newspaper feature story and she just happened to give it to the Chicago Sun-Times, why, that would be permissible.

So that’s what I did. “Dear Margaret,” it began, and it told of my experiences in uniform the past two days. It consumed all of page 40 in Monday’s paper, with me pictured in helmet and an M16 slung over my shoulder. It was hokey, I admit, but served the purpose of telling readers what it was like to be a soldier in a riotous city. And it calmed my frustration at not being able to practice my writer’s craft.

Rereading the piece, I am impressed I wrote as well as I did then, scribbling in longhand in a room of the Washington Park Armory while my fellow guardsmen slept off a night on patrol along South Halsted Street.  An excerpt:

We sat in the trucks and were soon surrounded by small children. Most of them acted friendly. But a few had the discomforting habit of cursing viciously at us with wide, happy smiles on their faces. What the heck, I thought. I guess I’d be hacked off too if troops were stationed in my neighborhood.

One boy–maybe he was 8 years old–came up to the cab of my truck, looked at the “U.S. Army” insignia on my field jacket and said: “When I’m 18 I’m goin’ to join the Army, too . . . be on your side then.”

To the friendly voices as well as the angry ones, we replied not a word. Our orders were keep our mouths zippered. We were there to do a job, the officers told us, and not to make friends or enemies.

Only a few months later, again I was in uniform, this time “federalized” by President Johnson to protect the city during the Democratic National Convention. My job during the convention was  to drive the Jeep of the guard’s chief intelligence officer, Captain George Halas Jr., son of the owner of the Chicago Bears.

Halas, short and bald and very fit, had a flair for the dramatic. His task was to smoke out the action on the streets, to find the places where we thousands of guardsmen could be deployed to tamp down the tempers of both political protesters and Chicago policemen. On Monday evening of convention week he instructed me to take him to a location on the near South Side, where comedian Dick Gregory was trying to lead a “poor people’s procession” to the convention center several miles away.

Police blocked the procession of hundreds of people. Halas told me to park the Jeep and follow him. He went right to where Gregory and the police stood face to face. I was beside him, ducking down in my uniform to be inconspicuous. A police commander said to disperse or face arrest. Gregory replied that his group was nonviolent but would not stand down. So the commander reached for Gregory to place him under arrest. A big commotion began as policemen moved to begin mass arrests. Gregory yelled for people to stay calm. Halas turned to me and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

The next night we were cruising from Hyde Park toward downtown when we were stunned by a stray cloud of tear gas. Halas yelled to me to stop the Jeep until we had our gas masks on. That accomplished, we got on South Michigan Avenue to within a block of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, a massive structure of some 3,000 rooms that was headquarters hotel for the convention. We stopped in the middle of the intersection of Michigan and Van Buren—traffic on both streets was blocked. Stay here, Halas said, and disappeared into a big crowd of people standing in front of the hotel.

He was gone half an hour. In the interim, I could hear the crowd at the hotel roar and wondered what I was missing. Halas returned and told me. Cops had pushed protesters through the plate glass windows of the Conrad Hilton’s first floor in what was later called a “police riot.”

Several hours later, my battalion stood in front of the hotel, unloaded weapons at our sides, as things quieted down. The police had all but withdrawn from the area, leaving the National Guard in charge. Standing there, I could see political reporters returning to the hotel from the convention center, their evening’s work accomplished. Several of them I knew. At least they were doing something useful, I thought. All we were doing was protecting people from their own police force.

The post-midnight postings in front of the hotel went on three nights. Friday we were de-federalized and became civilians again. Saturday morning I boarded a train to Kansas for a vacation with my wife’s family. I had been through a tumultuous week, one that my Sun-Times colleagues would talk about as long as I remained at the newspaper. John Adam Moreau would later remark to me: “I can say without fear of being wrong that the S-T beat the entire world in coverage, not because we were on home turf but because our guys and gals worked harder and smarter than any other news people.  We just beat the hell out of the Times and the Washington Post.”  Amen to that, John Adam. What hurts is that I couldn’t be a part of that moment. Until I penned this blog 49 years after the fact, I wrote not a syllable about what I had seen and done.


What distinguishes newspapers is how they cover crime. For the Chicago Sun-Times, crime was the staple it could not get enough of. When I got there in 1966, the paper had three star reporters whose bread and butter was writing about high-profile crimes. To talk to them casually, however, you’d never know what they did for a living.

My fellow reporter during the late 1960s, John Adam Moreau, said flatly the other day that everyone he knew at the newspaper then who was over age 50 had a drinking problem. That would certainly apply to Ray Brennan (pictured exhaling tobacco smoke at left). Legend has it Ray once disappeared from the city room for more than a year. Then one day he reappeared, sat down at his desk and began making phone calls. “Where you been, Ray?” someone asked. All Brennan said was, “The bridge was up.” John Adam once asked Ray if this story were true. “I won’t deny it,” Ray responded.

There are lots of Ray Brennan stories. A 1952 Time magazine piece about Ray began thusly: “The Chicago Sun-Times’s Ray Brennan, 44, is a fast-thinking, fast-moving reporter who modestly puts down his long list of beats to ‘good luck.’ Once, while working in Chicago for the Associated Press, he made a routine long-distance checking call to Crown Point, Ind., and got the county prosecutor on the wire just in time to get a big exclusive: Gangster John Dillinger had crashed out of the Crown Point jail. Last week another and bigger beat landed Reporter Brennan in trouble. In Washington, a grand jury indicted him for impersonating a government employee. (Maximum penalty: three years in prison and a $1,000 fine.)”

In 1950, a U.S. Senate committee led by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee had asked a Chicago police captain named Daniel (Tubbo) Gilbert to testify. Gilbert spent lavishly, and in fact was tagged “the world’s richest cop.” He was also running then for sheriff of Cook County. However, Kefauver would not release Gilbert’s secret testimony, perhaps because Gilbert was a fellow Democrat.

So Brennan went to Washington, appeared at the office of the stenographic service that recorded the testimony and, saying he was office manager of the Kefauver committee, asked for a transcript of Gilbert’s appearance. He got it. Back Ray went to Chicago, where the next day’s Sun-Times splashed Gilbert’s incriminating testimony all over the front page. Tubbo lost the election and as Time reported, Brennan was indicted. In time the charges were dropped.

One day between deadlines Ray and I got to talking. In the early 1950s, he said, the Sun-Times was your typical big-city tabloid of the sort that mothers of young children didn’t want seen around the house. The paper’s editor then, Milburn P. Akers, was determined to elevate the image of the Sun-Times. As Ray told the story, Akers began weening the paper from its daily diet of blood-and-gore stories by tackling more serious subjects. But he wanted to keep the newspaper’s fingers in the crime bowl. To do so, Akers assigned Brennan to cover high-profile criminal trials all over the U.S. This Ray was happy to do. He wrote well, ate well, drank well on the paper’s expense account for several years, following explosive trials from city to city. Maybe that’s where he was those 53 weeks.

Ray wasn’t afraid to get to know gangsters. His most notorious association was with Roger Touhy, who made a fortune as a Chicago bootlegger during Prohibition, in the process becoming a rival of Al Capone. Touhy was convicted in 1934 of the kidnapping of John (Jake the Barber) Factor, brother of cosmetics kingpin Max Factor, Sr. However, there was also evidence that Capone had done the kidnapping as a way to implicate Touhy and get him out of the picture.

Decades later, in 1959, Brennan became the ghost writer of Touhy’s autobiography, The Stolen Years, which was instrumental in getting Touhy paroled from prison in Stateville, near Joliet. (That’s the two of them in Touhy’s prison cell.)

Three weeks later, Brennan and Touhy met for dinner at the Chicago Press Club. They discussed a lawsuit filed against Touhy by Max Factor. Then the men parted and Touhy returned home. On his front steps, he was gunned down and died soon thereafter.

I will say this: For a man who had lived the life he did, Ray Brennan was about the nicest and most likable man I’ve ever met. He died in 1972 of cancer, probably because like so many others of us, he was never without a cigarette in his hand.

Sandy Smith was another of the Sun-Times crimestopper team. Sandy worked at the Chicago Tribune for 20 years before crossing Michigan Avenue to join the Sun-Times in 1963. His specialty was writing about the Chicago crime syndicate. Nobody in Chicago journalism—not even Art Petacque at the Sun-Times or George Bliss at the Tribune—had better sources within the FBI than Sandy Smith. Sandy was brash, too. He’d show up uninvited at the parties of Chicago mobsters, the weddings of their children, and also their funerals (the mob had a habit of killing its own).

Around the city room, however, he was an unassuming guy. His passion was fly fishing. Sandy left the newspaper in 1967 to work for Time and eventually moved to Montana, I suppose to be closer to the fish. He died in 2005.

The third of this trio was the great Art Petacque. Art was bigger than life and deserves a book of his own. I can’t do that, but I’ll tell you his story another day.

Our man in Mount Prospect

How did the Sun-Times cover the Chicago suburbs? With a broad brush, is how. The Tribune had a suburban staff numbering in the twenties or thirties. Our suburban editor, my personable and capable boss Cecil Neth, had five of us, almost all ambitious youths in need of seasoning. Our territories were the north, northwest, west, and south-southwest suburbs and northwest Indiana. My beat was the northwest suburbs. I thought it the best because it included O’Hare Airport and also because my sector was growing the fastest. There was more going on there, it always seemed.

Headquarters was Mount Prospect, 20 miles from the Loop, in a suite on the second floor of a building leased by the newspaper’s circulation department. It was in the center of town, literally looking down on the busy Chicago & North Western Railway suburban station. Other sizable towns on my beat included Des Plaines, Arlington Heights, Barrington, Palatine, Elk Grove Village, Wheeling, and Schaumburg.

Mine was a wacky environment. The district circulation manager I’ll call Jack. He was middle-age, fairly big, wore a bushy mustache, and was always on the lookout for an angle. Here’s an example. Jack calls me into his office one afternoon. “Fred, I want to show you something. These are all my monthly bills. All ready to mail. What do you notice about them.” I reply that they could each use a stamp. “Exactly! Fred, you’re catching on. My return address is on each envelope. When the post office tries to collect the postage due, the envelopes will be returned to me. Then I’ll resend them, this time with a stamp. But for a couple of weeks I’ll have use of the money. You should try it, Fred.” I thought to myself that all this didn’t really add up, but congratulated Jack for his hustle—better to get along with him than to have him tell Cecil I’m a jerk.

Starting about 3 o’clock each afternoon, in an adjacent room—the one overlooking the railroad tracks—half a dozen women employed by the circulation department came to make cold calls. There was no way I could help but hear them. Here’s how their spiel went: “Good afternoon, I’m Mary Johnson, calling on behalf of Little Sisters of the Poor [I made up the name]. Our charity provides breakfasts for underprivileged children who would otherwise go to school hungry. Last year we helped 24,000 children in this manner. But we cannot do it by ourselves. The good news is that the Chicago Sun-Times is partnering with us. If you would agree to a three-month trial subscription to the Sun-Times for the modest sum of $25, the newspaper will make a generous contribution to Little Sisters of the Poor in your name. Can I count on your support?”

I was struck by several things. First of all, the women were a cheerful, friendly sort who chatted with each other between calls and took rejection with ease—you had to, or be driven mad by the job. They also doted on me, young enough in most instances to be their son. Second, did you notice that they never quite made clear who was paying them, the newspaper or the charity? Third, this pitch actually worked, according to Jack, or at least well enough that it went on the entire two years I worked out of Mount Prospect. Remember, this was the late Sixties, before robo-calls and do-not-call lists and all that. Telephone solicitors were not universally hated.

About 5:30 on slow afternoons, I’d visit the call center room and take a chair by the window. As I listened up close to six women make their pitch, I’d watch the parade of outbound suburban trains pass beneath me. Most stopped to disgorge scores of tired passengers eager to get home—so eager that engineers of these trains had to be careful not to run over them as their trains accelerated from the Mount Prospect stop. And some trains came by without stopping, on the middle of the three tracks, whistles blaring and making 60 mph. For a guy who loved trains, this was a welcome distraction.

Okay, I said the Sun-Times covered suburbia with a broad brush. What did that mean? Were I to do this again, I would have made appointments with the mayors, city managers, and police chiefs of each municipality and gone to introduce myself. I’d have asked them about the problems they faced and the successes they were celebrating. I’d have been receptive to their ideas of stories worth telling. At the very least, they’d have a face to associate with my name when I called them later.

But I didn’t do this because the newspaper wasn’t interested in the minutia of what was going on in all these places. I kept up with the minutia by reading the suburban daily newspapers. Rather, the Sun-Times was interested in the big stories—breaking news, it’s called today—and the good feature stories or “trend” pieces that applied to many or most of the suburbs ringing Chicago.

By way of example, here are stories I wrote during one week in July of 1966:

July 20: “2 Suburbs File Suit to Prevent High-Rise Apartment Construction” Pretty self explanatory, in that it applied to two municipalities.

July 21: “Mother in Tears” Richard Speck had murdered eight Filipino nurses a few days earlier. One woman survived by hiding under a bed. Her mother landed at O’Hare. This was a sensational crime story—Richard Speck would become a household name—and my job to follow the nurse’s mom as best I could all day. The story reads well, thanks to someone on rewrite who took my notes over the phone and crafted the story.

July 23: “Problem: Getting 50,000 Books To Viet GIs” Two suburban teenagers gathered 50,000 books to send to U.S. troops in Vietnam—quite a feat. But how to get them overseas? One of the girls was pictured sitting on a mountain of books. Less than a month later, I wrote in an update that a young member of Congress named Donald Rumsfeld arranged for the Army to fly the books to Vietnam.

July 25: “Suburb School District Head Retiring” This was a 600-word feature on a respected educator who guided the Arlington Heights schools through an explosive era of growth.

Then a red-letter day for me—my first Sun-Times story about railroads. A 2-year-old Des Plaines toddler had wandered off the unfenced property of his parents’ trailer park onto the Soo Line Railroad tracks. Along came a Soo Line freight, going too fast to stop in time. A brakeman on the locomotive ran onto the front steps of the engine and literally scooped the kid off the track before the wheels of the trains could crush him. I loved that story. It appeared on August 6.

I was getting used to the job, Cecil Neth gave me good feedback and all was well . . . except for an event I could not avoid, active duty in the Illinois National Guard. I was proud to serve, but it came at a professional price, which I’ll explain later.

The slap that got me going

On Thursday, June 9, 1966, Dallas McCall, a 17-year-old junior and football player for DeSable High School on the South Side, sat down beside a friend in the school lunchroom. As McCall later explained, the boy seated next to him stuck his finger in Dallas’ food. That precipitated a fight, and got both kids hauled to the office of the football coach, who had intervened to stop the ruckus. Both boys got slapped on the head three times by the coach and then were dismissed.

Six days later, Dallas McCall underwent surgery at County Hospital for repair of a punctured left eardrum. And the next morning Jim Peneff, the day assistant city editor, handed me a brief notice of the event distributed by City News Bureau and told me to develop a story.

By phone, I talked to the boy’s sister Chinetha and his mother Lula, who blamed the boy’s injury on the cuffing by the coach, Robert Bonner. I also spoke with Bonner, who admitted the slapping but denied it was severe enough to cause injury. Bonner said the boy had been disciplined four times in the past, and explained that’s why the incident went unreported to the school principal—he feared McCall would be suspended. Bonner speculated that McCall may have been hurt by food or dishes thrown during the fight. The DuSable principal wouldn’t return my calls. I wrote about 700 words and turned the story in.

Two things happened as a result. I’d bet my life that after reading this story, personal-injury attorneys began calling Lula McCall to propose she sue the Chicago public schools. And Fred Frailey got his first byline in the Chicago Sun-Times, in the Friday, June 17 edition. My story appeared above advertisements for wigs and briar pipes.

This happened at the conclusion of my second week at the paper. Jim Hoge, the city editor, hired some top-drawer reporters about the time I came along—people like David Murray from the New York Herald-Tribune and Harry Golden Jr. from the Detroit Free Press. These were guys who could walk in on Day One and handle anything you threw at them. And that’s exactly what Hoge liked to do. I recall his putting Murray to work immediately on some big think piece for the Sunday paper. I called such articles “Whither Chicago?” stories because while they were long and serious pieces, they usually provided few answers but merely posed more questions.

And then there were the Fred Fraileys, promising young men and women with relatively little experience, on whom Hoge decided to take a chance. I would write my share of “Whither Chicago?” pieces eventually. But first I had to grow up, so to speak. After those two weeks at the main offices at 401 North Wabash Street, just across the Chicago River from the Loop, I was sent to staff the newspaper’s northwest suburban bureau, in Mount Prospect, 20 miles distant.

I didn’t mind being exiled to the suburbs. I probably had more experience writing stories than 99 percent of the nation’s other journalism school graduates in 1966. But that didn’t mean I was seasoned and ready to tackle complex stories or that I could write with verve and a sense of style. Those things might come in time, but first I needed experience. I considered myself lucky just to be a Sun-Times suburban reporter and was proud to tell new acquaintances what I did for a living.

How I got the job

Jim Hoge (right) and managing editor Ralph Otwell in 1984.

(The Tribune was the establishment voice, but the Chicago Sun-Times, its morning competitor, was in many respects the best of the four dailies in that town, and the perfect place for a kid like me to learn how to compete in the big leagues. It had the hungriest and most talented staff of reporters, and the editors who knew how to deploy them. We were every bit the Trib’s equal in quality, and could even imagine in some distant time overtaking the Other Paper in circulation.)

When I came back to Lawrence for my senior year at the University of Kansas in September of 1965, I got serious about a job after graduation the following spring. Today the idea of a kid right out of college being hired by a metropolitan daily newspaper is the stuff of fantasy. In fact, by the mid 1970s it seemed to rarely occur. But there existed in the mid 1960s this sweet spot of supply and demand. The newspapers made lots of money and needed people. You didn’t necessarily have to spend years in the farm leagues. I was simply lucky by reason of my date of birth to even think of pulling off what I was about to launch.

Ken Smart, the city editor at the Dallas Times Herald, where I had just interned, had said to keep in touch, which was next to a job offer (he later made one). My chances at the Kansas City Star were good, too; I’d been the KU stringer to the Star for more than a year, and they seemed pleased with my work. Mike Miller, the KU stringer before me, became a Star lifer.

But what I really wanted was a job in Chicago. Chicago represented the apex of my world, the top of the pyramid, the capital of American journalism with four daily newspapers and the capital of American railroading, where every line seemed to meet. I downplayed the railroad part to people because it made me seem irrational, but such was and remains my love of that business that getting to Chicago mattered everything to me.

I had four choices, four potential employers, in Chicago. The Tribune I had no use for, and the same with Chicago’s American, the Tribune Company’s afternoon paper. The class act in Chicago, I thought, was the Chicago Daily News, the afternoon newspaper owned by Field Enterprises. It looked great—I had developed a liking for newspaper design—and read like a Midwest version of the New York Herald-Tribune. That’s my way of saying the Daily News people were of a literary bent and seemed to step back half a step from events and consider The Big Picture, which impressed me. I set my sights on getting aboard the Daily News. But then Charlie Corcoran messed with my mind.

Charles Adam Corcoran was (like me) a fourth-year journalism student who the previous summer had interned at the Chicago Sun-Times, a morning tabloid and sister to the Daily News in the Field Enterprise fold. Charlie, a Long Islander, transferred to KU from Hofstra University after his sophomore year, and the two of us became tight. He was irrepressible. Charlie said the Sun-Times had a younger staff than the Daily News and that the Sun-Times people were light years better in quality. The Daily News people went around with frowns on their faces, he said, while the Sun-Times folks had a lot of fun. And the Sun-Times was getting better whereas the Daily News sort of floated along.  Charlie went on and on like this—just wouldn’t shut up.

So instead of scanning only the Daily News and Herald-Trib (my two favorite papers) in the J-school library every day, I added the Sun-Times to the mix. Charlie also lent me a tabloid-sized book the newspaper had recently published explaining and illustrating its highly innovative design. The genius behind the fresh, bright look at the tabloid newspaper every day was Quentin P. Gore, a Tennessean (Al Gore’s cousin, legend has it) and assistant managing editor. Gore said no two Sun-Times front pages ever looked remotely the same, and as I looked at the hundreds of examples in his book, I had to agree.

Charlie did his sales job well. I decided to write letters to the city editors of both the Daily News and Sun-Times to tout my qualifications and ask for a job. I can’t recall who ran the Daily News city desk. The Sun-Times city editor was Jim Hoge, described by Charlie as young, handsome, rich, and incredibly smart. As I came to discover, Hoge was all those things.

The two letters went out in early December. Then I waited. My wife Maggie and I were visiting my parents in Texas over Christmas break when the phone rang. Mom picked it up, listened, and handed the receiver to me. “Somebody named Hoge,” she said. I swallowed and said hello.

Hoge said he’d gotten my letter, read my clips, and was interested. Could I come see him in late January and talk this over in person? So on Sunday, January 30, Maggie and I drove from eastern Kansas to Chicago. Maggie wanted to go to law school and had gotten appointments at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago on Monday.

It was a brutally cold day. Over the radio as we drove up U.S. Highway 66 in our 1956 Chevy, WLS reported that at 2 o’clock that afternoon the temperature had finally climbed above zero for the first time in 96 hours. We got to our hotel near the Water Tower late that evening, excited and exhausted at the same time.

Monday morning at 10 o’clock sharp I entered 401 N. Wabash and was directed to the fourth floor. In the newsroom, Hoge’s administrative assistant, Irma Weiner, was surprised to see me. She had never heard of me, actually. “Mr. Hoge won’t be here today,” Irma said, looking uncomfortable. “He and his wife are skiing in Colorado.” But she got on the phone and located Hoge somewhere in the Rockies. “He says he’s sorry and asks if you could come back at 10 tomorrow.” I said sure and spent the day watching trains.

Back I went on Tuesday morning. This time I really did get to meet James Fulton Hoge Jr. Raised in New York City, he was the son of a partner in a white-glove law firm and graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale University, and then (for good measure) the University of Chicago. From there he appears to have gone straight to the Washington bureau of the Sun-Times. His wife Alice Patterson Albright came from Chicago royalty. Her grandfather was Joseph Patterson, founder of the fabulously successful tabloid New York Daily News, and Patterson’s grandfather was Joseph Medill, founder of the fabulously successful Chicago Tribune. Just thinking about this today makes my sinuses sore. By 1964, still shy of age 30 and a journalism rock star, Hoge had become city editor of the Sun-Times.

The man totally unnerved me. Look, he had movie star looks and, so far as I could tell then, Einstein brains. You couldn’t help but notice his thick blond hair, piercing blue eyes and Kirk Douglas chin. Everything he wore looked as if it had been cut by the tailor’s scissors, because it probably had. He spoke with authority and (according to Charlie) had the loyalty of his staff. To put this another way, Jim Hoge was all the things I was not.

I cannot recall a single thing that was said that morning. Our meeting was brief. Hoge had been on vacation and had lots to do. I think he was inclined all along to hire me but wanted to look me over first and make sure I didn’t slobber as I spoke. Hoge said he’d soon be in touch. I collected my wife at the hotel, and we drove like crazy back to Kansas.

A few weeks later I got a letter. Or maybe it was a phone call. Whichever, Hoge wanted to know when I could start work. I’d start at $112.50 per week, union scale for newbies.

Hooray! Freddie Frailey from Sulphur Springs, Tex., had made The Big Time!

I thanked Charlie Corcoran then for beating common sense into me. I tried to thank him again the other day, and all I got when I Googled his name was an obituary.

PS: Maggie got a full scholarship to Northwestern University’s School of Law.

PPS: The following summer, the post office in Lawrence forwarded a letter to me in Chicago. It was from the city editor of the Chicago Daily News. He had just assumed his new duties. In going through his desk, he came across the letter I had written his predecessor—the letter that never drew a response. The new guy was impressed. Did I still want a job at the Daily News? I walked to the other side of the fourth floor, introduced myself, and thanked him sincerely for the offer. I think how this all worked out was God’s plan for me.