Remembering Mike Royko


Chicago Tribune photo.

"Find a writer who has something American to say, and nine times out of ten you will find he has some connection with the Gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan- he was bred there,or got his start there, or passed through there when he was young and tender." (Henry L. Mencken/American Mercury 1933)

In 1964 the Chicago Daily News gave a gawky goofy looking guy a column of his own. That guy went on to enrage, enlighten, and entertain Chicago for over 30 years.

On April 29, 1997, Mike Royko passed away. It seems the "Chicago School of Journalism" died the same day.

Mike Royko became the guy you loved to hate and hated to love.

Before the front page or sports page, before the murder and mayhem, people read Royko. For three decades Royko cranked out a column. "Dijareadroyko" was on the lips of many Chicagoans daily. On the bus, in the workplace, on the street, in the diners, and whispered in City Hall.

No matter how big or powerful, he could and would sting you. No matter how low or insignificant, he could champion your cause.

He could make you laugh, cry, or turn purple with rage, especially if you were being speared.

Mike Royko's secret was simple. The secret is the story of all success in Chicago. Hard work. To Royko the column was life. Before wife, children, or anything else, the column came first. Each word, sentence, punctuation mark, and paragraph were sweated over. Over and over again.

According to F.Richard Ciccone, in his biography, "Royko: A life in Print", the column was a "demon".

Royko lasted because he was Royko. He did not care about political correctness, whose oh so overly tender sensitivities he offended, or even the new protesting uber-sensitive young people who inhabited the 1990's newsroom.

He wrote what he wrote. Royko knew his audience. He knew what they wanted to read. What that audience did not want was watered down pablum.

Mike Royko would not survive in today's world of social media lynch mobs. Once the dog whistle of offense is blown, the Pavlovian low information dullards take to Facebook, Twitter, and to thrash, lash, and scourge.

They pester cowardly executives whose companies advertise. They reach out to perpetually offended groups and organizations calling for them to protest. In today's climate, even politicians, who should know better, respond to the dog whistle.

The days of crusading jousting journalism are over. The days of humor, satire, and comedic crucifixion are over. Making fun of people through language, no matter how corrupt, criminal, venal, or evil they are, is forbidden. Freedom of expression is controlled by fear. Fear of the dog whistle. Fear of the mob, the wad. Fear of the great brainwashed dullards who crowd think. The lynch mobs.

Today Mike Royko would be considered an "ist" or "phobic". A hater.

Language, like history, is being rewritten to satisfy the feeble tender sensitivities of the easily offended.

It is funny. Royko, the guy with little formal education, could wield the sword of language and insult without using profanity. Yet, the over educated young people who write for the so-called youth oriented media cannot refrain from using profanity. Being vulgar is oh so chic, hip, and intelligent.

They are the first to blow the dog whistle of offense. Go figure.

Royko did not wallow in vulgarity and profanity. Royko had intellect and talent.

Mike Royko is remembered fondly by many in Chicago. Those who worked for and with him on newspapers, people in the business he met and encouraged (sometimes to their surprise), the people at the bar(s), and the folks who read his columns.

Whether you laughed, cried, or raged, you remember Mike Royko. That remembrance is a legacy in and of itself.

Finding a writer with something American to say is harder and harder. Journalists or columnists who know the streets, alleys, els, working stiffs, and real people are rare. Finding one who can talk like and appeal to them is even rarer. Oh, there are a few still out there, still hanging on. But for how long?

Mike Royko left behind a legacy. A legacy of hard work and spirited writing. A legacy of almost 8000 columns. Oh, and a legacy of tales. Tales of late nights and revelry in Chicago. Those days are gone too.  The young, hip, vulgar, oh so respectable "journalists" go home to their mommies and daddies after work.

Chicago author and raconteur, Studs Terkel, summed up Royko's legacy best:

"He was possessed by a demon. How else to explain the tavern keeper's kid, in a world he never made, a world compressed into one, cockeyed wonder of  city; of "haves" kicking the bejeepers out of "have-nots"; of Jane Addams and Al Capone; of Florence Scala, a neighborhood heroine, and Richard J. Daley- and of Slats Grobnik, for God's saake. Royko was the right one in the right city at the right time: to tell us in small tales what this big, crazy world in the last half of the twentieth century was all about. And the devil made him do it." (The Best of Mike Royko One more Time/University of Chicago Press)

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