THERE'S ONLY ONE WAY TO TALK about Mike Royko, and that's by telling a story. So here's this one about a young guy who dropped out of college to join the Air Force in 1952. After he's given the choice of being a cook or an MP, he ends up editing the base newspaper. Why did he choose that, someone later asked? Because, Royko replied, "it struck me that any goof could write a newspaper story."
Perhaps. But no goof ever did it with the gritty brilliance of Mike Royko. By the time of his death last week from heart failure, Royko, 64, had established himself as the premier journalist of working-class America. Five times a week he gave voice to the wage earner while scalding big business and political power brokers, most memorably former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, whom he skewered in his 1971 book Boss
. For 33 years his column, first in the Chicago Daily News
, then the Sun-Times
and finally the Tribune
(and syndicated to 800 papers nationwide), was devoured as avidly as his city's deep-dish pizza. As his longtime friend and fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel puts it, "He wrote about those who keep the wheels of the world going."
Royko knew that world firsthand. Born to a Ukrainian-immigrant father and a first-generation Polish-American mother, he grew up in a flat above the tavern in Chicago that his parents ran. A widower who remarried in 1986, Royko was devoted to his four children. But he also, famously, loved his drinking and gossip sessions at his favorite watering hole, the Billy Goat Tavern, and he could throw a mean punch. Given his particular genius, it is tempting to regard Royko, a Pulitzer Prize winner, as a kind of blue-collar bard. He, of course, would have rejected that title as way too fancy. "You really can't take flattery or criticism too seriously," he once said. "We're talking about a newspaper column. Costs two bits.... I'm just part of it."