By: Mark Fitzgerald
When Chicago Tribune writer Rick Kogan strode onto the stage of the sold-out Chase Auditorium in downtown Chicago Wednesday night, he paused briefly, looked out at the audience, and opened the tribute to the legendary columnist Mike Royko on a faintly Biblical note.
“Welcome to the WORDS of Mike Royko,” he intoned.
It was a pitch-perfect opening for “Indelible Ink,” an evening of remembering the man who wrote unforgettable columns for the old Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and, finally and until his death ten years ago at 64 on April 29, 1997, for the Chicago Tribune.
For the tribute did not reflect the solemn Bible that provides passages for sober eulogies, but the parts of the Old and New Testaments where a pissed-off Yahweh smites and spites and afflicts Job with boils for his piety. Where warriors kill enemies in their sleep, and kings take concubines by the handful. Where sons drink away their patrimony with whores. Where Jesus weeps with compassion, but also charges with fury into the temple area, “bashing the moneychanger tables everywhichaway,” as Jack Kerouac wrote, “and scourging them with his seldom whip.”
My kind of town, in other words.
Royko’s words were read to guffaws and misty eyes by journalists, family members, and an actor with a Chicago smash hit play about Mayor Richard J. Daley, who said he believed “secretly, Mike liked the Late Mayor.”
Chicago provided laughter, tears, outrage and more in Royko’s daily 800 words. He could laugh at its politics — “With the kind of alderman Chicago has, people SHOULD be paid to vote” — and weep like Jesus: Observing that the black community, ignored when it was not actively oppressed, had carried the first Daley to his third term in office, he wrote, “They did it (voted) quietly, asking nothing in return — which is exactly what they got.”
Royko could write about the, um, enigmatic huge sculpture that Picasso gifted Chicago, and in the same column play it for a laugh — “if it was a woman (as they had said) then art experts should put down their books and spend more time in girlie joints” — and find in its blank, insect-like eyes and cold steel a reflection of the Chicago that so often forces its citizens to get tough or die:
Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible. … Picasso has never been here, they say. You’d think he’s been riding the L all his life.
The Royko tribute was nostalgic, sure, but it also proved that even those Gutenberg boys who write for tomorrow’s fish wrapper can find continued relevance long after their death.
That was never so clear as in the evening’s most electrifying moment. Sam Royko, who was nine years old when his father died, read passages from columns about the government lies that wasted lives in the Vietnam war. You could practically here the word “Iraq” echoing behind each mention of Vietnam.
“My father was not just a columnist in this world — he’s a truth-teller,” Sam said. “I worry that there’s not as many writers to question authority.”
When he sat down to thunderous applause, one man near me repeatedly yelled, “Amen.”
Another Royko son, David, spoke, as did his wife Judy. In the audience was his brother and sister. Studs Terkel, who turns 95 in three weeks, was the final speaker.
John Kass also spoke to Royko’s immortality. The Tribune columnist now occupies the Page 2 space Royko held when he walked across Michigan Avenue rather than work for a Sun-Times that Rupert Murchoch had just bought.
“Every day when I go to work, I’ve got a 200-pound gorilla on my back — and so does everybody else who write a column in Chicago,” Kass said.
But the night wasn’t much given over to journalism and journalists. Kogan said he was “gravely disappointed” not to see more reporters and editors, but he seemed to almost instantly take it back.
“He wrote about monsters and he wrote about saints, but he mostly wrote about you — the people who made Chicago,” Kogan said. “This event was not shaped by reporters or editors — or even Sam Zell.”
In fact, the program was put together in two sessions in Royko’s favorite bar, the Bill Goat Tavern underneath Michigan Avenue. After the formal evening, there was reception at the Goat.
America knows the bar from the Saturday Night Live skits of John Belushi and Bill Murray taking orders for “cheez-boorger, cheez-boorger.” The real McCoy, Sam Sianis, introduced by Kogan as “the greatest tavern owner in the world,” reminisced on stage about his long friendship with Royko.
He’s seen Royko twice since his death, Sianis said with all sincerity. Once he appeared in the Goat: “I saw Mike inside the bar. I say, ‘Mike, if something happens to me, I want you to keep my name up. And if something happens to you, I’m a gonna keep your name up.”
So far, so good.