Friday, August 22, 2008

Mike Royko lives again!

For the last week, my old stamping ground, the Chicago Sun-Times, has been re-publishing decades-old columns by the late Mike Royko.

Old newspaper columns usually enjoy the half-life of a stray electron, but when they are by Royko -- America's last great daily newspaper columnist -- a surprising lot of them are worth rereading.

It's a smart move. The Sun-Times has chosen columns that celebrated the actions (or antics) of ordinary people and has made an effort to discover where these folks are today. In a couple of cases so far the result is anticlimactic, but in the larger scheme of things that doesn't matter. It's good to see Royko's stuff again and lament the sad facts that no one writing today could carry his water and that no corporate newspaper would employ a difficult personality like him today. He was a great talent, and he was also a mean-spirited drunk.

It's not costing the paper a dime to publish these columns, which they own -- not the writer's estate. That's a cool move in these budget-constricted times. And it's a way to catch the eye of geezers who remember Royko and perhaps get them to buy the paper again, although the younger generation won't care -- it's never heard of him. (Nor have a surprising number of young journalists.)

On Aug. 14 the paper published a 1979 column about a Polish immigrant with such poor English that the cops arrested him instead of the brutes who mugged him, endangering his efforts to get a green card. (He was eventually naturalized and returned to Poland, where he died some years ago.)

The Aug. 15 entry is a hilarious 1981 story about a homebound commuter who accidentally jumped a freight train and was carried 180 miles into Iowa, where he was arrested as a suspect in a cop shooting. (He successfully explained it all to his wife and is now a 54-year-old Chicago handyman.)

The 1979 column that ran Aug. 18 is oddly lame for a Royko column -- it concerned a veterinarian who made golf club handles from bull pizzles. (The business failed, but the vet is still alive in Minnesota at age 84.)

Many SUV owners today will identify with the Aug. 19 column, in which Royko -- who had just bought himself a gas-guzzler -- discusses the shame of driving a big car during a fuel crisis in 1979. (No follow-up needed to that one.)

The Aug. 20 column, from 1982, chronicled the troubles of a cop who favored gun control in the editorials he wrote for a police newsletter, running afoul of loud and well-organized pro-gunners and losing his writing job. (He regained it almost immediately, thanks to the column, and retired as a lieutenant in 1997.)

Yesterday's column, from 1979, told what happened when a Bloom High School teacher assigned his students to write letters to Royko after he savaged fan behavior at a rock concert. With glee Royko quoted illiterate and abusive passages, so embarrassing the school that the teacher was nearly fired. (His career survived, and today he's retired and teaches part-time at St. Xavier University.)

Good stuff for the most part. But you'd better hustle to read the foregoing columns, for the Sun-Times keeps them online only for a couple of weeks and is too broke to maintain an archive.


  1. My 10th grade English teacher at Ewen-Trout Creek, Mrs. Humphrey also used Mike Royko as a teaching tool. She was trying to get us interested in reading newspapers. She did this by quizzing us on this columns the day after they ran in the Ironwood Daily Globe.

    When I was in high school I had two types of classmates, those who lived in town and those who lived in the country. The town dwelling kids always got the paper and did fine on the quizzes. The country kids could sometimes get their hands on a Mike Royko column and pass it around the bus before we got to school.

    I was one of the country kids, the oldest of 5 kids, I knew better than to ask to go to town for a $.50 cent paper. We had one vehicle, my father took it to work and got home at 7 p.m. When he got home we ate supper, did the dishes, and completed either our chores or homework, what ever we didn't get done before supper.

    When I explained to the teacher that not all of us could read the paper every night, she suggested we go to the school library and read Mike Royko there. That wasn't likely to heppen, I wasn't too excited about giving up my few free minutes before school to get to the library.

    Another learning technique Mrs. Humphrey employed was having us write a paragraph every Friday after our weekly vocabulary quiz. She would either write a question or a topic on the board and we had to write something about it. One week she told us to write our own question and then answer it.

    I still remember how I started that paragraph. I wrote something to the effect that she's not going to be happy that she let us write our own question and then went on the answer "What do you think about having to read Mike Royko's column?" I told her that she was being unfair to the kids who were poorer and couldn't afford the paper and the it was fine with me that I didn't read all of the columns because the ones I did read I didn't like anyway because he didn't write about anything that had to do with my everyday life.

    In all fairness we did do some other things in her English class that I did enjoy, she introduced us to short story writing. It introduced a whole new world to me.

  2. Ginger, I am astonished that a rural Upper Peninsula teacher would use Mike Royko, perhaps the most hopelessly urban of street columnists, as a teaching tool for high schoolers. I don't blame you in the least for disliking his work. Slats Grobnik just does not travel well north of Howard Street.

  3. How about a post on Studs Terkel or the lack of recycling in Porcupine County?

  4. Studs is a Great Man, one of the all-time Good Guys, and next time he publishes a book (he's 96 and still tootling along) I'll cover it.

    It's true that there are no recycling centers in Porcupine -- oops, Ontonagon County. I am not sure why, but perhaps it has to do with the population, so small that it is not economical to recycle anything but cans and bottles for deposit and certain kinds of box cardboard.

  5. I remember Mike Royko. I think his column appeared in the Detroit Free Press. I thought he was pretty interesting.