Born into a tavern-owning family in a rough Polish neighborhood in the northwestern part of Chicago, Mike Royko (1932-1997) became one of America's premier political and social commentators.
In their work Chicago's Public Wits: A Chapter in the American Comic Spirit, Kenny William and Bernard Duffy detail the writings of Chicago humorists. During the heyday of such humor Peter Finley Dunn, known to almost all American history students as "Mr. Dooley," and George Ade dominated the Chicago newspapers with their columns capturing the wit of the streets and the insight of the ethnic communities. Mike Royko, once feature writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and its syndicated wire service (until Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times) and later columnist for the Chicago Tribune, followed in this tradition. He was a columnist who understood the language of the streets and the neighborhoods, a writer with a sense of what troubles and amuses the people. While Royko was at his best when commenting on the problems of ordinary people, those problems frequently called attention to larger issues.
Mike Royko was born on September 19, 1932, to Michael (a Ukrainian-American saloon keeper) and Helen Zak (a Polish-American saloon keeper) Royko. He grew up in a predominately Polish neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side. Reports on his early education range from his leaving school at 16 to his holding jobs as a bartender from the ages of 13 to 19 to his being sent to Montefiore High School after several arrests. He attended Wright Junior College, left when he was 19, and served in Korea as an Air Force radio operator. After reassignment near Chicago, he claimed to have been a writer for the Chicago Daily News and secured a job as editor of the base newspaper. This was the beginning of his newspaper career.
After discharge from the Air Force, Royko returned to Chicago and began a series of low-paying newspaper jobs, in time actually securing employment with the Daily News. In 1962 he was given a weekly column called "County Beat" with the assignment of commenting on local government and politics. This proved a popular feature, particularly as he made fun of the "payrollers," those who avoided ever working even though paid by Cook County or the city of Chicago. By 1963 he was awarded a daily column, "Mike Royko," where he could write on any subject that took his fancy. This column continued until 1978 when the Daily News ceased publication. Royko moved to the Chicago Sun Times until 1983 when he shifted to the Chicago Tribune where he wrote a daily column, three of which were syndicated each week by Tribune Media Services to nearly 600 newspapers.
Royko was ostensibly a liberal journalist, but a liberal journalist with a sense of the outrage of the common citizen. Therefore, he was at the forefront of those who questioned Gary Hart's judgment rather than his morals, had a nationally celebrated fight with AT & T, and wrote a column castigating those social workers who were attempting to get men in pool rooms to find regular jobs. Additionally, he was generally unsupportive of political correctness, of those who are young and fail to function within the political system, of police departments that fail to protect the average person, and of those politicians who see people as part of the problem. Royko was credited with first calling former California Governor Jerry Brown "Governor Moonbeam," and he rarely saw virtue in those who voiced the idea of the criminal as the victim.
Viewed as one of the few political or social journalists with "clout," Royko was seen as influential on both the Chicago and the national scenes. Despite this vision of influencing politics, Royko was at his best when writing through the voice of his alter ego, Slats Grobnik, the stereotypical beer-drinking, pool-playing, bar-sitting, white male Chicago ethnic. Slats spoke with Royko's concept of the common man, the person who cannot make sense of racism, ethnic purification, political correctness, the Chicago Cubs, police corruption, or television evangelists. Once when commenting on the problems of the governor of Alaska, who was accused of helping his friends, Slats questioned what politics was all about. It certainly wasn't about helping your enemies.
Royko retained his links to his own and other families. In 1954 Mike Royko married Carol Duckman. They had two sons, David, born in 1960, and Robbie, born in 1964. In 1979 Carol died of a cerebral hemorrhage. In 1985 Royko married Judy Arndt, and they had two children, a son Samuel and a daughter Katherine. John Culhane, a colleague from his days on the Daily News, noted that one of Royko's "funniest and saddest" columns was written after two men robbed Royko. Royko mused on the fact that his father had once kicked a robber in the face and had run over him with a truck. He wrote, "An hour after I was robbed I was depressed because I wasn't my father's son."
Royko published several books, mostly, as with Slats Grobnik and Some Other Friendsor Like I Was Saying, these were collections of his columns. The exception was his 1971 work on Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. Boss was a significant exploration of machine politics in a big city. Though the book received mixed reviews from both professional politicians and urban scholars, there is no doubt it was a valuable, insightful, amusing artifact of what might be the last of the great urban political machines.
In 1972 Royko received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. He was actively involved as a writer for four decades and in the mid 1990s demonstrated no sign of future inactivity. He suggested that he might eventually write only about golf but, fortunately for the reader, he continued to pierce, with ridicule and humor, those who use and abuse authority.
By the mid-90s, Royko's earthy, blue collar perspective ran him afoul of activist identity groups. A number of his columns offended gays and lesbians, women, Mexican-Americans, and African-Americans. He also managed to offend Croatian-Americans and the police. He survived demands that he be fired and retained his intensely loyal reader base and his wide circulation.
Royke died at age 64, on April 29, 1997, while vacationing in Florida. In Chicago, his death was covered in a manner befitting a major public figure with television team coverage from his favorite hangouts and from the offices of the Chicago Tribune. The outpouring of tributes and accolades rank him with Ben Hecht, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg, all of them Chicago journalists who earned national literary stature. Fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel wrote of Royko on his death, "If somebody says, 'What was Chicago like in the last half of the 20th century?' you'd say read Royko. He captured the city like no one else has ever captured a city and Chicago was his metaphor for the rest of the country."
There is no single biographical work on Mike Royko. Some good individual articles are John Culhane, "The World According to Royko," Reader's Digest (April 1992); Tricia Drevets, "Commentary from a Chicago Columnist," Editor and Publisher (June 27, 1987); Rodger Schiffman, "He's Mr. Chicago," Golf Digest (June 1990); Daniel Le Duc, "Mike Royko remembered for capturing the essence of Chicago," The Philadelphia Inquirer (April 30, 1997); and Stephen McFarland and Corky Siemaszko, "Pulitzer Prize-winning Columnist Mike Royko dies," New York Daily News (April 29, 1997). □