CHICAGO (AP) — Mike Royko, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist whose biting sarcasm and empathy for the common man captured the gritty essence of Chicago for more than three decades, died on Tuesday. He was 64.
Royko, whose Chicago Tribune column was syndicated to more than 200 newspapers nationwide, underwent surgery last week for an aneurysm, a rupture or weakening of a blood vessel.
Royko’s column was a cornerstone of the daily newspaper for generations of Chicago readers, first in the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, later with the Chicago Sun-Times and since 1984 with the Tribune.
“I think Mike Royko brought a great deal to his readers, both in humor and in skepticism and in spotting phonies,” said longtime Chicago columnist Irv Kupcinet of the Sun-Times. “He expressed his mind without fear and did so no matter who he crossed and who he hurt.”
He gained stature as a critic of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley at a time when most prominent Chicagoans treated Daley with cautious respect. Royko’s 1971 biography, “Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago,” portrayed Daley as a shrewd, autocratic politician who tolerated racism and corruption.
In typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, Royko suggested the city’s motto of “Urbs In Horto” (city in a garden) should be changed to “Ubi Est Mea” (where’s mine?).
The book so infuriated the Daley family that the mayor’s wife persuaded a grocery-store chain to remove the book from its stores.
But Royko tempered his political commentary with wry observations on news, social trends, his beloved Chicago Cubs and the foibles of everyday life. Many were presented in imagined conversations with Slats Grobnik, Royko’s fictitious blue-collar alter ego from the Polish neighborhood where Royko grew up.
Known for his gruff, often sarcastic tone, Royko’s scorn could be withering.
A woman called him in 1992 to complain. She had found a 2,000-year-old Roman coin on the floor in her bank and returned it. To her dismay, she was not offered a reward.
“If you don’t at least try to return it, you’re a thief,” Royko wrote. “So should we hold parades for people because they aren’t thieves?”
But others didn’t take the jibes so lightly, and in later years some readers wondered whether Royko was going too far. Where once his venom was reserved for politicians, he had begun to write more about ethnic minorities and gays, to the pleasure of neither.
Twice in March 1996, Hispanic protesters gathered at the Tribune Tower to demand an apology for remarks in Royko’s columns. Royko had written that tequila is the best thing Mexico has offered this century. Another column took a jaundiced view of anti-Castro Cubans. The protesters said Royko perpetuated stereotypes.
Royko himself got into legal trouble because of alcohol. He pleaded guilty in 1995 to drunken driving and resisting arrest after a traffic accident near his Winnetka home. According to court testimony, Royko had begun treatment for alcoholism a month before the accident and had enrolled in an after-care addiction program.
Royko is survived by his wife, Judy, a 9-year-old son, Sam, and a 4-year-old daughter, Kate, as well as two sons from his first marriage, David and Robert, and four grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.