Saturday, March 23, 2013

“Royko, Remembered”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
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“Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.” – Mike Royko

Grade-school teachers often ask their students about future endeavors that might seem appealing. In response, those young minds typically imagine becoming a doctor, firefighter, soldier, music star or even an astronaut. A few might choose to imagine life as a priest or public servant. But few if any dream of being a newspaper columnist.
For this writer, a childhood habit was reading the creative work of wordsmiths like Jimmy Breslin, Art Buchwald, Erma Bombeck, Andy Rooney, Ann Landers and Jack Anderson. Though I yearned for a career in radio broadcasting, the idea of penning a regular column always seemed tempting.
Perhaps my strongest influence in that direction was the iconoclastic Mike Royko. A native of Chicago, he spoke with authority as a champion of working-class, everyday people. He was the son of a Ukranian father and Polish mother.
Royko began writing while serving in the U.S. Air Force.
His words flowed with the simple elegance of one who learned their craft as a beat reporter and in the newsroom, rather than the artificial confines of a classroom. He wrote with the naked honesty of an old soul, avoiding too much self-analysis or worry.
Often, Royko said what his readers were thinking, in silence. He embodied the gritty spirit of a truly American city. He was an old-school voice. Yet his observations were on-target and precise. Like a favorite uncle or grizzled neighbor, he always approached each subject with courageous indifference to the feelings that might be bruised. 
Sometimes, Royko allowed his inner muse to wander. In these moments he seemed most human, like a friend from yonder days offering surreal thoughts over a cold beer in a neighborhood tavern.   
Most journalists seem to remember Mike Royko in one of two ways: either as a liberal icon, or as a cynical curmudgeon brimming with old-school wit.
Moreover, he will forever be famous for angering legendary performer Frank Sinatra, by complaining that Chicago police were too busy protecting him during an appearance, to catch criminals in the city.
Sinatra’s reply was newspaper “gold” – it ran in a Royko column shortly afterward, in 1976:

“Let me start this note by saying I don’t know you and you don’t know me... quite frankly, I don’t understand why people don’t spit in your eye three or four times a day.”

In personal terms, Royko’s greatest influence for myself was the use of fictional characters in his columns. Slats Grobnik and Dr. I. M. Kookie were frequent companions. I marveled at how these imaginary voices spoke with such realism. He used these whimsical voices to debate real-world issues and poke fun at those in positions of authority.
After a long career opining satirically about the lives of everyone from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to President Ronald Reagan, he passed away in 1997. But the legacy he bestowed upon those pursuing the craft of writing endured.
It was with an echo of Mike Royko in my ear that I began “Thoughts At Large” one year later.
My own ink-slinging odyssey eventually included characters like Carrie Hamglaze, an erstwhile elected official and journalist. Along with Ezekiel Byler Gregg, editor of the fictional Burton Daily Bugle. And Archer, an unemployed biker-musician-philosopher.
Royko had created the LaSalle Street Rod & Gun Club. It was a creative device that allowed him to poke fun at city officials, and eventually produced the character of Mr. Grobnik. I echoed this with the Geauga Writers’ Roundtable, meeting at a local fast-food emporium.
Though my own wordsmithing career has been much less notable in character, I owe him a genuine debt of gratitude.
Royko was the sort of gifted everyman that we may never see again. His talent was a magic spell that can’t be taught in conventional terms. It can only be learned in the process of living life and experiencing the human journey from birth to oblivion.
Recently, I read that a professor of journalism lamented the fact that her students were unfamiliar with Mike Royko, or any of the other classic wordsmiths. Indeed, newspapers themselves have begun to fail with frightening speed. Our time has brought new challenges to the industry. We do not yet know where the future is leading.
Yet the value of good writing, even from a faraway place like Chicago, remains undeniable.
Especially here at home, in Geauga County.

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