Most people think of Mike Royko as a hard-edged, hard-hitting, no-nonsense columnist for the Daily News, Sun-Times and Tribune, and that he was. Fifteen years after he died, he remains a Chicago icon for exposing hypocrisy, corruption, and the high and mighty who perpetrated it.
Most people don’t think of him as sentimental, but he could be. When his wife, Carol, died suddenly at the age of 44 of a brain hemorrhage — on his 47th birthday — Royko was devastated. For the first time in his career, his column went on hiatus. Three weeks later, on Oct. 5, 1979, the Sun-Times published Royko’s letter to his readers, titled “Thanks to All of You,” expressing his gratitude for the outpouring of sympathy.
He also articulated his feelings about his childhood sweetheart.
We met when she was 6 and I was 9. Same neighborhood street. Same grammar school. So if you ever have a 9-year-old son who says he is in love, don’t laugh at him. It can happen …
I could go on, but it’s too personal. And I’m afraid that it hurts. Simply put, she was the best person I ever knew. And while the phrase “his better half” is a cliche, with us it was the truth. Anyways, I’ll be back. And soon, I hope, because I miss you too, my friends.
In the meantime, do me and her a favor. If there’s someone you love but haven’t said so in a while, say it now. Always, always say it now.
Then he took some time off. He was back on Nov. 22 with a column titled, “A November Farewell,” about a man closing up a summer home for the last time on a lake in Wisconsin. Many Royko fans don’t remember the Oct. 5 column, but they do remember this one.
Every summer, there were more and more flowers. And every summer seemed better than the last. The sunsets seemed to become more spectacular. And more precious.
This past weekend, he closed the place down for the winter. He went alone.
He worked quickly, trying not to let himself think that this particular chair had been her favorite chair, that the hammock had been her Christmas gift to him, that the lovely house on the lake had been his gift to her.
He didn’t work quickly enough. He was still there at sunset. It was a great burst of orange, the kind of sunset she loved best.
He tried, but he couldn’t watch it alone. Not through tears. So he turned his back on it, went inside, drew the draperies, locked the door and drove away without looking back.
It was the last time he would ever see that lovely place. Next spring there will be a For Sale sign in front and an impersonal real estate man will show people through.
Maybe a couple who love to quietly watch sunsets together will like it. He hopes so.
Royko did eventually remarry. He died of a brain aneurysm in 1997 at the age of 64.
I mention all this as background because on Saturday at Unity Temple, I’ll be stepping out of the writer’s role and up to the mic to read a column by Mike Royko. It’s an honor, of course, for a columnist to read the writing of a writer he grew up reading. I know that’s a little convoluted, but I became a columnist partly because I enjoyed reading such scribes, growing up, and none more than Royko.
When I happened to pick up the Sun-Times on Oct. 5, 1979, I was quite moved. Royko had a softer side and was clearly a lover. In fact, his son, David, has since published Royko in Love, a book of his father’s love letters to Carol, with which he wooed her after her first marriage ended in divorce. Royko followed in the footsteps of another famous American literary curmudgeon, Mark Twain, who also penned myriad heartfelt expressions of love to his wife and who also outlived the love of his life.
This Saturday at 7 p.m., Festival Theatre (and friends) will put on “Midwinter’s Tales: Miracles and Mirth,” a benefit performance of readings and music that should get just about anyone in the mood for the holiday maelstrom. Proceeds will benefit the Walk-In Ministry, a fine local cause, and Festival Theatre itself.
I’ll be reading a Royko Christmas column from Dec. 24, 1985, one that shows his softer side — as expressed by his alter ego, Slats Grobnik. I’m guessing the piece was inspired by his late wife.
If you’d like to get in touch with your softer side, stop by Unity Temple this Saturday night.
And if there’s someone you love but haven’t said it in a while, don’t forget to do so. Then bring him or her along.
Even if it’s only in memory.