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 there Tuesday. He was 65.
Royko, whose Chicago Tribune column was syndicated to more than 200 newspapers nationwide, underwent surgery recently for an aneurysm.
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. For most of his career he had a column five days a week.
He was thought to have provided the basis for several film characters, among them John Belushi’s hard-boiled Chicago columnist in “Continental Divide.”
Royko 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, “Urbs In Horto” — city in a garden — should be changed to “Ubi Est Mea” — where’s mine?
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.
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.
Royko joined the Daily News in 1959 and won the Pulitzer for commentary in 1972. He moved to the Sun-Times in 1978 when the Daily News folded, then jumped to the rival Tribune in 1984, citing Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of the Sun-Times.
In October 1995, Royko received the Damon Runyon Award, given annually to the journalist who best exemplifies the style that made Runyon one of the best columnists of his day.
In his acceptance speech, Royko reflected on how the newsroom had changed during his years in journalism.
“Forty years ago, we were on the tail of the ‘Front Page’ era,” Royko said. “There was a different point of view. Reporters and editors were more forgiving of public people. They didn’t think they had to stick someone in jail to make a career.”
Royko is survived by his wife, Judy; a son, Sam, 9; and a daughter, Kate, 4; and two children from his first marriage. His first wife, Carol, died in 1979.