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The Dean of Chicago Broadcast Journalism: John Callaway 1936-2009

Thomas F. Roeser 25 June 2009 9 Comments

John Callaway who died unexpectedly Tuesday at 72 was by all odds one of the greatest radio-TV broadcaster in Chicago history…and in fact one of the greatest journalists in this city. It’s vital to list him with the towering talents of Chicago (and I place them in no alphabetical or chronological order on purpose to have you discern from their stature how great Callaway was). You should read this list to say where I place him:

He deserves to be equated with (this is my personal list):

Finley Peter Dunne, creator of “Mr. Dooley,” Bob Casey, the great war correspondent and colorful columnist for the “Daily News,” Mike Royko of all three papers (“Daily News,” “Sun-Times” and “Tribune”), Ring Lardner who went from sports-writing to brilliant fiction-writing, Howard Vincent O’Brien the superb editorial page columnist for the “Daily News,” Sydney J. Harris also of the “Daily News,” Arch Ward, the “Tribune” sports editor who invented the All Star games; Charles MacArthur who co-wrote “The Front Page,” David Broder the “Washington Post” political columnist; Dennis Byrne, “Tribune” and former “Sun-Times” columnist; Col. Robert R. McCormick, editor and publisher of the “Tribune,” Dan Miller, former business editor of the “Sun-Times” and first editor of “Crain’s Chicago Business.”

Eugene Field (the first newspaper columnist in the nation of the “Daily News)” Carl Sandburg the two-time Pulitzer winner for poetry and biography who began as a feature writer for the “Daily News”; Edwin A. Lahey the “Daily News’” great labor writer and Washington correspondent, the great wit and prose stylist Peter Lisagor of the “Daily News”, Keyes Beech who covered the Korean war for the “Daily News,” Lois Wille of both the “Sun-Times” and “Tribune,” George Weller, great war correspondent of the “Daily News,” Bruce DuMont, former WTTW correspondent, national radio talk show host of “Beyond the Beltway” and founder of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Jack Mabley columnist for the “Daily News” and “Chicago’s American.”

George Ade the famed columnist (“Daily News”) and playwright; Norma Lee Browning “Tribune” feature writing specialist; Clifton Utley the NBC-TV anchor and foreign policy scholar; Virginia Kay columnist and epigram stylist for the “Daily News,” George Tagge political editor of the “Tribune”; the indefatigable Lynn Sweet Washington editor of the “Sun-Times,” Herman Kogan of the “Sun-Times,” Georgie Ann Guyer columnist for the “Daily News,” Steve Neal, “Sun-Times” political columnist and historian, author of “Happy Days are Here Again!” and “Harry and Ike” John T. McCutcheon, cartoonist and former war correspondent for the “Tribune.”

Robert Novak, syndicated political columnist for the “Sun-Times,” Ben Hecht, Vincent Sheean, Westbrook Pegler (a sportswriter for the “Tribune” before winning the Pulitzer for exposing labor rackets), Walter Trohan (“Tribune” crime reporter who first came upon the bodies at the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and chief Washington correspondent); Nick Von Hoffman “Daily News,” Pam Zechman now of the Channel 2; Arthur Snider, legendary “Daily News” science reporter; M. W. Newman, “Daily News,” Robert G. Schultz, gifted writer and later city editor of the “Daily News,” Leland Stowe, “Daily News,” Raymond Gram Swing, (radio correspondent and “Daily News” foreign affairs expert), Edgar Ansell Mower and his brother Paul Scott Mower (“Daily News”), John Justin Smith (“Daily News”), George Bliss (“Tribune” labor reporter), Len O’Connor, NBC-TV commentator and author of the book “Clout,” the best history of the machine.

William L. Shirer, “Tribune” Berlin correspondent in the 1930s and author of “Berlin Diary” and “The Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich”; John McDermott who as founder of “The Chicago Reporter,” gave the city new dimension in urban affairs reporting. Edmund Rooney “Daily News,” Fran Spielman, city hall reporter for the “Sun-Times,” John Kass, columnist par excellence for the “Tribune”; Rob Warden formerly of the “Daily News”; Emmett Dedmon, editorial page editor of the “Sun-Times”; Jack Higgins, the superb cartoonist for the “Sun-Times,” Henry Justin Smith, managing editor of the “Daily News.”

Now that you get the idea where he belongs in the litany of journalistic greats, what were Callaway’s uniquely fascinating gifts? First, you’ll notice only a few TV-radio journalists in the list which means he is almost unexcelled. Second he was a thorough-going intellectual who never touted it. He never finished college but his breadth and span of interest was enormous-ranging from the streets which he covered for City News to economics, foreign affairs, art, literature, architecture, sports, urban affairs, education, city and national politics. I have never met one…in academia or elsewhere… who could match him in the diversity of his interests. I would say the one issue John was somewhat in doubt about was religion. Born an Orangeman, an Irish Protestant in West Virginia, he doubted certitude which ironically made him a superb journalist. But I think he would have earnestly wanted to grasp certitude. He was a pragmatist wholly and revered the line I gave him from Everett Dirksen, the garish old fraud whom he enjoyed: “Gentlemen and ladies, let us rise above principle.”

Strange for a man who undeniably used his elbows sharply to get ahead…as all must in his business… he was very courtly. I mean, very-very courtly. I was always “Mr. Roeser” both when we were on TV and in private…seldom “Tom.” He had an inbred dignity. Put a roman collar on him and a black suit over his portly figure and he could pass for a reverent archbishop or incipient cardinal. But his inward dignity was not stuffy. In his day…when he was covering either politics or city politics…he was a legendary drinker-even at times a rascal. Women loved him and he they in a courtly, old-world fashion. They took to him-and I mean it. Were he an old roué exploiter he could have made a lot of hay. I’m sure he sensed this in his quiet, chuckling way.

He didn’t like writing; surprisingly enough, he found it very difficult. But speaking, verbally choosing just the right words, grabbing an idea by its lapels and shaking it so the viewers understood it was John’s forte. There were many who wanted to get close to Callaway, to be his best-buddy…for many reasons: proximity to him for coverage purposes, to share his wit, to have some rub-off from the big leagues. Few ever did. I will amend this to say: none ever did.

He could be hale, hearty but was never a schmoozer. He never fully let you in on what his innermost thoughts were. He had the kind of graceful dignity that allowed him on occasion to read a book while the rest of the melee passed by…and there were those of us who wouldn’t dare disturb him in his reading. An intellectual he was (as I have pointed out), he believed-more strongly than I would like to admit, since I was rather cowed by him-in moral equivalency, the hallmark of liberalism. He could have passed for an elder philosopher, but he was unsure of what certainty is all about. He believed largely that good works will do the trick for the hereafter-that theological niceties are rather absurd.

No one knew how he voted but I would not topple over dead if I discovered it was for Obama.

As he grew older, he developed a way of squinting and pulling his nose up when he read-a self-portrait he despised. He really was…in his inner-self…more vain than he nor now that he is dead, we, like to admit. I remember the one time I ticked him off (I am sure of it). He was to address the Better Government Association’s annual meeting and I was called upon to introduce him. It was just at that moment that I ran into a very uproarious joke. At least I thought it was. So I worked it in to the introduction and, quite pleasantly, noted the audience howling with laughter (which does not often happen when I tell a joke). I then extended my hand to Callway and the coldness in his blue Celtic eyes told me…oh oh…I had stomped on the Master’s territory: a bad, bad thing. Sure enough, he told one himself that topped mine and as I roared with laughter, I saw his eyes on me, checking me out to see that I had laughed sufficiently.

At bottom, he was more than a journalist: he was an actor. And an actor he really…inside…wanted to be. He was a performer. Theatrical ability without sawing the air and being ham-like about it enabled him to harness those talents with deft skill and command the viewing public as no one else…national or city…ever did. His death rocked me when I heard it yesterday morning…but I cannot mourn unduly because John had accomplished almost entirely what he had set out to do. When he retired from “Chicago Tonight,” I asked him why. He said, “Mr. Roeser, you may not know it but I have spent 40 years in journalism-and I want…just want…to do something else. You can understand that, can’t you?” Rather curt but still that was Callaway. Yes, I could understand it and can. Now John is doing something else and in my prayers I urge a merciful God to grant him a seat on the aisle in the unfolding panoply of eternity. God bless you and give you rest, John.


Tom Roeser is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Chicago Daily Observer


  • Dan Kelley said:

    “Chicago Tonight” used to be essential viewing until John Callaway retired.

  • Pat Hickey said:

    In Mr. Roeser’s pantheon of Chicago journalists let’s not forget the Ernie Pyle of Vietnam War the great Ray Coffey of the Daily News, Tribune and the Sun Times. Ray Coffey a wiry man could write rings around Royko and make the same faux-tough guy wet his britches.

    Ray Coffey was the real deal.

  • David Royko said:

    “Ray Coffey a wiry man could write rings around Royko and make the same faux-tough guy wet his britches.”

    Not sure I’d put it the same way (my biased opinion is that nobody “wrote rings” around Dad), but Dad (Mike) adored Ray (personally and professionally), and I couldn’t agree more that Ray deserves enshrinement in anyone’s journalism hall of fame.

    Dave Royko

  • John Powers said:

    If I may add, John Callaway was also a great assist towards forming the Chicago Daily Observer, and the long analysis format.

    When I met with him I mentioned a bit about web 2.0 technology, and local formatteing of stories. John C pulled out a series of articles from his coat pocket about that very subject, and began to quiz our table on the strenghts and weaknesses of technology in media, while he was clearly the most knowledgable on the subject. John did his homework for our meeting just like he did for every other interview he conducted.


  • Pat Hickey said:

    Spoken with filial devotion and energy, my compliments Mr. Royko.

    I refer to a passage from Richard Ciccone A Life in Print –


    Nevertheless, Mike Royko remains the icon of Chicago journalism. That is merited.

  • Pat Hickey said:

    Mr. Royko,

    I was cut short by Leo duties and posted the last before I could offer a genuine apology for the snotty crack in what should have been praise of Ray.

    Please attribute that remark to the depth, dimension and density of my Stupid Bone – undiminished by decades of better counsel, better sense and a string of ass kickings.

  • David Royko said:

    No problem Pat, thanks. And regarding the excerpt from the book, Ray might have been pissed at Dad, but I believe Dad help him in high regard even after their apparent falling out.

  • David Royko said:

    Of course, I meany “held,” not help.

  • Bill Dwyer said:

    The highest compliment you can give a journalist, other than the fact that you faithfully read or listened to their work, is that when something of note occurs after their passing, you find yourself asking, “What would so and so have written about this?” and really caring what the answer might be.

    I still find myself wondering what Royko would have said about certain events.

    I now add Callaway to that very short list.

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