Michael Hainey Searches for his Father’s Truth
In his new book, GQ editor Michael Hainey travels back in time to uncover the true story of his father’s mysterious death while working as an editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. In the end, the book illuminates not just long-buried family secrets but also some forgotten Chicago history.
Watch a web-exclusive conversation with Hainey about the importance of uncovering your parents’ stories to better understand yourself.
The shade, raise
April 24, 1970. Friday morning. The sun, searing the shade, my brother’s and mine. We share a room. Twin beds above the kitchen, side by side. Headboards against the wall beneath the window that looks down on a tiny cement patio. A small house next to an alley next to a grocery-store parking lot. Kroger.
Scraggly forsythias divide our alley from the parking lot. Fragile yellow flowers the color of Peeps pop on the thin branches. Mostly the branches catch the trash that forever swirls in our lot. Flyers and circulars. Papers.
This is on the Far Northwest Side, a block from the Kennedy Expressway, in the shadow of O’Hare.
My mother’s hand on my shoulder. “Time for school,” she says.
She wears a blue robe and pale blue slippers that look like sandals. She is thirty-three, thin with frosted brunette hair and deep, heavy-lidded almond-shaped brown eyes and a tight mouth. She looks like Queen Elizabeth. It’s like they’re twins in time. Pick a photo of Elizabeth from any year and lay a photo of my mother next to it. Sisters, you’d say. Especially in the mouth and eyes. Same hair, too. My mother has always wished her hair were curlier, that it had more body. For years, my grandmother gave her a perm every few months, my mother hanging her head in our cold gray washtub.
The doorbell rings. My mother says, “Who could that be?”
She walks to the window and raises the shade.
“What the hell are they doing here?” she says.
Below, my grandfather and grandmother, my uncle Dick and aunt Helen, are standing on the porch in the shadow of our honey locust tree, its tiny leaves fluttering in the breeze.
My mother walks out.
From the air vents along the floorboards my brother and I can hear the adults in the kitchen below. No words. Just sounds.
I remember exactly what happens when I get into that kitchen—and every moment afterward. But sitting with my brother on the edge of our beds in our pajamas, that bright morning in April, him eight and me six—even now I feel like I’m imagining it.
My brother and I pause at the top of the stairs. Then there we are, on the edge of the living room.
“The boys are here,” Uncle Dick says.
He pushes us forward, into the kitchen. The sun is bright. The linoleum white and cold on my bare feet. My mother sits at the kitchen table, in the chair she will sit in the rest of her life. Her chair to solve the Jumble. Her crosswords chair. Her chair for solitaire. My grandmother stands behind her, a handkerchief’d fist to her mouth.
My mother reaches out. “Come over here.”
She sets us on her chair, my brother and me, side by side. We’re still that small.
“Your dad is dead.”
Her eyes are red but she is not crying. “It’s going to be okay,” she says. “We’ll be fine.”
She hugs us. And as I sit there, crushed against my brother, held tight by my mother’s arm, I can feel, against my chest, my brother’s chest, quivering. I struggle to pull back from my mother’s embrace.
In that moment I think only one thing: how excited I am. Because my whole life up until then, my brother has never cried. Whenever I have cried, he’s always teased me, told me I was a baby. I point at him and start to laugh and I say, “Crybaby! Crybaby!”
The night slot
My father was the night slot man. That’s a newspaper term. From the time he is a young boy of six or seven in Dust Bowl Nebraska, back in the Depression, all he wants is to work in newspapers. All he wants is to escape, to get to Chicago and be a newspaperman, just like his brother.
My dad’s name is Bob. He idolizes his brother, who is twelve years older. His brother’s name is Dick.
Their father was many things, but mostly he was a switchman and, when called upon, a griever. Those are railroad terms. Their father passes most of his life in the windblown rail yard of McCook, a town barely bigger than an afterthought. Day after day, he couples and uncouples strings of boxcars and then waits for the engines that will come to pull them apart or carry them away.
At eight, my father gets a job as a paperboy, delivering the Omaha World-Herald. In high school, he edits The Bison, the school paper. Come graduation in 1952, the Omaha World-Herald declares him “one of Nebraska’s brightest newsboys”—who has worked his route “with diligence and dedication.” They give him a “Carrier’s Scholarship”—$150. He also earns a $450 scholarship from Northwestern University and uses it to attend the Medill School of Journalism, just like Dick, who is by now an editor at the Tribune. Dick delivers the address at my father’s commencement. The Omaha World-Herald runs a story headlined TWO BROTHERS
GET ATTENTION AT MCCOOK HIGH GRADUATION. The editors print head shots of Dick and my father. Beneath them, a caption: Richard, Robert . . . Speaker, Listener.
Five years later, in May 1957, my father graduates with a master’s degree in journalism. A few days after commencement, he packs up his room in a boardinghouse run by an Armenian woman on Foster Street. A Sigma Nu fraternity brother drives him and his suitcases down to Chicago’s Union Station, where he boards the Burlington Zephyr, bound to McCook.
He doesn’t want to go back to Nebraska, but Dick, who is the chief of the local copy desk at the Chicago Tribune, tells him that it is all but impossible to get hired at the Tribune straight out of college. “Most of the reporters didn’t even graduate from high school. You need experience. That’s the only way they’ll respect you.”
The McCook Daily Gazette is in search of a managing editor for a special project, and my father takes the job. The town is getting ready to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of its founding. In 1882, the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad needs a way station between Denver and Omaha where it can switch out crews and add a more powerful locomotive for the climb through the Rockies. They name the nothingness after General Alexander McDowell McCook, a Union soldier in the Civil War who spends his prewar years wandering the frontier, putting down Indian uprisings.
The Gazette is a small paper, but my father consoles himself with the fact that it’s a daily and it covers all of southwest Nebraska. Just as the Great Depression hits, the Gazette buys a propeller plane, christens it the Newsboy, and claims to make journalism history by becoming “the first paper in the world to be regularly delivered by airplane.” Every day, the Newsboy takes flight from an airstrip notched into a cornfield on the outskirts of town and zigzags through the skies of southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas. Through a hole in the plane’s thin floorboard, the pilot of the Newsboy drops bundles of papers down onto towns even smaller than McCook. It’s all very successful until a windstorm sweeps into town and hurls the plane end over end, splintering it. So dies the Newsboy.
The paper is published in a limestone building on Norris Avenue where, above the front door, someone has chiseled: SERVICE IS THE RENT WE PAY FOR THE SPACE WE OCCUPY IN THIS WORLD. My father dedicates himself to his work, creating the Gazette’s seventy-fifth-anniversary issue. He spends that summer interviewing old-timers and digging through records at City Hall and the town library. He edits stories for the paper, as well as reports and writes.
One night, so the story goes, he and a high school buddy, Bob Morris, drive out of town and spend the night drinking beer. On the way back, they come across a road-construction site. My father climbs onto the earthmover and drives it toward the darkened river.
“What are you doing?” his buddy yells, laughing on the bank.
“Getting some experience,” my father says.
The following morning the Red Willow County sheriff calls the Gazette—he asks for a reporter to drive out to the river. My father arrives at the scene of the crime. Once there, he interviews the officers as well as the construction foreman and then publishes a story in the next day’s paper: MYSTERY VANDAL HITS CONSTRUCTION SITE. The sheriff thanks him for helping to draw attention to the crime.
He publishes the Gazette’s commemorative edition, says his good-byes, walks to the redbrick train station at the bottom of Norris Avenue, and buys a ticket for Chicago. His brother has gotten him a job as a copy editor on the Neighborhood News desk at the Chicago Tribune.
By September 1957, my mother has been working at the Tribune for almost five years. She starts when she’s sixteen, still a senior at Gage Park High School. My mother ends up there because my grandmother sees a help-wanted ad in the Tribune classifieds. Years later, my mother sends the ad to me. My grandmother had kept it packed away and my mother uncovers it after she moves her into Central Baptist. My mother scribbles a note: Mike, A step back in time. Love, Mom
GIRL FOR TRIBUNE
16 TO 19 YEARS OF AGE.
ERRANDS, CLERICAL, IN NEWS DEPT.
DAY SHIFT. 40 HOURS A WEEK.
MUST BE WILLING TO WORK SATURDAYS
AND SUNDAYS. THIS JOB AVAILABLE
AFTER AUGUST 28. ANSWER BY LETTER
ONLY TO TONY STEGER, NEWS DEPT.
4TH FL. TRIBUNE TOWER
435 NORTH MICHIGAN AVE.
When my father arrives from Nebraska, my mother is barely twenty-one years old, a gal Friday for the paper’s editorial cartoonists. She attends college part-time but will not graduate. She’s too in love with the newspaper life. Later she will work on the Tribune’s Radio-Television desk, writing up listings for the television guide.
“The Tribune was the happiest time of my life,” she tells me.
In a room full of crusty old guys with cigarettes singed to their lips and half-drained bottles rattling in their desk drawers, she stands out. “She was all our daughters,” one of them tells me years later. “We adored her.” She blossoms under their attention. She begins to see there is a world beyond the world she knows. A world of smart, knowing men. A world at the center of the world. A world that knows what’s happening. A world where things happen. Like the day Bob Hope drops by. She gets her photo taken with him. Her parents can’t believe it. Or the day she goes down to the Radio Grill and buys drinks for the guys. A slew of screwdrivers in paper cups on a plastic cafeteria tray that she carries across Michigan Avenue and up the elevator into the City Room. Twenty drinks, to go. Her idea.
“I thought it’d be funny,” she tells me. “All the guys loved it.” Then she does that thing she always does—waves her hand and looks away and says, “I don’t know.”
All the while, she’s living with her parents in the West Elsdon neighborhood, by the runways of Midway Airport, on the city’s Southwest Side. A small, tidy house among row after row of small, tidy houses built on old prairie, just after World War II was won and the men came home. Each with a small yard. In theirs, my grandfather plants a silver maple. Broad-limbed and overarching. Its seeds, come spring, green and conjoined. Thin wings. As a boy I would gather handfuls of them. Split them from each other. Cast them to the wind. Watch them helicopter to places beyond my reach.
In the fall of 1957, the man who will become my father walks into the Tribune newsroom and starts working with his brother as a copy editor. I have a photo of the two of them sitting face-to-face at the copy desk, my uncle speaking, and my father, listening.
My father covers the city. He writes a feature about the construction of Chicago’s new water-filtration plant. (WORLD’S BIGGEST WATER FILTRATION PLANT HERE NEARLY A THIRD COMPLETED); he writes about a man trying to get the Dukes, a West Side gang, off the streets (DUKES NO LONGER HAVE THEIR DUKES UP; HERE’S WHY); he writes a piece about the dead-letter office (DEAD LETTERS? POST OFFICE SLEUTHS KEEP ’EM ALIVE); the 4-H Fair (DOZING ENTRIES BELIE BUSTLE AT 4-H FAIR); the tale of a man named Otis T. Carr, trying to raise money to build the flying saucer he wants to fly to the moon (TRIP TO MOON? OTIS IS READY); about a reunion of men who’ve been saved by the Pacific Garden Mission (SKID ROW GRADS HOLD A REUNION—EX-ALCOHOLICS PRAISE GOD AND MISSION). He cuts these stories from the paper and mails them home to Nebraska, where his mother pastes them in another scrapbook.
For the next couple of years, he will move from general assignment reporter to copy editor to assistant picture editor. It’s a lot of movement because the “Old Men,” as management is known, have marked him as an up-and-comer, and they want him to get experience.
By 1957, the Tribune is the biggest and most powerful of Chicago’s five dailies. As a morning paper, it competes with the Sun-Times. The Defender is also a morning paper, but since it is for the city’s black population, the other dailies don’t pay much attention to it. The two afternoon papers—the Daily News and the Chicago American (which later changes its name to Chicago Today)—are sister publications of the Sun-Times and the Tribune, respectively. The Tribune still labors under the shadow of “the Colonel”—Colonel Robert McCormick, the recently dead owner. Grandson of the paper’s founder and grandnephew of Cyrus McCormick, the man who developed the reaper, the Colonel is a rabid Republican and uses the paper to crusade against the New Deal, back Joe McCarthy, and rant against the Commie threat, wherever he imagines it to be. He plants an American flag on the banner and dubs the Tribune “An American Paper for Americans.” In November 1948, it is the Colonel and his obsessive Republican wishful thinking, as much as any editor’s ineptitude, that results in the Tribune’s most infamous headline: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. The Colonel dies in 1955—four days before Richard J. Daley gets elected to the first of his six terms as mayor—but his presence looms over the paper for years. “That’s not the way the Colonel would want it” is what men say in the newsroom to keep someone in check. A paper edited by a dead man.
Excerpted from AFTER VISITING FRIENDS: A Son’s Story. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Hainey. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.