After 5 years, I said goodbye
By Todd B. Natenberg
I never met Mike Royko, but he played a significant role in my life. When news first broke that the “greatest journalist in America” had a stroke and was in critical condition, a chill ran up my spine.
I thought what it would mean to me if Mike Royko died. I didn’t prepare myself, though, because like so many, I believed that for Royko beating mortality would be a snap considering all the controversial and powerful, even dangerous, people he took on in his career as a daily newspaper columnist in Chicago.
I was wrong.
Royko died on April 29. he was 64.
Royko represented a magical time in my life. He was my time of innocence – when it was okay for me to be idealistic and want to save the world. He symbolized a time when I lived for today, but dreamed about tomorrow.
See, I use to be a journalist. For five years, what is now about one-fifth of my life, Mike Royko’s career was what I wanted to be my destiny.
From the time I first enrolled as a student at the University of Missouri – Columbia with plans to pursue a newspaper career, I wanted to be a columnist.
In high school, I was sports editor with a monthly column in the student newspaper. At Mizzou, I wrote occasional sports columns and for a brief stint had a column on the editorial pages in that student newspaper.
When I did not have a regular column, in my spare time I wrote “Column – type” articles for other publications. Those articles often were first – person accounts designed to strike emotional chords with readers.
I always tried to pattern myself after Royko: I combined sarcasm with humor and idealism with emotion.
I wanted people to describe me as they did Royko upon his death – “He was plain and simple, the greatest journalist in America.”
I always judged my journalistic success on one thing, whether I would become the next Mike Royko.
In college, I knew exactly what I wanted. Upon graduation, I would be a summer intern at the Chicago Tribune, then be hired full-time as a reporter and by the time I reached 30, with Mike Royko now retired, I would assume my rightful spot as a syndicated columnist. I dedicated myself to pursuing my dreams.
One day in 1994 with my career in full bloom at the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb, I sent articles to Royko with the traditional “I want to be like you. What does it take. Can we have lunch?” I soon realized I wasn’t the first genius to come up with this idea.
I followed up the letter with a phone call.
“Is Mike Royko there?” a laugh, “ he’s kind of busy. Can I help you?”
I explained I was a 23-year-old reporter at the Daily Herald, had mailed him a letter with articles for his review and that I wanted to talk to him.
The woman ON THE other end laughed again. And explained that he gets thousands of phone calls like mine. She told me I was wasting my time.
“Well, that’s fine,” I confidentially answered. “But listen here, I am a reader and a professional journalist too. Please take down my number and let him decide whether he would like to call me back.”
“Buddy,” she said. “ He doesn’t return Ted Koppel’s calls. You think he is going to return yours.”
I was fuming. Suddenly, Mike Royko was just another journalist to me. Here I thought I was a young up-and-coming reporter looking to a successful veteran for guidance and instead I got the phone slammed on me – literally. Worse yet, his secretary wouldn’t even take a message.
Who did this guy think he was? Mike Royko.
Moments later, when I thought about what I had just said allowed, I laughed.
Two weeks later, though, I did receive a letter from Royko. Although I know it was a form letter that many others also received, I still have it framed. Since his death, I often have reflected on it.
He “wrote” that he frequently gets letters from people like me asking advice, proceeded to tell his war story about his trials and tribulations at small papers, how difficult journalism is and how you can’t bank on a career as a columnist. “Good luck. I hope it works out for you.”
No signature. No Tribune letterhead.
I now realized that it was the last good memory of my journalism career.
Six month later, I left journalism, and except for a few brief periods, I haven’t looked back.
I sell telecommunications services now.
When I first left newspapers I as many others who have turned to business, thought I had sold my soul. What happened to making a difference, saving the world, I often asked myself.
I learned, though that there were other ways.
I’m a “big brother” in Chicago’s suburbs, and serve in local politics on a youth commission. Somehow, as a reporter, I never had the time, or worse, there often was a “conflict of interest.”
As for my new job, I love it. In addition to larger financial rewards, in my own way I believe I am indeed helping people. I enjoy having customers. They have become my friends and look to me for answers to their problems.
But most of all, sales has enabled me to develop the attitude that makes me proud of who I am and what I do.
I look forward to going to work and tackling the day. The cynicism I developed as a journalist has evolved into hope and optimism about what tomorrow might bring.
Most of all, I do not judge myself anymore on whether I will be the next Royko – or the next Lee Iacocca.
I realized now success must be measured within.
I reflect sometimes in my brief journalism career - more often since Royko died there were struggles and periods of disillusionment, sure, but I have some terrific memories of those five years. Still, I know that for me leaving the profession was the right thing to do.
I have wondered what it would be like if the Tribune were to hire me now at 27 to replace the “Greatest journalist” in America. Would I be happy?
In his 1994 letter, Royko said that if I wasn’t prepared to be happy in my career without being a columnist, I shouldn’t even bother.
He was right – and so was I.
Thanks, Royko. You meant more to me than you’ll ever know.