When Ray Gibson inspected documents, he would scrutinize them “like a great tailor holding up a piece of silk,” said Chicago Tribune reporter David Jackson.
Whether they were court papers or campaign finance disclosures, Mr. Gibson studied every initial and notation, right down to the watermarks.
Nothing missed his probing eyes and prodigious memory. Topping it off was intuition like a divining rod. Colleagues say he seemed able to sniff corruption, chicanery and greed. And he recognized Chicago characters — from bankers to bagmen to bookies — like a birdwatcher knows birds.
In a 36-year reporting career at the Tribune, he exposed waste, influence-peddling and assorted criminality and was twice nominated for a Pulitzer prize.
And he guided an untold number of stories that ran without his byline, as other reporters sought his advice.
“All of us would find our way to his desk when we had a seemingly insurmountable question,” Jackson said. “ ‘How do you find out how owns a racehorse?’ ‘ How do you figure out who owns an insurance company; who owns a bank?’ ”
Jackson and Mr. Gibson broke the story that political fundraiser Tony Rezko and his wife bought a vacant lot adjoining then-Sen. Barack Obama’s Kenwood home on the very day the Obamas closed on their property. At the time, Obama said he couldn’t afford the lot. Rezko would later sell a sliver to the Obamas.
And Mr. Gibson uncovered the fact that two of the jurors in the federal corruption trial of former Gov. George Ryan failed to disclose their criminal records.
He also broke stories on the cash-for-trash illegal waste dumping known as Operation Silver Shovel, as well as check-kiting by former state Treasurer Jerry Cosentino. He reported on pension kickbacks, pork barrel spending, fraud in minority contracts and mob companies getting government business.
Mr. Gibson, 64, who had battled lung and colon cancer, died Friday at his Evanston home.
“Ray tried to keep the politicians honest,” Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown said in a tribute when Mr. Gibson won the 2012 Good Government Award from Common Cause Illinois.
“He was indefatigable, never took no for an answer, had the patience to read through mountains of documents and had the smarts to know what it meant when he was done,” said former Tribune reporter Maurice Possley.
“He was a digger,” said former U.S. Attorney Jim Burns, inspector general for the Illinois Secretary of State. “Documents, checking records — doing whatever he had to to go find the information. And in those days, particularly in the earlier days of his career, it wasn’t like today, when you could get a boatload of information at your computer.”
Other reporters knew that when they saw a Ray Gibson byline, they’d have to start doing some digging of their own.
“He was the person we worried about,” said Washington-based investigative reporter Chuck Neubauer, a former Sun-Times staffer. He said competition with Mr. Gibson raised everyone’s game.
“It was very important to put bad guys away, get them off the public trough,” said Edie Gibson, his wife of 22 years.
Born in Kansas City, Kan., the young “Gibby” moved with his family to La Grange Park. He attained the rank of Eagle Scout and attended Northern Illinois University, where he worked all four years at the campus paper, the Northern Star. He started as a sports reporter and became editor in chief in 1970. In 2000, he was in the first group of alums to be inducted into the Northern Star Hall of Fame.
He worked at the DeKalb Daily Chronicle and California’s Contra Costa Times before joining the Tribune in 1974. He retired a few years ago.
He met his future wife when she sat beside him at the Suburban Trib to work on a story about emergency veterinary care. They struck up a conversation on their mutual affection for dogs. Later, they would own two canines, a schnoodle named Daisy and a silky terrier named Teddy.
Over 6 feet tall and wiry, he had a quiet intensity that made his blue-gray eyes gleam when he got on a big story. He’d huddle over his phone, checking with his sources — some of whom he’d already investigated. “He would work very hard going back to people whose foibles or misdeeds he had exposed,” Jackson said. “He was uncompromising about protecting their confidentiality if they wanted to go off the record, but also, he would give them a fair shake.”
His cubicle was decorated with artwork from his daughter, Samantha, and political buttons from the pols he had investigated. “He called it his ‘Wall of Shame,’ ’’ his wife said.
Mr. Gibson loved visiting a family home in the Ozarks to fish for bass and putter around. He liked war movies and any film with John Wayne. He enjoyed following NIU basketball and football and dining at La Scarola.
He was a distant relative of Daniel Boone through his mother, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and a Civil War buff with memorabilia handed down to him through his family. Gibson lore has it that one of his grandfathers several generations back fought in the Civil War with Ernest Hemingway’s grandfather.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Gibson is survived by his sister, Georgia Erickson. Visitation is at 3 p.m. Thursday at William H. Scott Funeral Home, 1100 Greenleaf Ave., Wilmette, with a funeral to begin at 4 p.m.