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Tylenol reporter John Rooney, who battled ALS, has died

John Rooney in 2014. | Sun-Times file photo

John Rooney, a longtime Chicago reporter who won accolades for his coverage of legal affairs and the 1982 Tylenol killings, and then led his family and friends with grace, humor and acceptance when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, died Thursday morning of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Mr. Rooney, 56, a Beverly resident whose mother and aunt also died of the incurable disease, suspected he had it when he interviewed former Illinois state Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch in 2013, just days before her death from ALS, though he didn’t tell her that.

The 27-year reporter for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin — and, before that, the old City News Bureau of Chicago — continued to work even as the disease weakened his body and affected his speech. As Mr. Rooney’s voice began to fail, “He said, ‘I love you,’ ” said a friend, Pat Milhizer. “He knew he didn’t have too many words left, and he wanted to make them count.”

In a Law Bulletin essay shortly after his diagnosis, Mr. Rooney wrote, “I won’t allow ALS to define me. At age 54, I rely on my faith, along with strong support from family and friends.”

Like its author, the essay “was honest and straightforward, and really, very touching,” said Bernie Judge, editor emeritus of the Law Bulletin, “telling a very difficult story without self-pity.”

Mr. Rooney was granted two heartfelt wishes. One wish was for a “good” death, at home instead of at a hospital, surrounded by loved ones. And, he was able to attend the mid-May graduation of his son, Jack, from the University of Notre Dame.

Jack Rooney wrote about his father’s illness on “The only way to really ‘beat’ ALS is to live with joy, no matter how ugly its progression,” the younger Rooney said. “ALS has gotten pretty ugly for my dad, but I still see in him the joy that has always guided my family.”

“John was a leader in many ways,” said Mr. Rooney’s brother, Tim. “He’s been a great example to us.”

To get to work at the Law Bulletin, Mr. Rooney sometimes arranged to ride on a public bus for people with disabilities, said Milhizer, then his editor. Its schedule was unpredictable. Some days, it would drop him off early. Other times, he’d arrive a little late. Still, “he would walk in with his walker and he had the biggest smile on his face,” Milhizer said. “I’d talk to myself — ‘if John can start every day with a smile on his face with what he’s going through, we all can.'”

“Even when he was diagnosed,” federal appellate Judge William J. Bauer said, “He was upbeat.”

Mr. Rooney came to journalism naturally. His father, Edmund Rooney, was a respected reporter for the old Chicago Daily News from the mid-1950s to 1978, and later taught at Loyola University Chicago. He was said to be the first reporter on the scene of the Richard Speck slaying of eight student nurses in 1966. Ed Rooney once bragged to his Daily News colleagues that his son “was the first reporter to break the Tylenol story.”

Mr. Rooney had the kind of reputation every reporter wants — dogged, expert, trustworthy and accurate. “He was one of the most ethical people I ever met,” said Judge.

“He was a reporter you could trust with your wallet, your watch and your story,” said Bauer. Though tenacious, “When something was off-the-record, he understood you couldn’t talk about something . . . He was a splendid reporter, in my opinion. I don’t recall any time he misquoted anybody.”

“He was a wonderful reporter,” said attorney Joe Power. “He just wanted the facts.”

After graduating from Marist High School, he studied communications at Loyola, spending his junior year at its Rome center. During high school and college, he worked as a go-fer for renowned personal-injury attorney Philip Corboy. He and the Rooney siblings who followed him did such a good job, lawyers at the firm started calling the go-fers “Rooneys,” as in, “Send me a Rooney!”

Later, John Rooney completed a master’s in public affairs reporting at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He went to work for City News, where, in 1982, at 23, he broke the first story about deaths from cyanide-tainted Tylenol. He won a Lisagor award and the Chicago Bar Association’s Herman Kogan Award for his work, which made for proud moments at City News, with its reputation as a small-but-scrappy news service.

“He saw that a couple kids died of poisoning at two different locations,” said Judge, former chief of City News. “He was the first to make a connection that nobody else had made.”

“He was at 11th and State” at the old Police Headquarters, said Tim Rooney. “He got a tip from a nurse there was a connection” between the poisoning deaths.

Mr. Rooney worked as a reporter at the Tampa Tribune before joining the Law Bulletin in 1988. His expertise was plain when he helped train newcomers, said Milhizer, spokesman for Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans. “The federal courthouse, the Daley Center, federal appellate, Illinois appellate, law firms, bar associations, he knew all the players,” Milhizer said, “and whenever you used his name, you had instant credibility.”

“He was a husband, a father, a journalist, a White Sox fan, a proud Irishman, a proud South Sider,” said Milhizer. Mr. Rooney also loved attending Blackhawks games.

Hawks fan John Rooney and the Stanley Cup trophy. With friends (L-R) Brian and Mary Higgins, wife Meg Rooney, and son Ned. | Facebook photo
Hawks fan John Rooney and the Stanley Cup trophy. With friends (L-R) Brian and Mary Higgins, wife Meg Rooney, and son Ned. | Facebook photo

His wife of 27 years, Meg, and their three sons — Jack, Ned and Dan — pulled together to care for him. Friends and relatives organized a 2014 fundraiser at Bourbon Street, one of the biggest ever held at the Merrionette Park eatery. “I never knew that place could hold that many people,” said Power.

The Rooneys met at a dance contest at a Lincoln Park sports bar. They won a gift certificate for dinner — their first date. “He was just so genuine,” said Meg Rooney. “He would just look at you, and you knew when you were with him and he was talking to you, you were the center of his world.” And, “He was an amazing father,” she said. “The most important thing he told his boys was, ‘When you’re young, I’m not here to be your friend. I’m your dad. But we will be friends.'”

Mr. Rooney once told a columnist for the Daily Southtown, “I can’t rewrite the ending of this, so I’m not going to spend the time I have dwelling on it.” He pushed to spread the word about ALS through the Les Turner ALS Foundation and through what became known as the “Ice Bucket Challenge.”

He died in his childhood home in St. John Fisher’s parish, where he and Meg Rooney raised their family. In addition to his wife, children and brother, he is also survived by his sisters, Molly Kelly and Ellen Martin, and two more brothers, Ed and Peter. Mr. Rooney’s wake is 3-9 p.m. Wednesday at St John Fisher’s, 10234 S. Washtenaw. A funeral mass at the church is planned at 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The Rooney family pulled together when John Rooney was diagnosed with ALS. John and wife Meg Rooney flanked by sons (L-R) Dan, Ned, and Jack. | Brother Rice photo
John Rooney’s family pulled together when he was diagnosed with ALS. John and wife Meg Rooney, flanked by sons (L-R) Dan, Ned, and Jack. / Brother Rice photo