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Former Sun-Times, Daily News editor John A. McDonough dies at 78

Sun-Times veteran John McDonough in the newspaper composing room. | supplied photo

It would not be an exaggeration to say John McDonough made sure millions of Chicagoans got their news.

In a 41-year newspaper career, he’d kick production into high gear with wit, wisdom and five words: “We’re a little behind here.”

And he remained unflappable during a period of rapid technological change in the industry.

At 19, he became a “copy boy” at the Chicago Daily News, doing go-fer work. “When somebody called ‘Copy!’ you came running,” said his friend and fellow newspaper veteran, Ken Kozak.

By the time he retired from the Sun-Times in 1999, Mr. McDonough had risen to be assistant managing editor for pagination-production and design.

The longtime Skokie resident died Aug. 9 at Evanston Hospital of complications from hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid in the brain. Mr. McDonough was 78.

As a makeup editor in the composing room, he oversaw newspaper production in the era of “hot type” — when pages were made from lead type generated on machines called Linotypes. Later, he shepherded the switch to “cold type,” a photographic reproduction process.

Finally, he commanded newspaper assembly in the computer age.

When he retired at 61, “He was running the department that laid out all the pages,” Kozak said. “John straddled all three eras … learning entirely new skills and entirely new [technical] languages.”

“In the hot-type days,” said Sun-Times co-worker Russell Bath, “You had to work with a much larger crew of printers and composing-room personnel than was the case in the later years, when the computer technology took over. John was very skilled at that.”

“As supervisor of page makeup — and later, pagination — McDonough’s role required adherence to the time constraints faced by composing and pressrooms, while being respectful of the obstacles faced by reporters, photographers and editors. On a nightly basis, John walked a tightrope that would have made the Wallendas envious.”

“John was unflappable,” said Dan Miller, co-business editor at the Daily News and former Sun-Times business editor. “Those were the days when a 10-point move in the Dow Jones industrial average was front-page news when the market closed at 3 p.m. Reporters would get the final results, give them to John, and, because he was so respected by printers, he literally could dictate to the [Linotype] operators for the Red Streak” edition.

John McDonough | supplied photo
John McDonough | supplied photo

Tough yet supportive, Mr. McDonough also commanded loyalty from reporters, editors and legendary columnist Mike Royko, a softball teammate.

If co-workers grew frazzled, said Daily News colleague Dave Gorak, he soothed them with a good-natured, “Remain calm.”

“He was just so sweet and had such a good sense of humor,” said former Sun-Times staffer Char Searl, a copy editor-designer at the Chicago Tribune. “You never felt you were being bossed.”

“John would gently nudge us without being overbearing,” Bath said.

But, when circumstances required it, he could mete out what Kozak termed “McDonough justice.”

When a staffer on the photo desk failed to supply a picture by deadline, Mr. McDonough demonstrated the error of procrastinating ways. In early editions, “The paper came up with a big rectangle of white space where the photo was supposed to be,” Kozak said. “This person learned a lesson and never forgot to send a photo again.”

With sharp-eyed proofreading, Mr. McDonough fixed typos and mistakes. “He always had our backs,” said Sun-Times arts editor Miriam Di Nunzio.

He also saved the advertising department untold money by spotting errors in ads, Kozak said, which would have meant refunds to advertisers.

“He saved reporters, saved peoples’ butts every day,” Kozak said.

John McDonough grew up near Irving and Western, where he used to deliver newspapers. He graduated from St. Ben’s grade school and DePaul Academy high school. He also studied at Wright Junior College, said his wife, the former Carol Macica. They met at the Daily News when she worked for food editor Isabel Du Bois and lovelorn columnist Eden Wright.

John McDonough (center) and newspaper colleagues Ken Kozak (left) and Alan Solomon. | Family Photo
John McDonough (center) and newspaper colleagues Ken Kozak (left) and Alan Solomon. | Family Photo

Mr. McDonough enjoyed trips to Acapulco, Arizona, the Bahamas, Hawaii, Paris and Rome. He traveled about 25 times to Las Vegas, where he loved to golf, gamble and eat.

The McDonoughs delighted in throwing parties, and taking their four grandchildren to museums and zoos. “He was just a fantastic family man,” Kozak said. Mr. McDonough looked forward to relaxing with his dog, Riley, and reading suspense novels by Tom Clancy or David Baldacci. He and his wife liked going out to breakfast at Annie’s Pancake House in Skokie

Mr. McDonough is also survived by his daughters, Karen Nutini and Susan Pflaumer; his sisters, Patricia McDonough and Kathleen Marszowski, and brothers, Michael, Thomas and Robert. Two sons, Michael and Thomas, died before him. Services have been held.