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Deadlines never rattled Sun-Times editor Frank Sugano; dead at 73

Colleagues relied on Sun-Times editor Frank Sugano to catch their errors, lay out pages and make deadlines. | Provided photo

Frank Sugano was born in captivity in the Gila River internment camp in Arizona, where his American-born parents Leo and Kimiko were held during World War II simply because they were of Japanese heritage.

Mr. Sugano grew up to become an erudite, meticulous editor. The sweet smell of his pipe perfumed the Sun-Times newsroom as he laid out pages. Journalists relied on him to make them look good, knowing he’d catch errors in stories and re-write imprecise or erroneous headlines.

“I looked up to him and learned from him,” said former Sun-Times editor Mark Jacob, now metro editor at the Chicago Tribune. “He didn’t care who wrote a story or which editor fell in love with it. If it was up to his standards, he approved it. If it wasn’t, he fixed it.”

He was unfailingly dignified and composed. “Deadlines didn’t rattle him,” said Ricardo Zamudio, who credits Mr. Sugano for showing him how to do newspaper layout, which started his career as a Sun-Times page designer. “He sat beside me and guided me.”

“You walked in at the beginning of your shift, you knew your evening was going to go a little bit better if he was there,” said Ken Kozak, former Sun-Times copy chief.

From 1985 to 2011, Mr. Sugano worked for the Sun-Times. And from 1979 to 1985, he wrote for the Stars and Stripes in Tokyo. Before that, he worked for the Chicago Daily News. He also polished up the Damon Runyon-esque prose of the late Sun-Times racetrack columnist Dave Feldman, co-writing his book, “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda.”

Mr. Sugano died of heart problems Aug. 19 at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. He was 73.

Sun-Times editor Frank Sugano (seated, with toy) and his brother Bill at the Gila River internment camp in Arizona where Frank was born. He became a respected Sun-Times editor. | Photo from 2006 book “Who We Were,” by Michael Williams, Richard Cahan and N
Sun-Times editor Frank Sugano (seated, with toy) and his brother Bill at the Gila River internment camp in Arizona where Frank was born. He became a respected Sun-Times editor. | Photo from 2006 book “Who We Were,” by Michael Williams, Richard Cahan and Nicholas Osborn

All his life, “he was a safety net,” said his son Chris. “We always knew, if I fall, he’ll catch me.”

When his Japanese grandfather Zenzaburo Hirata needed a haircut, Mr. Sugano arrived with barber equipment. “My grandfather could not speak English,” said Mr. Sugano’s sister Susie Sakayori. “Frank would bring his scissors and a plastic cape, and my grandfather would smile.”

To keep his uncle Eddie Tagami company, he brought him samurai movies and delicious Japanese food made by his wife, Noriko.

Sakayori and Mr. Sugano’s other sister, Janice Yamasaki, married men from Japan and settled there. To help them stay in touch with American culture, Mr. Sugano gave them iPads. “It really changed our lives,” Sakayori said. “I use it every day.”

His kindness extended to co-workers. When he learned a colleague’s daughter was studying Japanese in school, he invited the student over to meet Noriko and learn to make gyoza.

When another co-worker wanted to buy a car, Mr. Sugano shared a rebate that saved $1,500.

A gifted woodworker, he even crafted a shield for an air vent that kept blowing cold air on a chilly colleague.

“He just had a real soft spot for humanity,” said Rich Cahan, former Sun-Times picture editor.

“A low-keyed, sweet man,” said former Sun-Times sportswriter Herb Gould, now a writer for TMGcollegesports.com.

Before World War II, his family operated a California flower farm. But racism and espionage fears after the Pearl Harbor attack culminated in orders relocating an estimated 120,000 Japanese-Americans from their West Coast homes to remote parts of the country. The Suganos wound up 50 miles from Phoenix in the Gila River camp.

Frank Sugano’s family operated a school teaching people how to determine the gender of newborn chicks. | Courtesy of Sugano family
Frank Sugano’s family operated a school teaching people how to determine the gender of newborn chicks. | Courtesy of Sugano family

“My grandfather received a letter saying, ‘You have three days to sell everything you own,’ ” Chris Sugano said.

When Frank was 2, his family was able to relocate to Chicago, where he graduated from Sullivan High School.

His mother, Kimiko, and aunt Betty opened a North Side dry cleaner-tailor shop. Mr. Sugano’s uncle, also named Frank, operated the Daily Shimpo Japanese-American newspaper. Relatives also ran Sugano Brothers Travel.

His uncle George founded the National Chick Sexing Association and School, which operated behind Sugano Brothers Travel at 821 N. LaSalle St., Sakayori said. It trained many Japanese-Americans on speedily assessing the gender of newborn chicks. Graduates were sought after by farmers. Skilled sexers could separate future hens from fledgling roosters in a second or two.

As a teen, Mr. Sugano did chick-sexing work with relatives during summers.

After studying at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, Mr. Sugano completed his education at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

He liked visiting the racetrack, as well as tap-dancing and musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “La La Land.” He enjoyed the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice” with Colin Firth, telling his sisters, “I hated to see it end.” A jazz fan, he delighted in listening to pianist Bill Evans.

And he loved spending time with his grandchildren Laura, Emily and Ichiro Sugano.

A brother, Bill Sugano, died before him. A private service has been held.