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Robert J. Herguth dies at 93; reporter whose whimsy and fine writing opened up interview subjects — and the world — for readers

During nearly half a century of writing feature stories and columns, Mr. Herguth did stories on a parade of humanity — and a few animals, too.

Reporter Robert J. Herguth talks with Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.
Reporter Robert J. Herguth talks with Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.
Sun-Times file photo

Chicago journalism is famous for bulldog reporters who rake muck for the public good.

Robert J. Herguth had a different approach. His gentle demeanor and lighthearted, pun-filled way of viewing the world made interview subjects open up to him. Readers looked forward to the hard-hitting stories in the newspapers, but when they turned the page to “Hergie,” they felt like they were visiting a friend.

He died Wednesday at an assisted living facility in Portland, where he’d moved to be closer to his daughter Jeni. Mr. Herguth, a journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News, was 93.

During nearly half a century of writing feature stories and columns, Mr. Herguth did stories on a parade of humanity — and a few animals, too. He interviewed martial artist Chuck Norris, John F. Kennedy, Sting, actor Harry J. Lennix, writer Nelson Algren, a woman on a quest to sing the national anthem at every ballpark in the nation, and C.J. the orangutan, who co-starred in the 1981 Bo Derek movie, “Tarzan the Ape Man.”

Robert J. Herguth and columnist Mike Royko both had long careers at the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Robert J. Herguth and columnist Mike Royko both had long careers at the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Sun-Times file photo

When Paul McCartney was in town speaking to a group of high schoolers, a publicist granted Mr. Herguth access. He walked in. McCartney took one look at him and said, “‘You’re not in high school.’’’

When he interviewed Jerry Lewis, the comedian “brought a tape recorder because he told my dad he’d been misquoted so much,” said his son, Sun-Times reporter Robert C. Herguth. “When I cleaned out my parents’ house I found a handwritten note from Lewis to my dad.”

A lover of puns and limericks, “He was unrelenting in his humor and his kindness,” said his son. Mr. Herguth’s license plate said “PUN.”

“He was a maestro of wordplay,” said Jack Schnedler, former Sun-Times travel editor.

Robert J. Herguth interviewed thousands of people — and a few animals — as a feature writer and columnist for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Sun-Times file photo

Though soft-spoken and friendly, Mr. Herguth “daily demonstrated his extraordinary skill in writing and reporting,” said George Harmon, a former “rewrite man” and assistant city editor who taught journalism at Northwestern University. “He could handle any type of assignment.”

In 1993, he interviewed Harry J. Busch, the last known person to see gangster “Terrible Tommy” O’Connor, whose daring 1921 Chicago jail escape inspired the play “The Front Page.” Busch told Mr. Herguth how the escapee commandeered the young Busch’s car: “He said `Drive like hell, you S.O.B., or I’ll blow your brains out! I’m Tommy O’Connor!’ I drove!”

He was a generous mentor. “I like to think and hope every newsroom had a Bob Herguth to help guide those young and new to the business,” said Don Hayner, former editor-in-chief at the Sun-Times. “He helped create the ethos of the Sun-Times, or at least what we aspire to be.”

Robert J. Herguth
Provided photo

His son recalled Mr. Herguth’s advice when he entered journalism. He told him if he made a mistake, “Apologize, own up and tell the bosses it’ll never happen again; and that if I don’t know something, tell the bosses ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.’ ... He taught me to be honest, and work hard and do my best.”

Just 12 days after Mr. Herguth became president of the Chicago Press Club in 1987, it shut down because of financial problems. He spent $2,600 of his own money to help pay staffers.

“He was just an eminently kind and decent man,” said Don Wycliff, who retired from journalism as public editor at the Chicago Tribune.

Bob spent his early years on Granville Avenue in the Edgewater neighborhood. After his father, Harry, died in a car accident, his mother, Loretta, returned to her hometown of St. Louis, where Bob and his sister, Joan, grew up. He made a little newspaper and sold it to relatives for a penny. He went to college at the University of Missouri and worked for newspapers in El Paso, Texas, and Peoria.

Robert J. Herguth
Provided photo

Drafted during the Korean War, Mr. Herguth wrote Army propaganda leaflets that were translated into Korean. Some were air-dropped behind enemy lines, according to his son.

In the mid-’50s, he joined the Daily News. When it folded in 1978, he moved to the Sun-Times. He wrote columns called “Public Eye,” “Chicago Profile” and “Small Potatoes.”

He met his wife, Margaret, when they both worked at the Daily News. They were married from 1966 until her death in 2014. The Herguths raised their family in Wilmette, where, “He loved riding his bike,” a Schwinn he had for 30 years, said their daughter Amy. “He rode it to the El.”

A homebody, Mr. Herguth preferred trips to Wisconsin over traveling the world. “His career was important, but his family was more important,” said his godson, Tim Rooney, a former journalist for the Daily Herald.

Mr. Herguth is also survived by nine grandchildren. Visitation is scheduled 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. A funeral mass is planned at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Francis Xavier Church, 524 9th St., Wilmette.

Robert J. Herguth types next to a dented Chicago Daily News dispenser. Provided photo
Robert J. Herguth types next to a dented Chicago Daily News dispenser.
Provided photo