Long before the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom had the internet, it had Albert Dickens.
Albert.com, he might as well have been called.
“Every time I needed to look something up, I would check with Albert first,” said Denise O’Neal, Dickens’ dear friend and coworker for 30 years. “It didn’t matter what it was about, he always knew the answer. I am telling you, he would just snap it off. He was truly a walking encyclopedia. There was no Google, but there was Albert.”
For 49½ years, counting his time at the Chicago Daily News in the 1970s, there was Albert.
Dressed immaculately — jacket and tie, always.
A warm smile on his face, a twinkle in his eye and a courtliness that charmed and comforted those fortunate enough to be in his presence.
A wondrous breadth and depth of knowledge in his head and at his fingertips. History, languages, operas, you name it. He knew — and had done — it all, or so it seemed.
And what meant so much to all who worked with him: He knew the Sun-Times — its ins and outs, names and faces, comings and goings, successes and trials — better than anybody.
Dickens, who died Sunday at 82 at Resurrection Medical Center after an illness, officially belonged to the sports department as an editorial assistant and was so valuable in that multifaceted role that sports editor Chris De Luca said, “It sometimes felt like we couldn’t get by as a department without him.”
But his presence was everywhere, in every department, in every nook and cranny.
Columnist Michael Sneed called him a “formally dressed gentleman with impeccable manners in a frenzied, rumpled newsroom of bare-necked journalists.’’
“[He was] an iconic newsman without portfolio; he claimed to have logged a history of the paper during his many decades in the newsroom,’’ Sneed said. ‘‘Omigosh! Was it hidden in boxes somewhere under his desk in the sports department?”
That history was marked by ownership changes, management changes and untold other changes amid the roiling of a volatile industry. Through it all, Dickens was a constant presence, eagerly of help to anyone who needed it — newcomers, especially.
High school sports editor Michael O’Brien called him a “shelter in the storm.”
“He’d tell us that owners will come and go but that the paper was ours, not theirs, and to focus on our work and not let that stuff overwhelm us,” O’Brien said. “[That advice] was always running through my head.”
In small, special ways, Dickens bonded with coworkers. He had a Lyric Opera tradition with former high school sports editor Steve Tucker. He had a holiday dinner tradition with former high school sports writer Taylor Bell. He had a risque-joke tradition with longtime sports columnist Rick Telander.
“Albert was quietly hilarious, a great presenter,” Telander said.
Dickens loved a good story and told great ones, some of which stemmed from his upbringing in a part of Iowa where black families like his were few and far between. He graduated from Drake University in Des Moines and did a brief stint in the Army, stationed in France, in the 1950s before moving to Chicago in 1963.
“He was a student of history and a great raconteur,” reporter Maureen O’Donnell said. “He was serving in the military when Russia launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, shocking the U.S. into revving up the ‘space race.’ He said he saw seasoned military officers dissolving into tears that day. He really made you feel like you were in that room with him.”
Dickens and his partner of 37 years, James Cubas, who died in 2016, owned a home in a small South Dakota town where the summer fishing was excellent. Over time, strangers there became the closest of friends. Cubas, a master tailor, designed some of Dickens’ favorite suits. After Dickens lost his partner, nephew Thomas Cubas became his closest companion.
“After my uncle passed away, understanding that they had a symbiotic relationship, I knew it would be very difficult for him to be alone,” Thomas Cubas said. “They were two as one; when one of them needed something, the other one just knew. Salt on fries, sugar in coffee — they were completely in sync.”
Dickens had a love story with the Sun-Times, too.
“He absolutely loved working at the Sun-Times,” Cubas said. “He loved the people that he worked around. The friendships he made there had a lot to do with his longevity because those people were his family.”
Dickens drew, painted, played piano and spoke numerous languages. He read French and Italian newspapers online. He spoke Yiddish with former federal courts reporter Adrienne Drell and Polish with members of the office cleaning crew. Former editorial board member Deborah Douglas fondly recalls practicing French with him.
“He kindly indulged with the classic twinkle in his eyes,” Douglas said. “He was erudite in a way they don’t make them anymore. A classic.”
Just over a decade ago, during a round of layoffs, sports copy editor Bob Mazzoni, also a co-chairman of the Sun-Times Guild bargaining committee, approached Dickens — who’d entered his 70s — to see how he might feel about retiring. It did not go over well.
“I wouldn’t call him livid with me,” Mazzoni said, “but he made it very clear he had no intention of retiring and that the newspaper was, in many ways, his lifeblood.”
Dickens retired on Sept. 30, 2019, as the longest-serving person on staff. He’d worked full-time in the newsroom until suffering a stroke in March 2019, after which he lived in the Resurrection Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Park Ridge. Rob Chimberoff, Bob Shea and Toni Ginnetti played leading roles among the Sun-Times staffers past and present who rallied around him with friendship and care.
Even in the nursing home — his room filled with the lovely sounds of classical and operatic music — Dickens wore a jacket and tie when he took visitors. He spoke with caregivers and other employees in their native tongues, too.
Former longtime sports reporter Ginnetti visited Dickens twice a week there, each time bringing him the Italian beef sandwich he seemed to constantly crave. Giardiniera was a must. On one occasion, though, Ginnetti had to break the news that she’d forgotten about the giardiniera.
“That’s OK,” Dickens said with a wry smile as he reached his hand behind a curtain only to return it with a bottleful of the stuff. “I brought my own.”
And talk about a magical moment: Columnist Neil Steinberg tells of the time Dickens answered a call in the newsroom from someone claiming to be actor Charlton Heston. Unimpressed, Dickens promptly ended the call. But the Heston impersonator called back, and did we mention he wasn’t an impersonator?
After he realized what he’d done, Dickens uttered five words that ought to live forever: “I hung up on Moses.”
“He was very proud of that,” Steinberg said.
We were very proud of him.