Dick Kay, longtime Chicago political reporter for WMAQ-TV, dead at 84

He worked the NBC station for 38 years. Hired as a writer in 1968, he soon was covering the Democratic National Convention, one of the biggest political stories of the century.

SHARE Dick Kay, longtime Chicago political reporter for WMAQ-TV, dead at 84
Dick Kay worked 38 years at WMAQ-Channel 5. He was its longtime political editor.

Dick Kay worked 38 years at WMAQ-Channel 5. He was its longtime political editor.

Sun-Times file

Dick Kay, a no-nonsense, incisive inquisitor who had one of the longest political reporting careers in Chicago, died early Thursday at 84.

He had been found unresponsive in his favorite recliner at his St. Charles home Monday, according to his family, and taken to Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, where he died. The cause of death was a brain hemhorrage, his son Eric Snodgrass said.

Mr. Kay had a stentorian voice that sliced through the noise at crime scenes and news conferences like a bass baritone in an opera. It seemed to command answers, even from those who might have preferred to slink away.

Mr. Kay worked for WMAQ-Channel 5 for 38 years. Hired as a writer in 1968, within months, he was covering one of the most tumultuous political stories of the century. 

“They sent me out on the street, a green kid. The Democratic Convention, in the middle of it! I was stunned,” he once said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

He began appearing on air two years later, ultimately as political editor.

Dick Kay.

Dick Kay.

Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

After retiring in 2006, he started hosting “Dick Kay: Back on the Beat” on WCPT-AM.

He grew up in Dellrose, Tennessee, a self-described “country boy” born in a log cabin. He was just 3 when his sharecropper-father died. His mother was a seamstress or cook all her life, he told the Sun-Times. At 14, he dropped out of school so he could make money digging ditches, picking cotton and washing dishes.

At 16, he joined the Navy, serving on the USS Magoffin as a radio man, working with amphibious landing craft, and got his high school equivalency diploma.

He went on to Bradley University, where he got a bachelor’s degree in speech education and performed in summer stock with the Peoria Players. He worked his way through college delivering mail.

“He was a man that came from nothing, I mean nothing,” his son Steve Snodgrass said.

His break in broadcasting came with a job at a radio station in Pekin. He moved on to a job in Peoria, where he met his future wife Kay on a blind date.

Her name inspired his new surname, thought to be better for a broadcasting career. He’d been Richard Snodgrass but changed it to Dick Kay. His nickname was “Doogie.”

After Peoria, he was the news director at WFRV-TV in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1965, where one of his favorite stories was a 30-minute interview with Richard Nixon, then running for president.

After Green Bay, he landed at Channel 5, where, in addition to being “a student of politics,” he “was a bulldog,” said Jim Stricklin, his longtime photographer there. Stricklin recalled a time fire Cmsr. Robert J. Quinn confronted Mr. Kay in a City Hall elevator over a story he didn’t like. “Dick never backed down, never,” Strickin said.

Mr. Kay also was a union steward and later Chicago president and a national vice president of what’s now SAG-AFTRA — the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He was proud of his work to curb “no-compete” limits that keep broadcast talents from changing stations.

“He was absolutely fearless about going toe-to-toe with management,” former WMAQ colleague Joan Esposito said. “People who worked with him adored and respected him.”

He loved going out on his sailboat. He played the harmonica and enjoyed country music, especially Hank Williams, Esposito said.

She said, about once a week, “He and his buddies would go to this cigar store, sit around and talk” while enjoying a good cigar.

Mr. Kay received the Peabody Award — one of broadcast journalism’s highest honors — for a 1984 investigation of the Illinois Legislature called “Political Parasites.” His work also garnered a National Headliner Award. He’d won 11 local Emmy Awards when he was inducted in 2001 into the Silver Circle of the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. 

After retiring, he worked for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, promoting his healthcare plan.

He loved TV news but warned newcomers about the “grind.”

“It’s glamorous until you’re out there on the expressway doing a traffic report in 20 degree below zero with a blizzard,” he said in a 2012 interview, “or until you’re covering a tragedy like an airplane crash.”

In addition to his wife and sons Eric and Steve, Mr. Kay is survived by another son, Brett, and a granddaughter, Alexandra. No public service is planned in the near future, the family said, “but a public memorial is being planned for a later date.”

“What he stood for his whole life, whether it was a union issue or a political issue or a fact-finding mission, he was always fighting for the truth,” Steve Snodgrass said.

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