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William Recktenwald, dogged investigative journalist who went undercover for Sun-Times’ Mirage Tavern series, dies at 79

‘There was something that Bill had that stood apart, and that was the exciting nature of his work,’ said a close friend of the longtime investigator.

Investigative reporter William Rectenwald, pictured in 2018.
Investigative reporter William Rectenwald, pictured in 2018.
Sun-Times file

William Recktenwald could be anyone.

The renowned investigative journalist most famously fooled corrupt Chicago city inspectors into thinking he was a naive rookie bar owner.

Then, he talked his way into a job as a guard at a downstate Illinois prison to reveal its deplorable conditions.

“He was a natural at going undercover,” said reporter Pam Zekman, one of Recktenwald’s longtime investigative cohorts. “He had an ability to adapt to any kind of situation. He had a low-key way of dealing with people to win their confidence.”

But “Reck’s” role as a mentor to young reporters was no disguise. Throughout four award-winning decades in newsrooms, he also had an affinity for helping journalists looking to get a foot in the door.

“He fostered a real community among his colleagues,” said Geoff Ritter, a close friend and former student of Recktenwald at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. “There was something that Bill had that stood apart, and that was the exciting nature of his work.”

Recktenwald, 79, died Friday in hospice care in Evansville, Indiana, following a brief non-COVID-19 illness.

Born in Detroit, he grew up in La Grange Park with his parents and two sisters. The future Pulitzer Prize winner was diagnosed dyslexic and struggled with reading as a student. He later recounted to Ritter how the nuns who taught him at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School wrote letters to him at the Chicago Tribune expressing their amazement at his improved spelling.

“Obviously, they never heard of the copy desk,” Recktenwald joked of the editors cleaning up his work.

William Recktenwald (far left) pictured in 2008 with his former colleagues on the Sun-Times Mirage Tavern series.
William Recktenwald (far left) pictured in 2008 with his former colleagues on the Sun-Times Mirage Tavern series.
Sun-Times file

He earned an associate’s degree from the College of DuPage and went on to work a series of odd jobs alongside a six-year stint with the National Guard.

Recktenwald got his first crack at investigating in 1962 with a job in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, going undercover at age 21 in bars and taverns across the city to get information for illegal gambling probes.

That experience helped land him a job in 1967 as a watchdog for the Better Government Association, where he rose to become chief investigator and often went undercover in tandem with news reporters across Chicago to reveal corruption and waste.

William Recktenwald (right) pictured at a Better Government Association news conference in the late 1960s.
William Recktenwald (right) pictured at a Better Government Association news conference in the late 1960s.
Sun-Times file

As the BGA’s chief investigator, Recktenwald partnered with Pulitzer-winning teams at the Tribune in 1971, when he went undercover as an attendant for a series of reports on private ambulance companies and again two years later for a series on vote fraud.

But his best known work came in 1978 with Zekman, Zay N. Smith and photographer Jim Frost at the Chicago Sun-Times for a blockbuster investigative series centered on the Mirage Tavern — a River North dive bar the newspaper bought to expose greedy inspectors who were all too happy to look past blatant code violations in exchange for bribes.

A beer salesman talks to William Recktenwald (right) during the Sun-Times’ Mirage investigation series.
A beer salesman talks to William Recktenwald (right) during the Sun-Times’ Mirage investigation series.
Sun-Times file

“We couldn’t have done it without him,” said Zekman, who posed as his wife and business partner, “Mrs. Ray Patterson,” for the legendary series. “He could be any man. He was able to adopt different roles without suspicion.”

Reflecting on the Mirage series, Recktenwald wrote “[w]hat made it interesting and effective was its presentation. It named names. There were no anonymous sources. The public believed what they read.”

William Recktenwald, (left) alongside Sun-Times reporters Pam Zekman and Zay Smith, and Jeff Allen, who posed as the Mirage owner.
William Recktenwald, (left) alongside Sun-Times reporters Pam Zekman and Zay Smith, and Jeff Allen, who posed as the Mirage owner.
Sun-Times file

After his brief faux-barkeeping career, Recktenwald joined the Tribune staff and used his own name to get a job as a guard at the Pontiac Correctional Center following deadly riots there. His gritty reporting “triggered a top-to-bottom housecleaning” at the troubled facility, where he described of a “living hell in which everybody loses, guards and inmates alike.”

Recktenwald wrote for nearly every section of the Tribune over his career, and he made it his job to help newcomers learn the ropes of the newsroom.

“It wasn’t a formal responsibility. He just did it naturally,” said BGA director of investigations John Chase, who cut his reporting teeth under Recktenwald. “He’d come up to all the young reporters and try to calm your nerves and let you know you’re here to do good work ... He took real joy in seeing his lessons being passed on to younger reporters.”

That made for a natural transition to teaching at SIU in 1999, launching a 20-year tenure that included service as a Fulbright senior specialist in Uganda.

He loved sailing, completing the Race to Mackinac in 40 hours in 1987, and he traveled to dozens of countries including Sri Lanka, where he experienced a devastating tsunami that struck during his trip in 2004.

“Like a bulldozer blade, it came in and wrecked a village I walked the streets of the day before,” he recalled.

He reveled in entertaining colleagues and friends at his wooded estate in Shawnee National Forest. Recktenwald retired in January.

“A Fulbright scholar, award-winning journalist and legendary investigative reporter, he shared his experience and expertise with countless students at SIU Carbondale,” university chancellor Austin Lane said.

Recktenwald is survived by several nieces and nephews, as well as numerous colleagues, students and mentees in the journalism industry.

Services are scheduled for Monday morning at St. Joseph Catholic Church near downstate Elizabethtown. An additional celebration is being planned for a later date.

Contributing: Manny Ramos, Maureen O’Donnell