Gather in the newsroom for a brief meeting

On the 75th birthday of the paper, a visit with colleagues long gone.

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Chicago Sun-Times city editor Dick Mitchell (right) with Neil Steinberg at Steinberg’s 1990 wedding at the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago.

Chicago Sun-Times city editor Dick Mitchell (right) with Neil Steinberg at Steinberg’s 1990 wedding at the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago. At the time, Steinberg, now a columnist, was a general assignment reporter.

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Harry Golden Jr. came striding into the fourth floor newsroom at 401 N. Wabash Ave. like a character from “Guys and Dolls.” The dean of the City Hall reporters, he looked sharp in a double-breasted pinstripe suit and well-shined shoes, the only jarring note his face, which looked like a skull. He was dying of cancer. We all knew it.

Why is he still here? I remember wondering, slumped in a corner of the vast expanse of metal desks and stacked newspapers. Me, I’d be anywhere else but here.

I was young, and newspaper ink hadn’t yet seeped into my bones. Wasn’t coursing through my veins like blood. Yet.

Opinion bug

Opinion

The 75th anniversary of the first edition of the Daily Sun and Times was Thursday, and since even Stefano Esposito’s ambitious overview of our history could touch upon only a fraction of the reality, I hope you’ll forgive a few follow-ups, today and occasionally throughout the year.

To have survived the Great Newspaper Die-Off and not only reach our diamond anniversary, but with the gift of a confident future, wedded to WBEZ, flush with new energy, money, talent and ambitions, is an occasion for joy and reflection.

For me, on staff exactly half of those 75 years, thinking of the newspaper immediately conjures up colleagues long gone, answering the call to gather in the newsroom of memory. M.W. Newman drags in, rumpled, slump-shouldered, a dour man who wrote incredibly. In 1967, he described a killer hurricane this way: “Death came dancing and skipping, whistling and screaming, strangely still one second and whooshing and bouncing the next.” I never saw him smile.

75th with 1st edition
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To mark the 75th anniversary of the daily Chicago Sun-Times, we are exploring the history of Chicago — and ours — in stories throughout the year. Click here to read the entire first edition of the paper from Feb. 2, 1948.

A Roger Ebert visit to the newsroom was an event. He made the rounds, telling jokes, allowing his colleagues to bask in his celebrity. He faced his death with such courage — posing for a full-page portrait in Esquire, part of his jaw cut away. I know when I die, I’ll think, “God, Roger did this so much better ...”

You never saw Phillip J. O’Connor enter the newsroom. In fact, I used to joke, you never saw him stand up. He was a rewrite man, a tall man bent over his keyboard, fingers flying. The IBM clock overhead hurtled fast toward deadline, but Phil was faster.

Jeff Zaslow arrived fresh from the Wall Street Journal. He had covered our contest to find a replacement for advice columnist Ann Landers, and as a gimmick applied for the job himself. Recognizing PR gold, the paper picked him. While on his introductory tour, I hurried over to find out what kind of idiot leaves a job writing for the Wall Street Journal to tell teenagers how to get over heartbreak. We became good friends.

Of all my colleagues, I loved Dick Mitchell best. He was our city editor. He had a regal dignity, crisp white shirts and French cuffs. Dick chewed out an intern for putting his feet on the city desk so severely the poor kid ran away crying. He once rose in the slot — the focus of the U-shaped city desk — pointed a finger in my direction and took exception with my word choice, “‘Polygonic’ Steinberg?” he bellowed. “‘Polygonic’!” He shook his head, grimacing. “Nooooooo!” After neighbors spoke at his funeral about his homemade chili and vintage sports car, I surprised myself by getting up to add something they all overlooked. “Dick Mitchell was the city editor of the Chicago Sun-Times,” I said, hotly. “He infiltrated the Black P. Stone Nation. He was fearless.”

Finished? I’ve hardly begun. I haven’t even mentioned the living, haven’t mentioned photographers like Bob Davis leaning far out a cab window in Taipei, capturing the rush of light, while I clung to the back of his belt to keep him from topping out. Brian Jackson running across the newsroom, cameras bouncing, with me hurrying after him, rushing to the Rose of Sharon Church, burning down.

I’ve overlooked countless beloved colleagues — sorry — for now anyway, and will try to circle back, while hoping this isn’t pure nostalgia. Harry Golden Jr. kept coming in during his precious last days on earth because for us the newspaper is the most important thing. It is what you care about. Period, full stop. I gave my life to it and I’m glad. Years ago, when I decided to take a few months off to work on a book, Dick Mitchell pulled me aside at the Billy Goat, aghast, offended. Did I not know that if you aren’t in the newspaper you might as well be dead?

You’re right Dick. Still here, still alive, still trying to make you proud.

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