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Joel Daly, legendary Chicago TV news anchor, dead at 86, died at home after watching the news

He helped build a ratings juggernaut at WLS-TV, part of a ‘happy talk’ revolution in TV news that initially saw him paired on air with Fahey Flynn, John Coleman and Bill Frink.

Joel Daly at WLS-TV’s studio in the Loop in 2005, the year he retired after 40 years at the Chicago ABC station.
Joel Daly at WLS-TV’s studio in the Loop in 2005, the year he retired after 40 years at the Chicago ABC station.
John J. Kim / Sun-Times file

Joel Daly, a trusted Chicago news anchor for nearly 40 years and one of the pillars of a WLS-Channel 7 news dynasty, has died.

Mr. Daly, 86, died around 5:30 a.m. Thursday at his LaGrange home, according to his daughter Kelly, who said that he’d been watching the news on his former station.

“He watched the news, and he was petting the dog, and that was it,” she said.

He had been diagnosed last year with vascular Parkinsonism, a condition that led to mini-strokes, she said.

Mr. Daly’s authority with viewers was evident after he graduated in 1988 from Chicago-Kent College of Law and was defending a client in court. A prospective juror was dismissed because he said he didn’t think he could be unbiased, telling the judge: “I believe everything Mr. Daly says.”

Starting in 1968, Mr. Daly helped build a ratings juggernaut at the Chicago ABC station. His “Eyewitness News” pairing with another legendary Chicago news anchor, Fahey Flynn, and weatherman John Coleman and sportscaster Bill Frink was based on a folksy approach dubbed, somewhat derisively, by others as “happy talk,” mixing in plenty of chatter amid the day’s news.

The label didn’t bother him. As Mr. Daly put it in his 2011 autobiography “The Daly News,” “Everyone was ‘happily talking’ about us.”

On Feb. 12, 1968, the “Eyewitness News” team concept was born when longtime Chicago news anchor Fahey Flynn (left) joined Joel Daly at WLS-TV, ushering in a new brand of television journalism derided by some as “happy talk.”
On Feb. 12, 1968, the “Eyewitness News” team concept was born when longtime Chicago news anchor Fahey Flynn (left) joined Joel Daly at WLS-TV, ushering in a new brand of television journalism derided by some as “happy talk.”
Provided

His later co-anchors included a Chicago newcomer named Oprah Winfrey.

Toward the end of his career, Mr. Daly’s former ABC7 co-anchor Linda Yu paid tribute to his remarkable longevity, noting that he’d lasted through “eight general managers, 11 news directors and over 10,000 news broadcasts.”

The Montana native was a magna cum laude graduate of Yale University with an on-air persona that was polished but warm, erudite yet down-home. Radiating intelligence and always appearing at ease, he won five Chicago TV Emmys for his reporting and writing.

He also was a talented yodeler who charmed audiences with his side gig as a singer with the Sundowners country band.

Winfrey would praise him as a generous and supportive colleague and once called Mr. Daly the “best yodeler I ever heard.”

Joel Daly had a longtime side gig singing with the Sundowners country band.
Joel Daly had a longtime side gig singing with the Sundowners country band.
Sun-Times file

“Anyone who was paired with him, he connected with as his co-anchor,” said retired ABC7 reporter Paul Meincke. “He was an everyman. He listened to people. He was enormously proud of his ability to write and be understood and deliver a message.”

“He kept learning and learning and learning,” said Yu, who co-anchored the 4 p.m. newscast with Mr. Daly for more than 20 years.

She said his appetite for knowledge and command of history enabled him to ask incisive questions and expertly fill time when he was on the air for hours during big, breaking stories.

“We’re just communicating,” Mr. Daly once said in a Chicago-Kent alumni interview, “whether I’m singing a song or in a courtroom trying a case or on television doing the news.”

In the Army, Mr. Daly was sent to broadcast school at Fort Slocum in New York and then, while stationed in Panama in the late 1950s, did radio in the morning and TV by night, entreating listeners to “Live Gaily with Daly.”

“He was somewhat like the ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ guy in Panama,” his daughter said.

After his discharge, he landed jobs in Cleveland at WEWS-TV and WJW-TV. Mr. Daly covered the Beatles’ electrifying 1964 tour of the United States. He interviewed Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In his book, he recalled King telling him, “We will either live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

He also covered the high-profile trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was convicted in 1954 of murdering his wife but later exonerated — a case that inspired the TV series and movie “The Fugitive.”

In 1967, he was hired by what was then WBKB-TV, WLS-TV’s prior call letters, and he and his wife Suzon “Sue” Daly moved to a home in LaGrange designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he’d interviewed while in college.

When he started his new job, “I was driving a little MGB sports car,” he wrote in his book, “and was terrified by all the trucks pushing me off the expressway on the way to work.”

Meeting Mayor Richard J. Daley, he told him he was spelling his last name the wrong way.

The “Eyewitness News” team (from left): Fahey Flynn, John Coleman, Bill Frink and Joel Daly.
The “Eyewitness News” team (from left): Fahey Flynn, John Coleman, Bill Frink and Joel Daly.
Provided

Mr. Daly wrote and delivered frequent news commentaries, at times leading to threats from angry viewers. When that happened, he told the Sun-Times in 2015, he’d advise Suzon to temporarily relocate: “I would tell her, ‘Go over to so-and-so’s house until I come home.”

After King’s 1968 assassination, he delivered an on-air editorial in which he said: “A man of peace is dead, and violence was not his legacy. . . .Flags at half-staff; rifles at high-port. What a sad and sobering commentary. The United States of America, deeply divided. The so-called Land of the Free, a veritable land of fear. Someone must listen.”

During the trial of protesters arrested for conspiring to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, after U.S. District Judge Julius Hoffman ordered defendant Bobby Seale bound and gagged, Mr. Daly said in a commentary that it was “a shameful picture to show the world. A man, presumably innocent until proven guilty, bound and gagged, a spectacle that mocks the very issues of the trial.”

Born in Great Falls, Montana, young Joel learned to yodel from a farmhand. His father Joseph landed a job in San Francisco as a sales manager at a Chevrolet dealership, but, while the family was en route to California, Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. With that, his mother Viola refused to allow the family to continue beyond Spokane, Washington, fearing that the West Coast was too vulnerable.

Times were sometimes hard for Mr. Daly’s family while he was growing up in Washington. According to his daughter, he stole orchard apples to have some food.

His high school debate teacher Grace Becher encouraged him to apply for scholarships, which led to a full ride to attend Yale, where he studied literature and worked for college radio station WYBC, interviewing visitors to the university including Wright and Jayne Mansfield.

In 1955, he met his future wife at McCabe’s department store in Rock Island, Illinois, while on a lunch break from a summer announcing job at WHBF–TV. He liked how she ribbed him about his warm-weather ensemble: Bermuda shorts paired with long, black socks.

“What happened to your pants?” she joked.

They were married for 57 years, until her death from lung cancer in 2015.

The Dalys were a team. When they headed to their getaway in Delavan, Wisconsin, she drove so he could study his law books. It took four years of night classes and two summers, but he graduated law school in his mid-50s.

Mr. Daly loved the country super group the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. While performing, Mr. Daly liked to close his sets with Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord.”

After he met the Sundowners at the old Double-R Ranch club downtown, the group performed together for charity. Once, the band opened for Kenny Rogers. He also helped bring Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers to Chicago before many knew who the country music stars were.

Under his anchor desk, he always wore cowboy boots.

In 2001 he played lawyer Atticus Finch in a mock trial to publicize the choice of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the city’s “One Book, One Chicago” reading promotion.

Joel Daly as Atticus Finch in a mock “To Kill a Mockingbird” trial in 2001 at the Dirksen Federal Building.
Joel Daly as Atticus Finch in a mock “To Kill a Mockingbird” trial in 2001 at the Dirksen Federal Building.
Tom Cruze / Sun-Times file

When he retired from WLS in 2005, newsroom colleagues — –noting he’d already become a lawyer and pilot — joked that he was probably going to start medical school.

Mr. Daly did some work for the Chicago law firm Corboy & Demetrio, handled First Amendment cases with attorney Burton Joseph and also took advantage of his retirement from TV to add a tiny bit of body adornment.

“He and my mom were just driving, and he said, ‘You know what, I think I’ll get my ear pierced,’ ’’ Kelly Daly said. “It was an emerald. We called it his Irish bling.”

He loved dogs. All of his were rescues. He named one Dude after the Jeff Bridges character in “The Big Lebowski,” one of his favorite movies.

Mr. Daly was a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and once decided, after seeing a Christen Eagle plane, to build one himself from a kit. His daughter said it took three years, but he completed it and later donated it to Lewis University, for which he was a board member.

A private funeral service is planned in the spring.

He asked that his ashes be scattered where he learned to fly: Clow International Airport in Bolingbrook.

His son Doug Daly died of an asthmatic seizure in his early 50s. Mr. Daly was open about the addiction struggles of his son Scott, who died in his early 40s. In addition to his daughter Kelly, he is survived by his sister Viola Patrice Kraus and granddaughters Kate Scott Daly and Madison Daly.

Newsman Joel Daly in 1985.
Newsman Joel Daly in 1985.
Sun-Times file