Mike Parker excelled at reporting, writing and anchoring the news in the three biggest TV markets in the country.
When he retired from Chicago’s WBBM-TV/CBS 2 in 2016, he’d worked there for 35 years, a remarkably long stretch in a medium in which on-air talent can come and go quickly. His combination of authority, intelligence and wit made him a trusted source for viewers. And he had what’s known as a “radio voice” — so resonant that his chest seemed to have a built-in echo chamber.
Mr. Parker, 75, who had congestive heart failure, died Sunday night at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, CBS 2 reported Monday morning. He and his wife Marian lived in Beverly.
Before he was Mike Parker, winner of multiple Emmys for news reporting, he was Michael J. Fishel, winner of oratory awards at Rock Island High School.
Broadcasting always held an allure for him.
“Grew up in radio stations,” he told CBS 2 when he retired. “My father was a radio newscaster after the second World War, and I just hung out with him and thought, ‘This looks like a great way to make a living.’ ”
He was in high school when he landed his first broadcasting job in 1959 at KSTT radio in Davenport, Iowa. Later, he attended Los Angeles City College.
Early in his career, when he was news director and anchor at Los Angeles’ KFI-AM radio, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan asked for Mr. Parker’s help in 1974 in developing a state earthquake education council.
Mr. Parker also was an anchor and reporter at what became KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. He covered big California stories including forest fires and the Hillside Strangler case. “Working in L.A. in the ’70s was like covering news for the Sodom and Gomorrah bureau,” he once said.
In 1980, he came to work for WBBM. One of his biggest stories there was his reporting in 1992 on David and Sharon Schoo, who would be dubbed the “Home Alone” couple, this at a time the hit movie “Home Alone” was still fresh in many minds. The Schoos took a nine-day Christmas vacation in Mexico, leaving their 4- and 9-year-old daughters home to fend for themselves. The girls’ absence was discovered when they turned to a neighbor for help.
Years later, Mr. Parker marveled at the uproar over his reports, which resulted in news stories around the globe. When the well-tanned but oblivious couple returned home from their trip in that inaccessible pre-cellphone era, they were greeted at O’Hare Airport by crowds of reporters, waiting police and bystanders who hooted at the couple and shouted, “Scrooge.”
“What had been my little story that we had done out there in the Fox River Valley suddenly became this international incident, with literally tens and dozens of reporters and camera crews and police and bystanders shouting and screaming at the couple as they walked by,” Mr. Parker recalled.
He also went to Rome to cover the shooting of Pope John Paul II, the 1981 release of Americans held hostage in Iran and the Chicago Flood of 1992.
“He was such a great reporter and fantastic writer,” said NBC 5 TV producer Don Moseley. “He could write with such poetry and artistry.”
“He knew how to take a complicated issue and get right to the heart of it,” said ABC-7 reporter Paul Meincke. “He was commanding, he was authoritative, and he was an excellent storyteller. . . . And he was fair. He was really fair.
“When he asked a question,” Meincke said, “everybody paid attention.”
“Mike had good production skills,” said former CBS 2 reporter John “Bulldog” Drummond. “His pieces always looked good on the air,” with him “being able to use sound, written [material], pictures, video.”
Hard-working, versatile and respected, he was also funny. Competitors became his friends.
NBC 5’s Phil Rogers remembers Mr. Parker joking about the name of a book he might someday write about his life in TV news. It came from a hard-bitten New York TV news veteran who was working on a story on a religious cult. The veteran told Mr. Parker about a note from the bosses: “ ‘Make sure you lead with the chicken sacrifice.’ ”
So Mr. Parker said any book he wrote about TV news would be titled: “Make Sure You Lead with the Chicken Sacrifice.”
He was a regular and a contributor at gatherings of a circle of Chicago limerick devotees known as the Society of the Fifth Line, and, when he retired, CBS 2 reporter Dana Kozlov wrote this limerick for him:
There once was a man named Mike.
When on TV, the ratings would spike.
But now he must go,
Some tears they will flow.
A future great, he’ll surely strike.
“His presence was such that he was able to confront without being hostile,” Kozlov said. “He was able to command attention from lawmakers without appearing to pounce. It was about the story. He wasn’t doing it to get attention.”
In a brief break from CBS 2, Mr. Parker was a correspondent from 1985 to 1986 at New York’s WABC-TV, where his then-wife, TV reporter Mary Nissenson, also once worked.
About 17 years ago, he recovered from a grueling coronary bypass operation and returned to CBS 2. He’d planned to retire in 2015, according to chicagolandradiooandmedia.com, “but his WBBM-TV bosses begged him to stay on for at least one more year.”
In 2013, Mr. Parker was inducted into the Silver Circle of the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
When he retired in 2016, he recapped his career in a farewell note to his colleagues that was published by media columnist Robert Feder.
“This job has taken me into war zones in Latin America, on presidential campaigns and into every street and alley of this amazing city,” Mr. Parker wrote. “And what about the rogue’s gallery of characters in Chicago politics? I know them well.”
“My role was to not only report the facts,” he once told CBS 2, “but report them in such a way that it made for a compelling narrative, a story that would fascinate the viewer.”
In addition to his wife Marian, he is survived by his daughters Beth DeBlois and Claire Parker, son Joseph Fishel and three grandchildren. He wished to be cremated and have his ashes scattered at a favorite golf course, his wife said. A memorial visitation is planned 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Donnellan Funeral Home, 10525 S. Western, where friends are invited to share stories about Mr. Parker.