Paul Zimbrakos schooled generations of Chicago reporters with the arched eyebrows of a knowing, skeptical editor but made fledgling journalists swell with pride when he bestowed them with his highest praise — an “Attaboy” or “Attagirl.”
Mr. Zimbrakos, 86, died Tuesday at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, according to his son Vasily and daughter Marianthe Zervas. He had been ill with liver disease, then “COVID stepped into the picture,” his daughter said.
From 1958 to 2000, he worked for the storied City News Bureau of Chicago, which over the course of its 115-year history produced reporters and writers including Mike Royko, “Front Page” co-author Charles MacArthur, Seymour Hersh and Kurt Vonnegut.
Mr. Zimbrakos continued working, after a reorganization, for the renamed City News Service until it was shut down in 2005.
Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, “Zimbo’s” reporters would fan out across the city to police stations, O’Hare Airport, City Hall, the Cook County Building and state offices, where they’d follow up on tips and call in news stories that were sent out to and chased by the city’s newspapers, radio and TV stations.
Its young journalists learned to be precise. Was a body found face-up or down? What was on the menu for Thanksgiving dinner at the Cook County Jail? How many pieces of equipment and which ones were sent to a fire?
They covered everything from news conferences to plane crashes to dog shows to the serial killings that left the crawlspace of John Wayne Gacy’s home crowded with bodies.
Mr. Zimbrakos coaxed them on questions they needed to ask and made them go back — sometimes again and again — to nail down an overlooked question or detail.
As they worked their way through the “five Ws” — who, what, when, where and why — he taught them to get the news fast but, even more, to get it right.
With his luxuriant mustache and twinkling eyes, he had a quietly merry presence.
“He was a very warmhearted guy,” said City News alum John Holden.
But he was no-nonsense, too.
If a reporter forgot something, “He had very expressive eyes and eyebrows, and he could devastate you without saying a word just by arching an eyebrow and looking at you,” Holden said. “You certainly didn’t want to let Paul down.”
Many journalists across the country who worked for City News can still mimic Mr. Zimbrakos saying, “Ah, ah, what about this detail?”
Young reporters needed “honesty,” he once said, “the ability to talk to people and not to worry about your ego, especially since it’s going to take a battering when you’re learning.”
Mr. Zimbrakos “believed in being a good person,” his son said. “He never cussed, and he didn’t like it if we cussed. He wanted us to be good, but he wasn’t a totalitarian type.”
“He wanted you to be the best you can be,” his daughter said.
Mr. Zimbrakos welcomed all to his home for celebrations like Greek Orthodox Easter. He could talk about literature, Greek history, current events and, of course, tales from City News Bureau.
His parents were from the Greek island of Crete. His father William worked as a milk dealer.
Young Paul went to Austin High School.
“I always enjoyed writing, even term papers,” he once told a Chicago Sun-Times interviewer.
In the late 1950s, Mr. Zimbrakos served in the Army and would remind people that he was in boot camp at Fort Hood, Texas, at the same time as Elvis Presley.
“He always would comment that Elvis had bought a jukebox for [Elvis’] barracks,” his son said.
He worked as a copyboy for the Chicago Daily News before joining the City News Bureau at its longtime office at 188 W. Randolph St.
At the time, “We still had the pneumatic tubes that went down to the basement” —and through the city’s underground tunnels around the Loop — “for all the papers,” he told the Sun-Times.“Dispatches were tucked into metal canisters and whisked across town by air pressure.”
Mr. Zimbrakos got his political science degree from Roosevelt University.
His River Forest home had a bounteous herb and vegetable garden once tended by his wife, the former Eleni Orfanoudakis. She died in 2005 while visiting Crete, where she’d been born in the village of Kalyves.
They got married in the mid-1960s, four months after they met. She was en route to Chicago to join a sister who’d already immigrated. Their aunt sent her husband to pick up Miss Orfanoudakis in Windsor, Canada, and he brought along his grand-nephew: Pavlos “Paul” Zimbrakos.
Mr. Zimbrakos won honors for his work including induction into the Chicago Journalists Hall of Fame. He also taught journalism at Loyola University Chicago.
He was proud of his long association with City News Bureau, once telling USA Today: “There’s no university in the country that has trained more successful reporters.”
But his influence went beyond journalism. Dr. Laura Michaelis wrote about his lessons in 2018 when she became editor-in-chief of a newsletter for her profession, The Hematologist. In it, she wrote:
“ ‘There is only one talent that matters here,’ Paul Zimbrakos said to me. ‘That talent is that you get the story right. We don’t report rumor; we report the truth.’ He pointed to the wall. On it, written on a poster board affixed with tape was the phrase: ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’
“Zimbrakos, who spent his life making sure that the people of Chicago knew if their schools were being run honestly, if their politicians were on the take, or if their neighborhoods were safe, taught me, with that sentence, the importance of professional credibility. As my professional trajectory meandered from reporting crime, to covering Congress, to night classes in biology, and then to medical school, it is a lesson that has held up.”
Mr. Zimbrakos is also survived by another son, Kostas, brother George and four grandsons.
Visitation is planned 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday at Colonial-Wojciechowski Funeral Home in Niles. His funeral will be at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church in Niles.