Friday was Bill Mullen’s last day on the job at the Tribune, which he joined in 1967. In the early 70s his doughy, everyman’s face allowed him to work undercover as a functionary in the Chicago Board of Elections. The irregularities he documented there won the Tribune a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Then Mullen and a Tribune photographer traveled to Africa, India, and Southeast Asida to document famine, and Mullen won a second Pulitzer in 1975. In 1988, when I had a conversation with him for the Reader, he was newly returned from nine months on the road reporting on the world’s political refugees. Refugee camps are hard to visit because host countries don’t particularly like to show them off and the refugees themselves don’t know whom to trust.
But Mullen managed to get into the Tutsi camps in southern Uganda. "They were incredibly hard to work with because well, they were afraid," said Mullen. "They wouldn't let me photograph them. I remember going into the first camp there, and the camp director insisting that the elders come and look me over before they'd kind of decide whether to cooperate with me. And they were incredulous that not only didn't the rest of the world know what had happened in Rwanda in 1959 which forced them to leave, but they couldn't believe that I didn't know."
In 1959 the Hutus of newly independent Rwanda began massacring the Tutsis; some 100,000 died and 300,000 fled the country. The survivors assumed the world knew what had happened. The world didn’t. But for what it was worth, Mullen told Chicago. In 1994 about 800,000 Rwandans died in a second Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, and the profound enmity between the two tribes again came as news to just about everyone.
Mullen married in the mid-80s and stopped traveling so much. "I had to reinvent myself in the early 90s," he says. "I got in the bad graces of some editors who wanted me to go back to general assignment reporting, and I thought, if I'm going to do that I'm not going to chase fire trucks again. I knew museums and zoos, things like that, were all undercovered. Nobody wrote about the real work they were doing, and it was fascinating stuff. I ingratiated myself with all the archeologists and anthropologists and paleontologists and wrote about the work they were doing and I guess it became what you'd call a natural history beat. They were really interesting stories and they were fascinating and often funny, and they were getting on page one because the editors were saying 'Wow, it's just what we need to break up the monotony of politics and crime and war.'"
If Mullen were a baseball player, we’d be reading columns hailing his career and asking what the point is of waiting five years to put him in the hall of fame. As a mere scrivener, one who has never had a column or shown any knack for self-promotion, he departs much more quietly. But friends took him to lunch Thursday at Sayat Nova, and some poems written back in the salad days were dusted off and read again. For instance, Mullen’s Tribune colleague Anne Keegan had written a long one when Mullen turned 40 in 1984. This is one of the verses:
Bill is the perfect silent type, stealthy, cool, equipped
The kind that can fit in on any clong, and still be non-descript
He’ll grunt and hmmm and tell you nothing, even when he’s ripped,
And sources, he’s got sources, for Bill is always tipped.
With the missing fingered man, the whole commie world’d be whipped.
And two years early, when Mullen was 38, Keegan’s husband, Len Aronson, saluted him with a poem that began by sending up Robert Service:
A bunch of the Moys
Were whooping it up
In the den of old Tiger Lucy
There was Ming Choy and Meboy
And Ratface and Pinkeye
And that Florentine gambler—Fungovsey!
After a description of exotic adventures, Aronson got to the point.
But if you really want to know why
So many have fallen for this funny guy
The world calls Bangkok Bill —
It’s because no one’s ever
Seen him laugh or belittle
Or whittle or scoff
Or make fun
Of the things people feel.
And when the Tribune’s Sean Toolan turned 40, Mullen wrote him a poem that included this:
You buy the boys
And let them sink
From Riccardo’s to O’Rourke’s to the Alehouse Pub
You think you’re foolin the world.
You bitch and cry
And ask the Tribune why
You’re not a star sailing the Seven Seas
Doing what you damn well please.
You think you’re foolin the world.
You crook your little fingers
And wave them through the haze
Of too much whisky just to say —
I love you like a brother but —
McHugh you should be writing,
Currie you should be fighting,
And Mullen you should quit your job…
Three years later, in 1981, Toolan was murdered in Beirut. Keegan left the Tribune in 1997 and died last May. Mullen is outliving not only his generation but also the Tribune as they all knew it. "My best work is always the longer-form stories, the explanatory stories, and there isn't room for them any more," he tells me. "I'm not a real good fit any more."
His desk at the Tribune is surrounded by file cabinets, and the overflow has buried his desk under two feet of papers. "There's no place left on my desk to set anything down to write," he allows. But years ago the Newberry Library expressed an interesting in adding his papers to its journalism archives. So that's where he's going to be for a while, sitting at a desk the library's providing him with and organizing the flotsam and jetsam of his Tribune career.
"I get teary talking about the old times and people," he says. "I'm a crybaby anyway, so it's—tough. But I'm very happy."