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Eddie Schwartz used to IM me at the strangest hours of the night. He had a thought to share; he wanted a little more company than his police scanner and shortwave were giving him just then; "Call me," he'd order. He lived alone in a high-rise at Irving Park and Lake Shore Drive that, when we talked, I imagined twice as tall as it was. I saw him far above the city looking down. I thought of him as he thought of himself, as a prince of Chicago after dark.
Schwartz, the former voice of WGN radio at night, died this week at the age of 62 after years of fighting illness and oblivion. Here's a bittersweet farewell from Eric Zorn.
Eddie's career in radio hadn't been over long when I wrote a column about him in 1996:
"'I was born indignant,' said Ed Schwartz. 'I live indignant. I read indignant. I write indignant. I'm outraged by a lot of things that shouldn't be. There are so many things we could fix if we really wanted to, and that's why I write so much. When I was on the radio I could just say it.'
"Schwartz said it for 23 years. He said it on WIND, on WGN, and on WLUP. He said it to the nighthawks who for years on end made his graveyard-shift talk shows the highest-rated programs in their time slots. But 'LUP changed its format last year and Schwartz hasn't worked at all in 1996.
"So he writes letters to newspapers. 'I probably have seven or eight in the pipeline right now,' he said. 'Believe me, I don't do it for ego. But I was on the radio for 23 years, and I felt I was involved. I was part of the community. And not being on the radio I have to find other ways of being involved.' The letters are pointed and smart, and the dailies have printed several. These he's clipped and mailed to me to let it be known he's still weighing in."
The highest height, Schwartz said, was the night shift at WGN during the 80s. He called it "the greatest experience that I can recall. Every night was a joy, every program was memorable. Every minute of it was a highlight to me. Because of the size of the place, the reach, the reputation, the call-ins I worked with on the air. I was a program host, talk show host--I did everything. I did interviews, placed phone calls, played comedy materials. Unpredictability was my goal. Unpredictability but reliability. I hardly ever took a vacation. I never took a night off."
And he wanted that life back. He said, "This period of unemployment from the radio has not been a period of inactivity for me. I keep busy, I keep thinking. I'm on the phone or pen in hand every day all day. I'm very busy. But I'm not making any money. And with no bread coming in I have to get back to work."
It didn't happen.
I wrote about Schwartz again in 2005. He'd been freelancing a column to the Booster papers, and a new editor had just killed it. Schwartz found out when he opened the Booster looking for his tribute to Johnny Carson and it wasn't there. He called his editor, who passed him up to the bureau chief, who sent him to editor John Ambrosia. Ambrosia told him his column wasn't local enough so it was ending.
Schwartz began forwarding Ambrosia e-mail from readers who missed him. He told me alderman Bernie Stone complained as a city official but got no response. When the Meigs Action Coalition gave him a public service award, he sent Ambrosio a note. It said, "Somehow I must craft the words to explain how relevant efforts like this caused you to fire me. The only time in my life I ever lost a job for doing the right thing. In fact the only time I have ever lost a job. I will put this honor on the shelf next to my Mike Royko books. I began my career in the Chicago broadcast/journalism community in 1966. You have the singular honor and distinction of being the only guy to fire my ass in 39 years."
Little triumphs like that didn't give Schwartz much satisfaction. He was in agony. He told me he could have written a more local column if he'd had the chance. "Don't forget," he said, "that for 8 of my 16 years in WIND radio I was director of community affairs. I think Mr. Ambrosia had in me an asset. Don't you?"