Walter Spirko is a tough old bird. He's 81. He's ailing. His paper asked him to retire in 1978, but he'd happily be back in harness as the Sun-Times's night man at the central cop house.
Spirko still runs an outfit by the name of the Chicago Newspaper Reporters Association. It's a shrinking collection of grizzled veterans that Spirko embodies the way George Meany embodied the AFL-CIO and J. Edgar Hoover the FBI.
Today, alas, the association finds itself in crisis. Last week 11 members who work for the Chicago Tribune all resigned in a spasm of regret, anger, and horror.
Spirko was slow to understand why the Tribune was so upset. A business-section article by media writer Jim Warren laid the matter out last Thursday, and we spoke with Spirko shortly after he'd read it.
"I'm going to sue the shit out of the sons of bitches! They're open to libel!" he told us. "That is a direct slander. If that's the new breed at the Tribune, the new people who took over have shit for brains. I'm talking about the bosses."
The "new breed" and Walter Spirko live half a century apart. The charm of the Newspaper Reporters Association for anyone under 50 lay in the chance to break bread with ancient warriors and hear mythical tales told well. Maury Possley, now a Tribune editor but then a Sun-Times federal-building reporter, joined the association about eight years ago. He was its last new member, and he almost didn't get in. Possley heard about the group from Bill Crawford, the Tribune's man on the federal beat. "It's a different kind of group," Possley remembers Crawford telling him. "Mostly old people. It's a really old outfit. They have these meetings, and once a year give college scholarships, and every month sit around and shoot the breeze."
So Possley showed up at the next dinner meeting.
"Spirko looked at me and said membership is closed," Possley remembers. He couldn't believe it. "No new members," Spirko told him. "They eat too much."
Possley was saved by Jim Casey, a Sun-Times police reporter who's vice president of the association. Casey reminded Spirko that Possley worked for his old paper, and Spirko let him join.
"It was kind of a kick," said Possley. "For me it was fun to go and listen." He liked the scholarships too. He has three sons.
But in early March Spirko composed and mailed 60-some business establishments the following appeal for funds.
"Hope this personal letter, on behalf of Chicagoland's working newspaper reporters, finds you enjoying good health and feeling great. This letter is a necessity and very very important. Please bear in mind that newspaper reporters do not receive the BIG handsome salaries that TV and radio reporters receive.
"All year 'round, we--the working reporters--faithfully serve BUSINESS, and INDUSTRY, and very much the hotel business, including the [and here Spirko named a Hyatt hotel whose copy of this letter made its way back to the Tribune with the hotel's identification whited out] and the public-at-large. We are very glad to be of such unequivocal service, and hopefully will be REWARDED, WHEN WE NEED IT. WE NEED IT NOW!!
"So, Mr. [manager] we come to you with BOWED HEADS, and HATS in HAND, begging and asking for [the hotel's] support.
"Your support will help make it possible during the year of 1992, to administer our very worthwhile, and the much needed, annual HUMANITARIAN PROGRAM of granting College Scholarships to the NEEDY and DESERVING CHILDREN of the membership, and to sustain in perpetuity our SURVIVORS' WELFARE FUND (hospital and death benefits, as well as many other beneficent activities).
"Last year (1991), for the first time in 24 years, we failed miserably to sustain our annual HUMANITARIAN PROGRAM. Last June, when we were awarding Scholarships, we had to turn down three deserving students because we didn't have sufficient funds.
"A generous contribution will help us to sustain our HUMANITARIAN PROGRAM during the year of 1992. A contribution ($100, and up to $1000), will be very helpful. A check payable to the Chicago Newspaper Reporters Association will be warmly welcomed and appreciated.
"The membership will cheer and will be eternally grateful when I announce that [the hotel] contributed to our very much needed HUMANITARIAN PROGRAM so that it could be a success in 1992.
"WITH YOUR HELP, we can start planning to fulfill our philanthropic obligations of SCHOLARSHIPS, the SURVIVORS' WELFARE FUND, etc. for 1992.
"With warmest personal regards, and best wishes from all of us, we are / Appreciatively / The Chicago Newspaper Reporters Ass'n / WALTER S. SPIRKO / President / Serving My 43rd Consecutive Term."
Says Possley, "It couldn't be much cruder unless you took newspaper headlines and clipped them out and glued them together like a ransom note."
This astounding invitation to the city's businessmen to help pay for the college educations of the children of a handful of journalists disconcerted the Hyatt executive who received it. He passed along the letter to his friend Andy Hayes, who's a Tribune Company vice president, and Hayes showed it to John Madigan, the Tribune's publisher. Madigan reached editor Jack Fuller, who was at a conference in Washington, D.C., and Fuller assigned public editor Doug Kneeland to straighten out the mess.
What made the situation a mess in the Tribune's eyes was the list of officers printed in a vertical row on the left side of Spirko's letter. They included: John Gorman, Tribune, secretary; John J. O'Brien, Tribune, sergeant-at-arms; William B. Crawford Jr., Tribune; and Ronald Koziol, Tribune, board of directors. Here were four Tribune reporters publicly implicated in begging for alms while simultaneously demanding them as a quid pro quo for services rendered.
"Outrageous, awful, unprofessional, and intolerable," said Kneeland.
Kneeland told the reporters they might seriously consider resigning from the association or taking it over to reform it. The Chicago Newspaper Reporters Association--originally the Chicago Police Reporters Association--once threw a lavish annual dinner dance; companies bought tables, and major politicians considered it useful to attend. Jimmy Durante might entertain, and Spirko always managed to cram the keepsake magazine with ads. But the last dance was in 1984. No one was up to rehabilitating an organization with so little reason to exist. So all the Tribune people quit.
The situation was even graver than the Tribune understood. On some copies of Spirko's letter seven Tribune names appeared, not just four. In early April Spirko had printed up some new stationery to which he'd added three additional directors from the Tribune. When John O'Brien called Spirko and said the Tribune wanted a list of everyone the solicitation had been mailed to, Spirko misunderstood. He thought the Tribune's only problem was that his board looked top-heavy with Tribune people, so he sent Kneeland a list of just the 20-some businesses he'd written to on the new stationery. This list confused everyone at the Tribune because it obviously was not complete--it didn't even include the Hyatt that originally complained.
Actually, three generations of stationery were involved. Crawford had been getting dinner announcements on the oldest stuff for years, and the letter Kneeland handed him was the first time he'd seen his name on the letterhead. He didn't even know he was a director. Then Crawford saw the list of 20 businesses. His stomach turned. There were the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Options Exchange, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the very markets Crawford now covers for the Tribune.
We let Spirko explain. He had no ulterior motive. He said Crawford was a director; he'd been elected at a meeting seven months ago that he didn't attend. Spirko assumed Crawford would find out about it eventually when he got a dinner invitation on the new stationery. But first Spirko had to run through the old. "There's no use in wasting money if you don't have to," he told us.
He reflected, "I should call Bill and calm him down."
The newest stationery came about because Spirko decided his organization would look more impressive if he could list more directors. So he added the names of the Tribune's John McClean, Stanley Ziemba, and Dave Young. When were they elected? we asked Spirko. "Just at the last meeting," he said. Were they there? we asked. "No, none of them was there, when I think back."
One thing about Jim Warren's article that made Spirko furious was Warren's selective use of Spirko's letter. He quoted Spirko as saying, "We . . . hopefully will be REWARDED, WHEN WE NEED IT. WE NEED IT NOW!!" but not the humble "we come to you with BOWED HEADS, and HATS in HAND," which puts the importuning scriveners in a whole different light.
"They only used what they wanted to use to try to destroy us," Spirko said. "I've already been advised I have a good suit."
Rarely has anyone complained about Spirko's methods. Back in the 70s the Santa Fe Railway had a beef; now Hyatt's mad. But businesses usually threw his letters away or docilely wrote checks; John Madigan, the publisher of the Tribune, has been an annual contributor since 1989.
"There you are," says Spirko.
Spirko deposited Madigan's personal check for $100 last February. The other day Madigan wrote Spirko and asked for his money back.
The last thing Maury Possley said to his oldest son before leaving for work the day the roof caved in on the Chicago Newspaper Reporters Association was, "I want this scholarship application form filled out and on the table when I get home. You're on break, and I don't want to fool around."
Possley came home that night, and there it was.
"Never mind," he said.