Remembering Bob Royko: ‘Everyone should have such a brother’

The longtime Madisonian died in January nearly 25 years after his famous sibling, Mike. Doug Moe pays tribute to them both.
On the left is a recent head shot of Bob Royko who recently died. He is wearing glasses and a suit jacket with tie. On the right is an old photograph of brothers Mike and Bob Royko as children in Chicago.
Photos supplied by the Royko family.
Bob Royko died in January 2021 at the age of 85. Brothers Mike and Bob Royko grew up above their parents tavern in Chicago.

Longtime Madison area resident Bob Royko would have lived a full and admirable life even if he didn’t have a famous brother, which he did. It’s how I met him.

Royko, who died at 85 years old on January 5, was remembered — in a warm and loving obituary — as optimistic, humorous, a lover of travel and music, a successful business executive and a man devoted to his family.

One member of Royko’s family was his late older brother, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Mike Royko. Three years separated them. The Royko boys grew up in a flat above the Blue Sky Lounge, a tavern run by their father on Chicago’s Polish northwest side.

While Bob went to college and began a long and rewarding career in the beverage industry — including nearly four decades as a vice president of General Beverage in Madison — Mike dropped out of high school and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

It was there, on base at the former O’Hare Air Reserve Station, that Mike found his calling, drawing on the street smarts he’d picked up as a teenager pouring drinks and taking bets for his dad in the Blue Sky Lounge.

At O’Hare, they’d wanted to make Mike a military policeman. He resisted — his interaction with cops had mostly involved running away from them — and suggested he instead edit the base newspaper.

“I worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News,” he told his superiors.

He hadn’t — but who’s perfect? It was true that Mike had enjoyed reading the many newspapers left on his dad’s bar, and with a three-day pass from O’Hare he went to the library and read books on reporting and layout.

The new editor of the O’Hare News soon gave himself a column. One of his first criticized the base rule that said servicemen must wear their dress uniforms while their wives could “come on the base and go to the PX in dumpy house dresses, their hair in curlers, really looking awful.”

A cadre of wives stormed the newspaper office, demanding to see Mike.

“He just left,” the editor — Royko himself — said.

But he loved it. What power!

By the time of his death in 1997, Royko was arguably the most celebrated journalist in the United States. He’d won every major journalism award, including the Pulitzer. He’d published a bestselling, critically acclaimed book called “Boss” — a biography of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley — and the daily column he’d written across 34 years for three Chicago newspapers had been syndicated to more than 600 outlets. He even had a fan club in Japan.

I was one of his fans. It was more than that. I’d not only read everything Royko wrote, I’d read everything written about him.

The same year Royko died, in 1997, I left my job as editor of Madison Magazine to write a daily column for The Capital Times. I patterned its format — a series of short items separated by three dots — after another legendary columnist, Herb Caen. Caen wrote a daily column in San Francisco for 58 years!

As it happened, Caen also died that year. The San Francisco Chronicle soon put out a book, a coffee table illustrated biography called “The World of Herb Caen.”

Royko died a few months after Caen. Later that year, I met his brother, Bob Royko, and we had lunch at Nakoma. I knew Bob’s wife, Geri, through golf — Geri’s dad was Steve Caravello, who’d won nine city men’s championships.

I showed the Caen book to Bob and suggested someone should write the same kind of book about Mike. I didn’t for one second think it would be me. I’d written no books of substance. I was just hoping to read a book about Mike.

Two weeks later, Bob surprised me with a phone call. Did I want to undertake the book project?

It is impossible to overstate everything Bob did for me over the next 18 months as we put the book together. Bob’s love for his brother was palpable in his determination to properly honor him. Both Bob and Geri were kind and encouraging. Bob opened doors. He introduced me to Mike’s valued newspaper colleagues, Rick Kogan and Hanke Gratteau. He provided me with earlier interviews he’d done with other of Mike’s friends and associates, including Sam Sianis, proprietor of the famed Billy Goat Tavern.

Bob drove with me to the Winnetka home of Judy Royko, Mike’s widow, and encouraged her to give me a chance. Judy later invited me back to her home for an interview.

When “The World of Mike Royko” was published in October 1999, we had the launch party at the Billy Goat. The Chicago Tribune named the book a Choice Selection of the Year. I dedicated the book to Bob. It could not have been otherwise.

We remained good friends. I ached for Bob when Geri died, much too young, in 2005. The next year, we had dinner together in Chicago after the launch party of Kogan’s lively book on the Billy Goat. During a tumultuous period in 2008 when my newspaper column moved from the Cap Times to the Wisconsin State Journal, I sought Bob’s counsel.

I’d seen less of him recently. But Bob’s daughter, Amelia, told me the week before last that he had a wonderful final decade, happy in a loving marriage with his second wife, Connie, traveling and enjoying being a doting grandpa. Enjoying work, too — Bob stayed with General Beverage up until two years ago.

On the acknowledgments page for “The World of Mike Royko,” I’d said of Bob, “Everyone should have such a brother.”

I hope Bob knew how much I appreciated all that he did for me.

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