Remembering Mike Royko from 1,500 miles away

April 29, 1997 was a very sad day.

I sat alone in my dorm room at the University of Montana, and tears streamed down my face as I heard the news of the passing of a family member I never met before.

Well, Mike Royko was not actually a member of my family. It just felt that way when I went to the newspaper every morning. There I would find the great Royko telling it like it is, or at least how it should be.

On a routine basis, my older brother or dad would say, “You read Royko today?” I would walk down the alley to my grandparent’s house, and after my grandpa said, “Hi-ya,” his most common words were “You read Royko today?”

No, I did not grow up in Chicago, where Royko worked his magic on the keyboard for so many years. I grew up in Butte, Montana, which is about 1,500 miles west of the Windy City.

The Montana Standard, though, had a great opinion page editor in Jeff Gibson. Jeff got to pick the columns that he could fill his page with, and he liked Royko.

We did not get the chance to read every column from Royko, but we got two or three a week. That was enough for me to appreciate the greatest newspaper man of all time.

My favorite writer was not Mark Twain, William Shakespeare or Ernest Hemingway. It was, without question, Mike Royko, the man who blew everyone away with his straight-forward brilliance.

Royko wrote for the Chicago Daily News, then the Chicago Sun-Times and finally the Chicago Tribune, and nobody did it better.

Years after his death, I discovered eBay, and I bought every collection of column books Royko put out. I read them all over and over and over.

Reading a book of Royko columns is like streaming Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul on Netflix. They did not end with a cliffhanger, but you just have to immediately read the next one. Then the next and the next.

It is impossible to pick my favorite Royko column. My eyes water up every time I read the column he wrote right after he learned of the death of family friend John Belushi. His last line floors me every time.

“He was only 33. I learned a long time ago that life isn’t always fair. But it shouldn’t cheat that much.”

He wrote a column in the 1960s basically predicted that the American people would be silly enough to elect former actor Ronald Reagan president. He wrote another foreshadowing the problems that would come from building a giant housing project for the poor of Chicago.

On Wednesday, Oct. 25, 1972, Royko wrote about the time he, as a 14-year-old boy, walked to Wrigley Field to see Jackie Robinson’s first appearance in Chicago.

“I had to see Jackie Robinson, the man who was going to somehow wreck everything.”

He told about the racist words and actions by his heroes on the Cubs. Then he told about catching a foul ball off Robinson’s bat. A “tall, middle-aged black man” immediately offered him $10 for the ball.

“Ten dollars. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what ten dollars could buy because I’d never had that much money. But I knew that a lot of men in the neighborhood considered sixty dollars a week to be good pay.

“I handed it to him, and he paid me with ten $1 bills.”

A quarter century later, Royko was mixed about selling that ball.

“Since then, I’ve regretted a few times that I didn’t keep the ball. Or that I hadn’t given it to him free. I didn’t know, then, how hard he probably had to work for that ten dollars.”

“But Tuesday I was glad I had sold it to him. And if that man is still around, and has that baseball, I’m sure he thinks it was worth every cent.”

The first Royko column that I cut out and pinned on my wall was his reaction to the Chicago Bears firing Mike Ditka in January 1993.

The column made me laugh and it made my blood boil at the same time. Royko perfectly summed up the way I felt about Michael McCaskey, the boob grandson of George Halas, after McCaskey fired the Super Bowl-winning coach.

Royko called McCaskey a “weenie” as he wore the words Ditka should have said at his exit press conference.

That weenie traded my favorite quarterback, Jim McMahon, four and a half years earlier, and Royko’s made-up words for Da Coach addressed that, too.

“He was the best quarterback I ever had. But Jim was kind of rude, crude and goofy. All he could do is win games.

“Winning games wasn’t enough. Because McMahon knows a weenie when he sees one, and said so, he had to go. So then the weenie tells me that I have to win with a quarterback of his choosing, a kid whose main qualities are that he is polite, flosses regularly, never says anything worse than ‘gosh’ or ‘gee whiz’ and asks permission to go to the bathroom. None of which helps when he throws dumb interceptions.”

Reading Royko all those years is what made me want to be a writer, too. And I learned more reading Royko columns than I did in any journalism class, even when Royko was writing about the tales of Slats Grobnik.

Slats was a made-up character — first as a child and then as an old man. Many theorize he was Royko’s alter ego. He helped Royko boil down a complicated subject to one simple line.

Journalism teachers and editors tell you about the importance of the lede. You need a “snappy lead” to draw the readers into the story.

Royko said he never sweated the lede. He put everything into blowing readers away with a final sentience.

He did just that, too. Every column by Royko slams the door with a killer line. He would make you drop the paper or close the book and say, “Wow.”

He would have you laughing hysterically or wiping away tears.

You just had to ask your neighbor, “You read Royko today?”

Whenever anything crazy happens in the world, I think “What would Royko say about that?”

I chuckle to think of the words he would have come up with when the Bears replaced Lovie Smith with Marc Trestman. I wonder if he would have survived one George McCaskey press conference.

I think about the happy words he would have had when his Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016.

What would he have said about the 2000 presidential election, the Sept. 11 attacks or COVID-19? What would he say about Donald Trump?

No matter what I think of, I always come to the conclusion that it would have been great. Mike Royko always said it best.

Five days a week for more than 30 years, he wrote a column that simply said it best. Every writer alive would kill for the ability to write just one column that is as good as Royko’s worst.

Twenty-five years after his death, I still miss Royko every day. He was like a third grandpa. He easily topped the list of guys I would kill to talk to, just once.

He was ahead of Walter Payton and George Carlin. He was even ahead of Jim McMahon.

On April 29, 1997, I realized that I would never get that chance. When I think about that today, I am still taken back to that lonely dorm room.

And the tears swell up all over again.

— Bill Foley, who once caught a foul ball at a Butte Copper Kings game, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on Email him at Follow him at