Legendary Chicago journalist John Callaway dies

  • John Callaway

    John Callaway

Published: 6/24/2009 12:20 AM | Updated: 6/24/2009 7:01 PM

Chicago's news community - and all those who appreciate thoughtful, intelligent, responsible television - mourned the loss of John Callaway Wednesday.

Callaway, the longtime WTTW Channel 11 "Chicago Tonight" host, died Tuesday night after suffering a heart attack in a store near his home in Racine, Wis. He was 72.

Yet the sadness over the loss of one of the city's great journalists, a penetrating and relentlessly inquisitive interviewer, was tempered by abiding respect for his achievement. Callaway worked right up to the end, as seemingly every newsperson desires, and he was, his admirers observed, as vital then as ever before in his career of more than a half-century.

"He believed in what we did and why we did it," said Carol Marin, anchor and reporter at WMAQ Channel 5 and more recently Callaway's colleague at "C2N."

"He had phenomenal curiosity," added Bruce DuMont, president and founder of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, who helped Callaway create "C2N" as a producer and later appeared as a regular co-host as political analyst on the show. "He had curiosity overload, and yet there was the passion."

"John absolutely had his own style," said Phil Ponce, who replaced him as "C2N's" main host 10 years ago. "John had the combination of intense curiosity, just white-hot intelligence, super-sharp wit, warmth and toughness. He had this unique combination of traits that made him what may well have been the country's best interviewer."

In addition to being a piercing interviewer, Callaway was also a skilled storyteller, a quality that marked his journalism and led him to draw out his subjects. It was in his blood, as his parents were in the newspaper business in West Virginia.

"He was nurtured almost in the environment of an editorial-board meeting," DuMont said.

They were by no means rich, however, and when Callaway struggled to pay for his education at Ohio Wesleyan University he dropped out and - in a story he never tired of telling - hitchhiked to Chicago with 71 cents in his pockets thinking he'd get a job in the steel mills. Yet, on arrival, there weren't any jobs, and Callaway wound up working as a clerk, moonlighting as an actor and writer in a YMCA theater group.

Here's how Callaway described his conversion to journalism in 1999 before his short-lived first and only retirement: "One night the director, he said, 'Pal, I just want to tell you, you are the worst actor I have ever had the pleasure of working with. And as an aspiring playwright you're not much better.'

"He said, 'I don't know if you realize it or not, but when you're down in the cafeteria, you're always talking about your parents and you're always talking about the newspaper business. I know you're starving, and I know there's a place in Chicago called the City News Bureau where reporters sometimes get to cover political dinners and they get free meals.' And I thought, 'Jeez, free meals, that's for me.'"

It turned out there weren't many free meals, but Callaway got the job at Chicago's legendary City News - pleasing his parents to no end - in 1956. He later called it "the greatest experience I ever had, and the toughest I had in journalism." Within a year, he had moved on to CBS, where he worked 17 years in both TV and radio. He was part of WBBM 780-AM's shift in 1968 to the all-news format it still has, and then was named vice president of CBS Radio in New York City. In 1974, he returned to Chicago to become news director at Channel 11 and oversee the development of its ambitious "Public Newscenter" project.

Although that nightly newscast lasted only a few years, it led Callaway into public television, where he remained to the end, and paved the way for his nightly interview show "Callaway" in 1983, a success that evolved into "Chicago Tonight" the following year.

With its emphasis on interviews and analysis with a nightly panel of experts, it brought out the best in Callaway and the best in public television. Callaway humbly called it "a nice convergence of interests and mission" - his unquenchable curiosity and public TV's mission to go deeper than commercial newscasts.

Callaway played host to "C2N" for 15 years before retiring, briefly, in 1999, turning the reins over to Phil Ponce. His last show, done live in the Winter Garden at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, turned out to be exactly 10 years to the day before his death, on June 23, 1999.

Yet he knew then he'd return, saying, "I want to go away, shut up, feel, detox a little and then find my way back." That he did. After only a year or so away, he returned as host of Channel 11's "Chicago Stories," which was eventually wrapped into "C2N," bringing him back to the show he created. Along the way, Callaway was given a weekly Friday interview segment.

Earlier this year, he was part of the show's 25th-anniversary celebration at the Harris Theater in Chicago's Millennium Park.

"I was so happy that he lived to see and experience the public accolades that he and the show deserved," DuMont said. "It was a very special moment."

Callaway also returned to triumph in the theater. He eventually turned his storytelling verve and his passion for song into the shows "Life Is ... Maintenance" and "John Callaway Tonight." Both were Pegasus Players productions, but "Tonight" also enjoyed a run at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights.

It found Callaway charming the audience with tales - "I am a storyteller, not an actor," he said at the time - as well as with songs and his ability to drop-kick a football. He was also an avid backer of and occasionally performer with his daughters, Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Foster Callaway, both Broadway veterans, who survive him along with his wife, Sandra, and her four children.

"John could do it all," Marin said. "One-man shows, he could sing, he could dance, but mostly he was the most penetrating interviewer of anyone I've ever seen."

The key to that was a naturally inquisitive nature. He never went back to get his college degree, but he never stopped learning. In the end, he picked up quite a number of honorary degrees instead, along with a prestigious Peabody Award and 16 Emmys.

"He loved to dig into something he didn't know a thing about," Marin said. "He was an encyclopedia. If you said, 'John, you're going to do an interview on circus clowns,' he would know more about circus clowns than the circus clowns did.

"He never went into an interview unprepared," she added, "because it was disrespecting the interviewee and the audience, too."

"John would give the same regard to an interview with Henry Kissinger as he would to an interview with a street musician," Ponce said. "John always knew that the whole point of the exercise was doing it on behalf of an unseen audience. It wasn't about him, it was about the viewer at home."

Over 50 years, Callaway established himself as one of Chicago's great journalists, while completely breaking the mold from the hard-boiled stereotype running from Mike Royko back to Ben Hecht and beyond.

"John could be skeptical, but not cynical," Ponce said. "He had a gee-whiz kind of spirit about him that was completely authentic. The John Callaway people saw on the air was the John Callaway we saw in the halls."

"That didn't mean he wasn't hard-edged," Marin said, adding that he could be a dogged as well as an empathetic interviewer. "He put Jimmy Carter on edge, because he persisted. He wasn't going to be shooed away like a fly when he asked a hard question."

Here was a journalist who did his job with passion and intelligence.

"As a colleague and as a mentor, he was so generous," Marin said.

"He shared that spotlight with a lot of the younger journalists he worked with," DuMont added, "and that's a rare commodity."

"John set the standard here," Ponce said. "John was our compass. And the things that he cared about were excellence, preparation, serving the viewer."

He had a passion for life and living that never waned, and a passion most of all for the city of Chicago.

"I just found when I came to Chicago, it was this incredible intellectual playground," he once said. "This city, and all its educational resources, and all its street resources, was simply a fabulous education - and still is to this day."

Yet, if Chicago brought out the best in John Callaway, he did the same for the city for more than 50 years, and it is greatly diminished by his loss today.

"C2N" was to devote its entire hourlong show to him at 7 p.m. today. "The Week in Review With Joel Weisman" planned the same for 7 p.m. Friday, and the best of Callaway's interviews will run through the rest of summer until Labor Day on the weekly "Friday Night Show" at 7:30 p.m.