7:54 PM CDT, March 31, 2013
The letter arrived in July of 1974.
My writing clips had been reviewed, my references approved and interview completed. I was hired by the Chicago Tribune, even though the signature at the end of the letter sounded more like one of those fictitious characters from an adventure novel:
"Coop," as we often called him, served as sports editor from 1969-76, a great time in Tribune history. Rollow introduced me to a lively newsroom atmosphere that was not exactly environmentally friendly. But I immediately loved the energy and passion it generated.
Cigar smoke billowed from the cubicles of the likes of former "In the Wake of the News" columnist David Condon. I remember seeing him with a half-chewed stogie protruding from the side of his mouth as he entertained his close friend, Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley, in the office or at the nearby Billy Goat Tavern.
Dirty ashtrays, stacks of old newspapers, carbon paper residue and an occasional whiskey bottle would appear in or around a desk drawer in the old sports department. The smell of a stale, week-old sandwich usually meant the late Tribune Bulls writer Bob "Lefty" Logan forgot about one of the "mooseburgers" stuffed into his briefcase.
Sports department noise pollution included a fiery slot editor such as Spence Sandvig, Corky White or Alan Sutton yelling out last-second deadline assignments to copy editors as if he were Peyton Manning barking out plays at the line of scrimmage.
Typewriters would clang as editors yelled: "Copy!" and irascible phone desk clerk Bernie Colbeck would scream at persistent callers (or gamblers) who asked more than twice for a college football score. Colbeck then would bang the phone down and mutter a few obscenities. His best performances would draw applause from those of us eavesdropping in the newsroom.
Rollow gave me the complete tour of the now-obsolete composing room in the lower levels of Tribune Tower, where the printers wore ink-stained aprons and engaged in constant playful banter while the Linotype machines hummed. Then it was on to the newsroom, where Rollow managed to balance the egos of esteemed columnists Rick Talley, Bob Verdi, Bill Jauss, Bob Markus and Condon.
Rollow and his successor George Langford had me begin my career as a copy editor — as they, too, had started out — before giving me a chance to write an occasional feature story. A few years later I worked with and was mentored by the great Jerry Shnay, covering high school sports before I moved on to the Bulls, Cubs and Bears beats.
The late hulking sportswriter John Husar sauntered over to me in the newsroom during one of my first days at the Tribune, placed his meaty right hand on my shoulder and announced in his booming voice: "The Chicago Tribune has hired a black sportswriter! What has the world come to?"
I smiled uncomfortably at his proclamation, then realized the historic significance of my hire by Rollow, which came 27 years after major league baseball was integrated by Jackie Robinson. While this was never something we discussed, I suppose Rollow had become my Branch Rickey.
Rollow passed away Friday following surgery on Thursday at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. He was 87. Rollow and his wife, Marjorie, who died in 2006, frequently hosted summer staff parties at their home in Elmhurst where guests could enjoy their swimming pool.
Don Pierson, retired Tribune writer, remembers Rollow as being "a reporter at heart." Pierson recalled Rollow assisting in the coverage of the Drake Relays in 1972. Jim Ryun, the first high school sub-4-minute miler, was attempting a comeback at that meet. But he became sick to his stomach and retreated to the locker room. Pierson said Rollow left his seat in the press box, walked across the stadium infield and followed Ryun to the locker room, where he was in a bathroom stall. In relentless pursuit of the story, Rollow moved into a stall next to Ryun to pepper him with questions.
"He stopped at nothing to get the story," Pierson said with a laugh. "He was a big-time sports editor."
Even Bears Hall of Fame tight end and Super Bowl XX coach Mike Ditka was saddened when he learned of Rollow's passing.
"He was a good guy; he was a straight shooter. He wrote the articles and he didn't try to kill anybody," Ditka said. "He was a good writer."
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