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Book bursts image of popular columnist Richard Pena | Sat, Nov 06 2010 12:00 PM

It is not too often that we read a columnist's offering in the daily paper with another columnist as his subject matter. Usually the writer is either praising or vilifying some individual who is more than likely either a politician or a sports or entertainment figure, and is in the public's eye.

Something akin to this was in last Sunday's paper.

Steve Lopez, a regular columnist in the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece about the late Mike Royko, who wrote columns for a few Chicago newspapers. Royko's columns would appear in the local papers back in his heyday and we would avidly study them. He was around at about the time when some of the other great columnists were gracing the pages of the dailies, names like Jack Smith, Jimmy Breslin, Jim Murray and Herb Caen all making the newspaper reading public a bit more informed and certainly a lot more entertained.

This was in the golden age of newspapers. It was the time when one could read feature length stories that had substance. And, as we have already stated, it was the time of good writing by great writers. We marveled how some of those greats could add a word, or delete a word and turn a humdrum piece into a slice of literature - sheer poetic sounds.

Lopez' piece on Royko is not really about him but more like a book review that had featured Royko. He was presenting Royko in a different light. He writes about the time that he met Royko back in the 1980s. Expecting to get advice from a master of the written word, he was only told to limit his output as a columnist has the tendency to burn out. Lopez wishes that he could have taken Royko to the nearest saloon and plied him with drinks until he came up with something more tangible.

The book about Royko is something that is simply out of character. It is a series of love letters he wrote to his future wife, Carol, a group of fawning missiles that destroys the two-fisted vision that most had of him. It was put together by Royko's son, David and published by the University of Chicago Press.

I, of course, never met Royko. For that matter I have never met Lopez, even though he is just a few miles up the freeway. Perhaps, someday we might cross paths but I somehow doubt it. My earliest recollection of any columnist was a fellow named Ray Coyle, who used to write a column in this newspaper.

As I recall it was called "Along the Street" and it was patterned along the lines that was established later by Caen in San Francisco papers. Caen was known as the king of the three dots, that is, he would write a short item, insert three dots ... and go on to another item.

Coyle would walk up and down Third Avenue and pick up tidbits of information, not really gossip, but merely bordering on it, and put it into prose. He was popular and was well read. He wrote about me a couple of times but I don't think it was important enough to put me up on a pedestal.

Third Avenue, in those mid-50s was a wealth of information. There were a number of lunch stands and drug stores on the avenue and many retail establishments that always had a fair amount of customers, and, probably, all eager to report items of interest to the enterprising Coyle.

Coyle could, of course, write anything he wished. He owned the paper.

I started writing my column 27 years ago. In those early days we had three or four other columnists also vying for editorial space.I recall one would generally write about seniors (probably what I should be doing) another about schools and their activities and one writing about maudlin things. The latter was known, rather irreverently, as a "sob sister." On second thought maybe that is what I should be doing.

Getting back to Royko I don't think I am going to read the book of his love letters.

I want to remember Royko as the individual who had a way with words and loved baseball and saloons. We might have something in common. I use words, perhaps not always wisely, but use them nevertheless. I love baseball. As for saloons the last time I was in one was to use the pay phone. Hey, that ought to count for something.

When it comes to newspaper writers, this one was one-of-a-kind

"It was terrible. I don't ever want to go through that in four years," he said laughing. -Allison K. SampitŽ

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