Friday, July 15, 2016

THE BEST POLITICAL REPORTER EVER - John Madigan, WBBM Newsradio Sssssseventy-eight!

I am, and always have been, a political junkie.  When I was growing up politics was always a topic for lively discussion in our home  - especially around the dinner table.  My family had a lot of material for these discussions:  we bought all four Chicago newspapers every day. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times that were morning papers, and the Chicago American and Chicago Daily News that were afternoon papers.  Even though my parents were both staunch straight-ticket Democrats, there was always a lot of politics to discuss.  In the 1960 election for example, John F. Kennedy who my parents idolized, was on the national ticket, so any news about Kennedy would be part of our dinnertime conversation.  And in addition to the national political scene, there were always state, county and local elections to be examined. 

Along with reading all four newspapers, we watched the news on television (Fahey Flynn) and listened to the news on the radio.  And that brings me to the subject of this week's blog article.  It's about a little Irishman with a twinkle in his eye (not Fahey Flynn), and more political stories, statistics and information in his head than all the other political reporters put together: John Madigan.  He had Washington experience, to be sure, but it was here in Chicago where his star really shone.   

Let's see what we can "dig up" about this outstanding Chicagoan and see if they fulfilled his last request:  "All I hope they put on my tombstone is: ‘He was fair.’ That’s all I want.”

John Joseph Madigan, Jr., was born January 11, 1918 in Chicago to John Joseph Madigan (1886-1973) and Annie, nee Cotton (1888-1925).  John and Annie were both native Chicagoans and were married in Chicago in 1908.  They were blessed with five children: Margaret Mary (1909-2002), Mary Rita (1911-1985), Eleanor T. (1913-1998), John J. (1918-2012), and James F. (1920-1944).  John J. Madigan, Sr. had several jobs through the years.  In the 1910 Census he was a "Office Clerk for a Packing Company."  In the 1930 Census he was the "Secretary/Treasurer of a Lumber Company."   In the 1940 Census he was a "Salesman for a Service Products Company."  On his death certificate they put his occupation as "Business," which probably sums it up pretty well.

Other than on his birth certificate, John Jr. makes his first appearance in the 1920 US Census.  The Madigans were living at 6212 S. Rockwell in Chicago.  

6212 S. Rockwell, Chicago

In addition to 2 year old John Jr., there were of course his parents John and Annie, and siblings Margaret, Mary and Eleanor.  In addition, Annie's sister Margaret Cotton was living with the Madigans.  

John's mother Annie died on April 28, 1925, when he was only 8 years old.  The cause of death was complications from cancer. Annie Madigan was 36 years old when she died.  Here is a copy of her death certificate:

The 1930 US Census finds the Madigan family still at 6212 S. Rockwell.  They told the census taker that they owned the building and that it was worth $8,000.00.  The census reflected one addition and one loss:  in December of 1920 James F. Madigan joined the family, and Annie had, of course, died in 1925.  The family now consisted of John Madigan, Sr., the three girls and the two boys. Margaret Cotton, Annie's sister, was still living with them as well. John Jr. was twelve years old and in school.

Along the way, young John picked up the nickname "Red" for his crimson hair, which eventually turned white. After leaving college because his family couldn't afford tuition, he started in journalism in 1937 as a copy boy for Hearst's Chicago Herald-American newspaper.

Times were tough for people during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Madigan family was no exception.  

In 1930 they were living in a two-flat they owned at 6212 S. Rockwell. By the 1940 US Census they were living in an apartment they rented for $65.00 per month at 6200 S. Maplewood in Chicago.

6200 S. Maplewood, Chicago

I could not verify whether they lost the building on Rockwell or sold it, but they were property owners at the beginning of the Great Depression and by the end of it they were renters.

Left at home with John Madigan, Sr., were Mary, John Jr., and James, along with Margaret Cotton.  22 year old John Jr. told the census taker that he was a Reporter for the American Publishing Company. 

On June 8, 1942 John Madigan, Jr., married Dolores Helen Hanlon (1921-1992) in Chicago.  

Dolores Helen Hanlon was born October 21, 1921 in Chicago to Edward J. Hanlon (1894-1939) and Mary F., nee Coleman (1895-1969). Edward Hanlon was the Safety Director for a Public Utility Company. Dolores was an only-child. 

Dolores and John Madigan were blessed with three children: actress Amy Madigan (b. 1950), Jack and Jim. 

Both John Madigan and his younger brother James Madigan served their country in World War II.  John was in the US Navy - a press officer on a ship stationed in the Pacific.  James F. Madigan was a PFC in the Army.  

James F. Madigan made the Supreme Sacrifice on September 27, 1944.  He was a member of the 81st Infantry Division, and lost his life in the battle for the Palau Islands.  He is buried in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Manila, Philippines.

For heroism during the war, John Madigan was awarded the Bronze Star. 

John Madigan returned from the war and resumed his career at the Chicago American newspaper, but now as a reporter.   In January of 1946, less than a month after his return from the service, he was put on what turned out to be one of the largest local stories of his career, the case of "Lipstick Killer" William Heirens. 

The story of serial killer William Heirens can be found here:

Madigan served as political editor at the Chicago American from 1951-1953. In 1952, he covered the first presidential campaign that used airplanes to move around the country.  In 1953 he was promoted to assistant managing editor and transferred to Hearst's Washington Bureau, and on December 6, 1953 was a panelist on "Meet the Press," at that time hosted by Lawrence Spivak.  

He joined Newsweek Magazine's capital bureau in Washington in 1954. During this period he was chosen to be the moderator for CBS' answer to "Meet the Press" called "Face the Nation" which premiered on November 7, 1954.   

In 1961 Madigan returned to Chicago and joined WBBM TV, the CBS affiliate.  In 1962 he was promoted to editorial assistant to the general manager, and in 1963, Madigan became news director of WBBM Ch. 2, where he was moderator of the show "At Random." 

He was also responsible for the legislative report "Capitol Hill to Chicago," and moderator of the program "Target:News."

During his tenure as news director he famously hired two of the station’s most high-profile journalists, Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson. In addition to Kurtis and Jacobson, Madigan was also responsible for hiring, among others, Harry Porterfield and Johnny Morris.

After working as news director at WBBM-TV Channel 2, he was part of the team that converted WBBM-AM radio to an all-news station in 1968.

On radio, he handled a number of on-air duties and became known for his signature sign off "WBBM, Newsradio Ssssseventy-Eight." He said he took that from the drawn out "S" he employed when shooting dice in the Navy and banking on a number starting with that letter.

During this period the Madigans were living at 1440 N Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.  

1440 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

John Madigan was not universally loved by his colleagues.  One of the terms used most frequently to describe him was "curmudgeon," but he was universally respected. 

"John had a way of being a tough questioner, but not always antagonistic," said Craig Dellimore, who now hosts Mr. Madigan's Sunday program "At Issue" on WBBM Newsradio 780 AM.  "I think John saw himself as someone who was helping people understand politics in Chicago, which is sometimes inexplicable.

Madigan interviewed many historical figures through his career. Looking back in a 1971 article, he reflected that "President Nixon didn't know how to smile ... Adlai Stevenson got angry at the questions ... (poet) Allen Ginsberg had the foulest tongue ... Dr. Martin Luther King was the calmest."

John's wife Dolores Madigan died after a long battle with cancer on September 13, 1992.  Here is her obituary from the Chicago Tribune of September 15, 1992:


Dolores H. Madigan, 70, who served on the administrative staff of Teamster Local 705, had been a featured performer with an amateur theatrical group in South Shore for many years. She was the wife of longtime radio news commentator John J. Madigan and the mother of actress Amy Madigan.

A resident of North Lake Shore Drive, she died Sunday in Northwestern Memorial Hospital after a long fight with cancer.

``She could sing and dance and had quite a good voice,`` her daughter said.  ``My mother was one of the bright spots of a theatrical group that called itself the SPN Players.  She could probably have been professional, but chose instead to take care of us kids, and I`m glad for that.  From when I was in grade school growing up, I have fond memories of her doing roles or skits such as Hildegarde and Auntie Mame.  When I got into school plays and elocution contests, I felt like I was following in her footsteps.``

Mrs. Madigan, for the last 10 years, has been a section supervisor for the Teamster local, handling sick leave provisions and other benefits for union members. She formerly was assistant credit manager for the Drake Hotel. Survivors, besides her husband and daughter, include: two sons, Jack and Jim; and two grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 2 to 10 p.m. Tuesday in Blake-Lamb Funeral Home, 1035 N. Dearborn St.

Mass for Mrs. Madigan will be said at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Holy Name Cathedral, Superior and State Streets.

She is buried in Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery in Worth, Illinois:

In addition to his other duties as news director at Newsradio 78, Madigan delivered a daily media critique entitled "John Madigan Views the Press," that aired for two and half minutes five times a week from September, 1972 to February, 1988.

In 1993, John Madigan married for the second time to Elizabeth Kearns (b. 1926).

Madigan always viewed the freedom of the press as the cornerstone of a free society.   Reporting the news was always serious business to him.  When the city saluted movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert by naming the street adjacent to their old CBS studio on McClurg Court “Honorary Siskel & Ebert Way,” Madigan wrote an op-ed piece in the Sun-Times objecting to the designation, calling it “an insult to Fahey Flynn, P.J. Hoff, John Harrington, Les Atlass and so many more who led CBS to greatness in Chicago, in both radio and television.”

Ald. Ed Vrdolyak, John Madigan, Amy Madigan, Ed Harris

John Madigan retired from WBBM in 1988, but continued to host the weekly "At Issue" public affairs interview program on Newsradio 780 for the next nine years.  During this period he became chief spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court.   He fully retired in 1998 at the age of 80.

Despite an often cantankerous demeanor, underscored by his predilection for formal suits and black-rimmed glasses, colleagues and family said Mr. Madigan had a soft side.

His wife Elizabeth recalled that just before the two were set to be married in 1993 she woke up paralyzed from the waist down from an inflammatory neurological disorder.

"I said, 'Listen, Red, you better bail out because I might end up in a wheelchair for the rest of my life,'" she said.  "And he said to me, 'What kind of man do you think I am?  We're going down the aisle in September even if you're in a wheelchair.'"  Ultimately Elizabeth Madigan was able to regain her ability to walk.

In later years, the couple split their time between homes in Grand Beach, Mich., and Florida.  Mr. Madigan enjoyed golf, bridge and opera, his wife said, but no matter where they were he always stayed fully informed about Illinois politics and Illinois politicians.

Even after suffering a stroke in 2009, Madigan was still a voracious consumer of news and politics.

John Madigan died in Lauderhill, Florida on March 5, 2012 of complications from a stroke.  He was 94 years old.  

His body was returned to Illinois and he was buried next to his first wife Dolores at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Worth, Illinois. Was his last request:  "All I hope they put on my tombstone is: ‘He was fair.’ That’s all I want.” carried out?  Unfortunately, it was not. When I visited Holy Sepulchre cemetery recently I was surprised to find that John Madigan's grave is not marked.

Throughout the course of our lives we hear hundreds of people read the news.  For a political junkie like me, it's probably thousands of  people.  What was it about John Madigan that was different than all the rest?  What was it about him that had me glued to the radio every election night?  John Madigan not only knew all the players in the political game, it was more than that.  Madigan had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Illinois matters political.  In an age before the internet was even thought of, he could reach back into his great store of knowledge and compare current election results to results of previous elections.

For example - in the 1983 mayoral election he would say something like "Harold Washington beat Bernard Epton by 51.7% to 48.0%. Contrast that with Mayor Daley's first mayoral victory in 1955 where he beat Robert Merriam by 54.9% to 45.1%."  For a political junkie this was paradise.  He had all these facts and figures at his fingertips and could use them to reflect on the current political scene.  

Or he would come up with something like "Benjamin Adamowski's father, Max Adamowski, was an alderman and tavern owner in Chicago. Young Adamowski served in the Illinois State Legislature, representing the 25th District from 1931-1941.  He later served from 1957 to 1960 as State's Attorney of Cook County. He was a Democrat until 1955, when he was defeated by Richard J. Daley in the Democratic primary for mayor. In later campaigns for State's Attorney and a second bid for mayor against Daley in 1963 he ran as a Republican."  John Madigan was Wikipedia for politicians in a time where Wikipedia did not exist.  

It was truly a delight to listen to John Madigan's election night political commentaries.  Other people read the news, but Madigan lived it.  

John Hultman was one of Madigan’s colleagues at WBBM Newsradio, and remembers how he could tap a vast network of sources from his days in Washington.

“He had, as a former White House correspondent with Newsweek magazine, he had a little black book with lots of names in it, and telephone numbers, for people who could talk to us about politics,” Hultman said, “and he would find them in a poker game or some club.”

In these days of 24 hour news cycles and cable news "readers" newsmen like Madigan do not exist anymore.  So much the worse for us.

Another of Madigan's foibles was his insistence on accuracy. "Reporting the correct facts was always uppermost for him," said Jim Benes, an editor for WBBM radio who worked with Mr. Madigan.

"John would find some arcane detail and would put it in front of your face and say, 'Do we know that for sure?'" Benes said.

Unfortunately accuracy is another casualty in today's world of news.

In 2016 we are witnessing a struggle for the White House unlike any we have seen so far.  We political junkies will enjoy every minute of all of the 2016 races.  But how much more enjoyable would they be if we had John Madigan to put them in perspective for us?

John Madigan, WBBM Newsradio Sssssseventy-eight - greatly appreciated and sorely missed - may he rest in peace.          

1 comment:

  1. I follow another blog working to put tombstones on peoples graves. I was lucky ti have an ancestor have an unveiling this year. Wish we coukd do the same for this dear man