The Last Lion 

Four years ago a senior librarian at the Harold Washington Library told a joke and nobody laughed. When Diane Richmond's supervisor announced at a staff meeting that the book fund was missing several thousand dollars, Richmond, who'd been counting on the money and knew how she wanted to spend it, said that maybe it had disappeared into Richie Daley's campaign fund.

This insolence earned Richmond a one-day suspension and a temporary demotion--punishment she was certain had less to do with her blasphemy than her union activism. Some colleagues who thought so too mentioned Richmond to a Sun-Times reporter, and soon her phone was ringing.

Richmond was leery. Nearing retirement, she didn't know this inquiring journalist and didn't want him making a bad situation worse. She called a friend, Susan Figliulo, who'd once worked on the Sun-Times copy desk, and asked for an opinion of Charles Nicodemus.

"I'd trust him with both my children and my grandmother," said Figliulo.

Nicodemus, who retires Friday at age 69, has always been trustworthy. You could count on him to be your best friend or worst enemy. The press officer of a public agency Nicodemus once investigated tells me he called day and night. "My wife would ask, 'Who is this guy waking us up?' I remember once he called me and I said, 'Charles, it'll have to wait for tomorrow.' And he said there was one edition left of the Sun-Times and he needed the information now."

"He accorded nobody any sort of superior status," says Harlan Draeger, an investigative reporter who retired from the Sun-Times a few years ago. "We did a story in 1981 about a fellow involved in a big sludge scandal at the Sanitary District. The head of the company down in New Orleans was one of the richest men in the country. Nic and I would get on the phone with all these supporters of his, and Nic treated them as busboys. I just loved it."

"He's the last lion," says the Sun-Times's Jim Ritter, who's handling the retirement party. And reporter Adrienne Drell, who created a video tribute, adds, "He's been the Sun-Times to me, and I can't imagine it without him. I remember being on stories with him, and he drove me crazy with his memos. But his thoroughness and his exactness and his fortitude and strength are unique."

"I don't think there's anybody in the city as tenacious as he is, so impassioned about his stories," says Tribune investigative reporter Ray Gibson. "The other thing is, Charles really hated the Tribune. He really hated us, because we're the big hammer in town. Charlie was always the guy who was trying to protect the reputation of the Sun-Times as the top investigative paper in town. And he did it well."

When his blood was up, Nicodemus used to tell Draeger, "We're doing the people's work." That meant he was savoring the moment of squeezing the balls of the high and the mighty in the name of what's holy. "He loved the underdog role," says Draeger, "and he challenged every powerful institution he came in contact with. If you believe in the phrase 'Question authority,' it was just made-to-order for him.

"He left a heck of a mark on the city. For one thing, the Harold Washington Library could just as easily be the Nicodemus Library. He shot that idiotic cheapo Goldblatt's project down and got something the city can be proud of. You talk about taking on institutions--City Hall was all lined up for that."

Nicodemus faxed over a five-page chronological rundown of his top investigations. This column isn't being written simply to reminisce about greatest hits, so I'll mention just his two favorites. In 1967 the army's new M-16 rifle was jamming in combat in Vietnam, and American soldiers were dying as a result. Nicodemus was then in the Washington bureau of the Chicago Daily News. "I knew the designer of the gun," he says, "and I called him up and asked what might be wrong. They were shipping soldiers back who'd been wounded in battle when the gun failed, and I went out and interviewed them and found out they weren't being trained properly in how to fire it--in short rather than long bursts--or in how to clean it. The wrong ammo was being used. The quality control at the factory was deficient."

Nicodemus started writing, and congressional hearings followed. "So the gun got put in working order and helped kill more people," he recalls, "which is ironic, since I was an opponent of the war."

The other story is the one everybody mentions, the Goldblatt's conversion into a new central library. It was a done deal until Nicodemus started picking apart the idea in 1986. One result of his relentless nagging was a library new from the ground up--though unreconstructed Goldblatt's partisans who point to the building's handsome renovation by DePaul University still insist the original idea was sound and would have saved the city millions of dollars. At any rate, the larger result was the lesson learned by the city. Three years after Rupert Murdoch bought it, the Sun-Times might have been wounded and reeling, but it still counted.

To the extent that a newspaper the size of the Sun-Times can be carried on one back, the back has been Nicodemus's. Owners, publishers, and editors have come and gone in the past 20-some years, and few provided anything serious in the way of leadership. Nicodemus was the newsroom's moral authority. He despised some of those bosses, enjoyed others, and understood himself to be working for none of them. His loyalty was to the paper as an institution and, whenever push came to shove between the bosses and the workers, to the working stiffs who put it out.

But when he joined the Daily News in 1956, his ambition was to be its editor. He remembers his conversation in 1960 with the managing editor before taking over the Springfield bureau. "He said, 'How long would you like to stay in Springfield?'--George Thiem had been there 20 years. I said, 'No more than, at best, five years.' His eyebrows went up. I said, 'Then I want to go to Washington. Then I want to go overseas--preferably Paris, but I'd settle for London. And then I want to come back and run this place.'"

He earned Paris, but he was asked to come back to Chicago instead and take over as political editor--a big job. He made it bigger by combining it with investigative reporting. He'd won a national award for his M-16 stories, and he soon won another for breaking an Illinois Supreme Court scandal that obliged two justices to resign. When the time came to get in line to become managing editor, he was having too much fun to give up reporting. "I just could no longer see the attraction of being a member of management," he says. "That attitude never changed over time."

Neither did his belief in his ability to run a newspaper. "The thing I'm sure was never appreciated by his editors was his memos," says Draeger. "He'd write 500-word memos to editors, maybe longer, instructing them on how to run their newspapers. He was constantly on their ass. Alan Mutter was a city editor for a while, and Nic and I were working on something. And Mutter comes up and says, 'Did you see this long memo from Nicodemus giving me a new asshole?' And I said no, and he said, 'That's funny, it's got your name on it too.'"

"Probably my memos were longer than they should have been, but I've always believed in a bountiful number of facts," says Nicodemus. "As often as not they were received without comment. But I knew what they said, and the editors knew what they said."

The Daily News folded in 1978. About a third of the staff went over to Marshall Field's sister paper, the Sun-Times, where about a third of the staff had been fired to make room. Later that year the Sun-Times and the Chicago Newspaper Guild negotiated a new contract. "The staff psychologically and morale-wise was in disarray," says Nicodemus, "and the negotiations as a result did not go well. In my view, the company put its heel on the neck of the staff while the staff was down, and that radicalized me. The contract was finally settled in December, and I bitterly, vocally, visibly opposed it. We came close to turning it over"--rejecting it--"which had never been done in the guild's history."

Nicodemus, who hadn't been active in the guild, joined its executive board and became chairman of the Sun-Times unit. He led the paper into the 1980 negotiations. "The staff was angry--and not just me. We mounted the first really meaningful strike threat toward the end of those negotiations and won back everything we'd lost in 1978 and enough other things that the '80 contract was the best negotiated in the history of the guild."

Draeger remembers 1980. "We had the company by the balls," he says. Management came in with a decent offer, but the guild wouldn't take it. The strike deadline passed, and in the newsroom work stopped. The staff was waiting for a signal to walk. "What's going on here?" said the federal mediator on the scene.

"This is payback time," Draeger told him. Today he tells me, "We squeezed another half a percent out of them by extending it another 20 minutes."

Victory didn't mollify Nicodemus. Dan Lehmann, a former Sun-Times reporter and guild leader who negotiated two contracts with Nicodemus in the mid-90s, tells this story: "Nic's no saint. Nic's got his warts. After protracted negotiations with the company, as heated as they always are, there's a sense of relief, a sense of euphoria when you finally get an agreement with a tough adversary. There's this sense of 'Thank God it's over,' and now it's time to bury the hatchet and shake hands. And Nic would never shake the hands of management--out of principle."

"Well, that started in 1980," Nicodemus says. "The things I feel in negotiations are strong and genuine, and they have been often bitter and always emotional. Neither side gets what it wants. I never had the stomach to turn around and make nicey-nice with the other side. Either in the last negotiations or the one before, a member of management came up and grabbed my hand when I wasn't looking in his direction and shook it, and one of our photographers who'd been taking pictures throughout the negotiations intentionally captured that on film. I was not wild about that."

In late 1983, Marshall Field sold the Sun-Times to Murdoch. There were two ways of standing on principle when Murdoch took over. High-minded journalists with somewhere else to go denounced Murdoch and went there, carrying along panicked colleagues. But a lot of middle-aged journalists with families had no choice but to stay put. Fortunately for them, not to mention the Sun-Times itself, Nicodemus stayed too.

"To have the Tribune as the only major journalistic print voice in town would be a disaster," he says, "and therefore preserving and fighting for the quality and the existence of the Sun-Times is a moral necessity from my point of view. I had opportunities at a major western paper and a wire service, and I never in any way considered them. Mike Royko was a good friend. He and I had been on the middle watch together back in 1959 when he first came to the Daily News. Inside, I never forgave Mike for going to the Tribune. That's how strongly I felt about it. We didn't talk all that much once he left. And I didn't read his column all that much once he left. Mike, of course, made his famous comment that the Murdoch paper wouldn't be worth much except for--however he phrased it--wrapping fish in. There were people who left without a job, out of moral indignation. My feeling was that we can impact Rupert Murdoch. And we did. Obviously he impacted the paper, and very little of it for the good. But we were a brake on Rupert Murdoch--the staff in particular, but some members of management as well. We dragged our feet in pursuing the themes and the kind of writing that the Murdoch people wanted, and eventually someone like Frank Devine, who became Murdoch's permanent editor here, ended up editing a paper that was significantly different than Murdoch had wanted."

Devine, a New Zealander, ran the paper in 1985 and 1986, and he's the last editor the newsroom remembers affectionately. He set Nicodemus loose on the Goldblatt's project. "Thank God for Frank Devine," says Lehmann. "Those mopes that came after him, they never would have had the guts to do it. Frank Devine had guts, and he understood brilliance when he saw it."

"He and I got along very well," Nicodemus remembers. "We had a remarkable run. With the McCormick Place investigation, which was one of the most successful investigations in the history of Chicago journalism"--both papers tore into McCormick Place, whose executive director and entire board were eventually replaced--"and then with the library stories. We were in the middle of the 1985 negotiations, and we were doing extraordinary things in the McCormick Place investigation. Devine announced that he was giving $25-a-week merit raises to Harlan Draeger and me. I said, 'I'm sorry. I can't accept that. It wouldn't look good.' I'm one of those people--and there are a remarkable number of them in journalism--who never look at their paychecks. And without my permission and knowledge Devine put it through anyway, and I didn't discover it until the following September." The negotiations weren't over by then. "They were just coming to a peak, as a matter of fact," says Nicodemus, "and I felt embarrassed. But he never mentioned it, and I never mentioned it."

Those were the contract talks at whose peak, as Draeger remembers it, "Nic had me standing out in front of Water Tower Place on a Saturday afternoon before Christmas handing out leaflets saying 'Don't buy anything from Lord & Taylor because they advertise in the Sun-Times.'"

Nicodemus has been chairman of the Sun-Times guild for three different periods since 1980, though he was always an officer and, as he puts it, "visible and active." Lehmann chaired the unit during the 1997 negotiations, and he set out on a high road of "interest-based bargaining" that Nicodemus never had much faith in. Comity evaporated when the two sides finally got down to money, and that's when Lehmann turned the guild bulletin board over to Nicodemus. "I unleashed Nic," Lehmann said later. "I put up a posting that said 'Nic is back.'" The reemergence of his confrontational rhetoric "caused some consternation on the part of the company."

In the end Nicodemus believed the guild could have acted tougher and done better, and the night the guild membership ratified the new contract he spoke passionately against it. He warned the membership that he wouldn't be around for the next talks, and the colleagues who were defying his wishes wondered who would put the steel in their spine in 2001.

"I made it clear that meant I would have retired by then, and most people forgot about that. But last January, in putting up a notice about the upcoming 2000 elections I said at the bottom of the posting that it was an important election, because I was going to be retiring in November and the new leadership would take them into the next negotiations. So my colleagues have been on notice since late January that I was departing."

How resolute the guild will be without him is the newsroom's great unanswered question. He says, "Probably the same things that have helped as an investigative reporter helped as a guild leader. I have a low boiling point when it comes to inequity and a lot of determination, and I'm a believer in follow-through. I'm not sure the company ever really knew what to make of me. I was a high-profile reporter as well as a high-profile guild leader.

"I get along extraordinarily well, I mean really extraordinarily well, personally with virtually--not quite, but virtually--all of the managers we've had. One of the reasons for that is that I am, in a sense, a working fool. I love what I do as a newspaperman, and I work probably as long or longer hours than most managers. So no one has ever faulted my work ethic or my abilities, and that's inevitably helped the guild."

An exception to the good terms Nicodemus claims with his editors was his relationship with Nigel Wade, the paper's editor from 1996 until last May. Conrad Black, who runs the company that's owned the Sun-Times since 1994, is a conservative intellectual idealogue, and Wade bore his stamp. "He was a very good editor with good news judgment in many ways," says Nicodemus, "but his archconservatism and the prejudices it generated too often colored his performance and really turned off much of the staff." In a staff memo Wade once described the guild as a "private business run to benefit the few tired organizers who control it." And he told John Callaway on WTTW, "I've spent ten years in communist countries, and I don't believe collectivism works." What Wade was enunciating sounded like a corporate ethos. Which is why staffers were unsurprised and liberal readers rightly alarmed by the paper's endorsement of George W. Bush this fall. The Sun-Times had endorsed Republicans before, but never before had it been run by serious men of the right who were certain that the proper role of a daily is to preach what its owners practice.

Nicodemus worries that the ideological stamp on the paper endangers it. "I repeatedly have readers and news sources and public officials and others say to me, 'Why in the world are these editors so right-wing with their commentary, their columns, and their editorials? Don't they know that that's not what most Sun-Times readers want to encounter in their paper? And eventually, they may just stop reading to avoid it. If that's what readers want they can get it from the Tribune.'

"I hear that. Other members of the staff hear that. And we hear it often enough that it's a concern," he says. "It's possible to take a conservative or a Republican bent in a more skillful fashion than often seems to be done at this paper currently. And I say that not from a political point of view. I say that from the standpoint of wanting to keep readers."

Michael Cooke, who arrived in Chicago from Vancouver this year, is a far more approachable editor than Wade, but nothing in his history suggests he's less hostile to unions. He didn't want to be drawn into a discussion of Nicodemus. "I am aware of the monument to investigative journalism he's built in Chicago, and it's extraordinarily impressive," he told me. And his union leadership? I asked. Cooke would touch that only obliquely. "His reputation does precede him, on all levels," he said.

At the moment the guild has grievances pending on two fronts, against the tacky new features Chicago-Scene.com and Cherie's Night Out. The guild is raising jurisdictional questions about the regular use of outside writers and photographers (Cherie's Night Out is produced by the marketing department) as well as what Nicodemus calls "issues of taste and image." He explains, "We can do that under a section of the guild contract that permits the guild to grieve any matter that 'affects relations between the staff and the publisher.'"

Did he remember the name Diane Richmond? No, he didn't. But when I jogged his memory he immediately recalled that the story was one of two he wrote in early 1997 that ended his career covering the library. "I hadn't actually been assigned the library beat since the 1980s, but librarians were all the time calling me with problems," he says. "The one that tore it was about the library failing to pay its Internet fees. The library's Internet server cut off the Chicago Public Library."

Mary Dempsey was the library commissioner and Cindy Pritzker president of the library board. Neither story made them happy--"I did have a concern about the way I was quoted," Dempsey says today--and they complained to the paper's management. Nicodemus says Wade told him he couldn't write any more library stories. "That's not good journalism," says Nicodemus.

Richmond has still never met Nicodemus, but she estimates that she spent at least six hours on the phone with him. "At times he was calling to check impressions, facts, to verify things about people, to ask about the ins and outs of the budget. A lot of it apparently was his own time too, because it was evening."

The story ran on page three, but it was promoted with a front-page headline, "Library worker demoted for Daley quip," and Richmond says that everything that came from it was good. "First of all, the story was completely accurate and fair. I was astonished by how thoroughly he understood the issues, the people, what happened, everything.

"And he followed it up too. He really pushed on the budget thing too. And I think that it had something to do with the fact that there's now a lot more of a system of accountability for the library." She believes that Nicodemus's reporting forced Dempsey "to back off," and a few months later she was able to retire on full pension. "I really owe everything to Charles Nicodemus," she says. "He saved my life."

This wasn't a big story by his standards. It was by hers. "He went the limit for me, a stranger," she says, "and it completely changed the way I thought about the media. The media picks up these little stories and plays them up, and you wonder why. But it's that kind of media attention that I think is what ultimately protects the average person, people like us, from the depredations of power."

Charles Nicodemus will stay around Chicago for the next several months, and he doesn't intend to be a stranger to the Sun-Times. But ultimately he and his wife, Virginia, intend to move to Boulder, Colorado, where he can rock climb, his favorite form of recreation.

Former Sun-Times staffers and all other well-wishers will be welcomed at his retirement party, which is Sunday, December 10, at 5:30 at the Como Inn. Tickets are $25 and should be purchased through Jim Ritter at the Sun-Times (312-321-2539) by December 5.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

Tags: ,

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Michael Miner

Agenda Teaser

Galleries & Museums
Sublands TCC Chicago
April 14
Galleries & Museums
Visible and Permanent Carrie Secrist Gallery
March 17

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories

Follow Us

Sign up for newsletters »

 Early Warnings
 Food & Drink
 Reader Recommends
 Reader Events and Offers