Royko in Love

Long before becoming an acclaimed newspaper columnist, Mike Royko was a young airman secretly in love with a beautiful gal from his Northwest Side neighborhood. From afar, “Mick” began to pour out his feelings in a torrent of letters that ultimately won her heart. Discovered after his death, they show glimmers of the wit and voice that would one day distinguish Royko’s prose—and a romantic streak buried beneath the wise-guy exterior

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Left: Carol and Mike Royko in the mid-1950s. Right: The letter (written before Carol reverted to her maiden name) in which Royko confessed his love. View the gallery >>

 

A week after my father, Mike Royko, died in 1997, a slightly heavy envelope arrived with the scores of other cards and letters that had been pouring in. When I opened it, several snapshots tumbled out.

The message came from a man named Don Karaiskos, who had been my father’s roommate and buddy in the air force while they were stationed in Blaine, Washington, where my father had been sent after serving overseas during the Korean War. The photos had been taken with an old camera that leaked light, which meant the pictures were on the dark side, and also had faded a bit in the 43 years since they had been taken. But they were wonderful, showing my father back in the days when he was a skinny 21-year-old in a uniform. One of the pictures had my father standing in front of a car on a mountain road, and on the back was written, “Mt. Baker, Easter.” I made a mental note to find Mount Baker on a map.

After a few minutes, I put the pictures back in the envelope and began looking through one of the many boxes that my father had left behind. I was just beginning to realize he’d saved everything—photos, canceled checks, paintings, costume jewelry, clothing, knickknacks, everything. As I moved things around, I uncovered a smaller cardboard box containing letters, maybe a hundred or more, all neatly packed. I pulled one out and looked at the postmark: Blaine, Wash, April 22, 1954. As I began reading, the words described a day trip to Mount Baker on Easter Sunday. It provided the story to the photo I had just seen.

That degree of serendipity should have floored me, but it took a back seat to my astonishment over something else: These were the letters. THE letters. The holy grail of my nuclear family. The place where it all began. My mother had told me about them, but I had come to doubt they still existed; I had even begun to wonder whether they ever had, at least in the way my mind had held them. But here they were.

My father was born September 19, 1932, and my mother, Carol Joyce Duckman, November 21, 1934. By the time “Mickey,” as he was then known, was ten, he was secretly in love with my mother. She liked him, but not in the way he loved her. His feelings only deepened with time, but he could be painfully shy, especially in the area of romance.

She grew up to be a stunning beauty, five feet, nine inches, blonde, and possessing an intelligence and gentle charisma that attracted men by droves. He, on the other hand, was a skinny guy with a large Adam’s apple and a larger nose. That his already huge wit and mind dwarfed these physical attributes did little to boost his self-image, and he suffered the torture of being her close friend and having to listen to her talk about the positives and negatives of the various “boys” that she dated. She had no idea how he really felt about her.

In 1952, my father enlisted in the air force, and as he was about to head to Korea, he received the terrible news that Carol was getting married. His dreams of what might someday be were over. She was 17, and Larry, the man she was marrying, was a few years older, one of the many neighborhood guys who adored her.

When Dad returned from Korea, he stopped in Chicago before going to Blaine. Even though a visit to the Duckman house would have been expected—the entire family enjoyed him—he couldn’t bring himself to confront the reality of Carol’s new life. He stayed away. Once in Blaine, he wrote a letter to the Duckmans, betraying none of the anguish he felt, instead resorting to humor: “I guess I should apologize for not coming over during my leave,” he wrote, “but I lost so much weight in Korea that I thought Bob [Carol’s undertaker brother] might not recognize me and toss me in a pine box.”

Carol wrote back, apparently chiding Mick gently for not stopping over and not writing. She also revealed that she and Larry had separated and would divorce. The marriage had been a mistake. (Carol’s letters to my father have not survived.)

This was my father’s opening. He wrote back in a letter dated March 16, 1954, and for the first time, he told her the truth about his feelings.

These letters are selected and in some cases abridged from a collection of 112 letters sent by Mike to Carol between February 1954 and January 1955. The originals were all handwritten. We have not changed the original spelling and grammar.

Writing this letter is going to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done. In answer to your note—yes, I did plan on writing once a year—or less. Naturally a statement like that warrants an explanation. I’m in love with you. Surprised? Well I am and the result has been mental hell. For a couple of years I’ve been wondering when I’d stop thinking about you every day. I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t. So as long as I have to keep going this way you may as well know about it. I’ve been in love with you for so long, I don’t remember when it started but when I decided to do something about it, it was too late.

I was home for 30 days and at times the urge to go to you was overpowering. I drove by your house time after time but couldn’t stop. I can’t write anymore. Anything else I say would be a futile attempt to elaborate on a complete statement. I love you. I don’t harbor much hope but please answer or I’ll be forced to call you on the phone. I don’t want to do that until I hear from you.

Love, Mick

 

Photography: Michael Boone Photography/Courtesy of David Royko

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