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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5 years ago
Posted by Dolmance

I lived in a really rough neighborhood in Chicago and started reading Mike Royko when I was ten years old. He had a perfect mix of goodness and cynicism that made for a fundamentally decent person one would be hard pressed to make a fool out of. When I left Chicago in my mid teens, I could honestly say that the only good thing that happened to me in that city was Mike Royko.

5 years ago
Posted by Graziella

I always loved reading Royko's column and I was glad to have been given the chance to see more of his inner soul. Absolutely great writer!!!!

Grace M Weber,
Seneca, IL

5 years ago
Posted by nostalgic

Are there any men like this left who are so willing to put their love in black and white?

5 years ago
Posted by Blomette

I too, grew up reading Mike Royko in the Daily New in the 1960s. I lived in Highland Park at the time, though I attended Deerfield H.S. After I graduated from high school, I was overjoyed to find his columns were sydicated and I could find them in other newspapers!

Thank for this!
Pam

5 years ago
Posted by miscanthus

What a heartwarming selection of letters! I grew up about 3 blocks from that address on Central Avenue. During my high school and college years it was a great pleasure to get home from school and read Mike Royko's column in the Daily News each evening. I would have been delighted to know that your mother had lived in my neighborhood.

Thank you for sharing the personal side of one of my favorite writers.

Mary in Texas

5 years ago
Posted by rjchiarito

This is a truly amazing article! I consider myself one of Royko's biggest fans and urge anyone who likes him to join the Facebook group Royko is God at http://www.facebook.com/wall.php?id=21235063655#/group.php?gid=21235063655

5 years ago
Posted by gladiator

I was on my way back to Chicago from Vietnam, where I had been a war correspondent attached to the First Marine Division at DaNang. I had lived for a while in Australia, spent a week in New Zealand, and now I was in the airport at Auckland.
I had gone up on the walkaway above the waiting room. Looking over the crowd of travelers, a beautiful tall redhead appeared with orange curls, very elegant in her best traveling clothes. Mmmm. She was something like Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER with Cary Grant, but with a long Viking face. I made my way downstairs and inserted myself into her path, saying, "Hello."
I was a rough, common-looking character in blue jeans, and her nose was in the air. She sniffed,"Hello," back, but she didn't notice me at all. I was quite beneath her line of vision.

We were on the same plane to Tahiti, but I didn't get to speak to her again. In Tahiti, I met up with a tennis pro who was on a world tour and we hung out. And then one night I ran into the redhead again, in a hotel lounge. She was with a Swiss fellow I had also met--and I was to learn later that he had warned her not to have anything to do with me, that I looked disreputable. But anyway I asked her to dance. There was beautiful music playing and the Polynesian waves were hitting the shore under a bright moon, palm trees waving in the breeze.
She turned me down.
So I asked again.
She turned me down again.
The third time I asked her, she danced with me. And after that she wanted to dance every dance with me. We danced under the stars; it was very romantic.
And even though we didn't even kiss, when I walked her back to her room, I told her that we were going to be married some day. We exchanged addresses, but I'm sure she didn't take me seriously in the slightest.

Kathleen was on her way back to Yorkshire via Montreal, and I was on my way back to Chicago via Mexico. She was British and French royalty, and was born in Steeple Lodge at Wentworth Castle, the first structure listed in the National Registry, built by the Earl of Strafford. She had attended England's first grammar school at Penistone, church at Bolsterstone, and she loved the Eweden Valley, where later I would scatter her ashes.
I was a common boy from the rough streets of Chicago.
It is common for travelers to exchange addresses and never hear from each other again, so maybe Kathleen was surprised to hear from me when I returned to Chicago.
In those days you exchanged letters only once every two weeks. There was no e-mail, with its lightning courtships of several letters a day. But gradually her letters became more and more affectionate and full of love for me, and when I told her that my prospects were not very good, she didn't seem to care. And finally I sent her a one-way ticket to Chicago.
She often related to me her surprise upon opening the letter to find a ticket. She ran to her mother, said with astonishment, "It's a ticket!" and asked what to do. My beloved mother-in-law said, "Go for it, love."
But her Uncle Johnny bought her a return ticket just in case.

She was one of those rare girls as beautiful inside as she was outside, and all the moreso for not knowing that she was. One time she came to me all a-twitter, and I asked, "What's up with you?"
She said, "Some construction workers whistled at me!"
"Sure. You're a dish."
"Oh, I am not!"
She didn't have a clue the effect she had on people. I always said that if she had taken tea at Buckingham Palace, the queen would have sought her good opinion. People automatically deferred to her, but she was gracious, friendly and kind to everyone.
I used to say, "She doesn't eat, she makes her own clothes, she's always the same age as the day I met her, and she thinks I'm God." And when I was worried about our economics, she would respond airily, "Oh, you'll work it out." She never worried, and maybe it was her faith in me that made me a better man than I had any right to be.
After many years of marriage, living in Britain and America with our beautiful children, as she lay dying we agreed that it seemed like we had been together only a very short time. I was a common boy from the rough streets of the big city, she was an elegant girl from rural Yorkshire. It had been like living inside a movie with Mrs. Miniver, being married to her. Yet somehow we had made it work, and I had become her knight of the round table. I loved my dear more at the end than I had at the start.

Carrying her ashes on my lap across the Atlantic, to Eweden Valley, where I would fulfill Kathleen's dearest wish, the lady in the next seat asked me if my wife hadn't wanted to join me on the trip.
I looked down at the can containing her ashes and thought, Mmmm, I have it in my power to spoil this woman's flight...
When I returned home, I found this poem typed on a scrap of paper in one of her drawers:

When I am gone--
Think of me not as your disconsolate lover;
Think of the joy it gave me to adore you,
Of sun and stars you helped me to discover.

And this still living part of me will come
To sit beside you, in the empty room.

Then all on earth that Death has left behind
Will be the merry part of me within your mind.

5 years ago
Posted by ual727

My name is Don Karaiskos. I'm mentioned in the first paragraph of this piece. I was Mike's roommate while we were at Blaine, WA. I took those pictures with my camera on that Easter Sunday in 1954. How lucky for me that I "drew" this man to be my roommate for almost two years. He was a complex person in many ways but in the ways that really counted, he had a sentimentality about him that defied description. This sentimentality of course comes to the fore in his letters to Carol. Also, his genuine interest in those he called his friends. I was discharged from the Air Force two months before he was married but I knew all those guys who were in attendance at the wedding. We remained in contact after our stints in the service, trading visits to their place at 5408 N Central and our home in Ohio. I was an airline pilot by profession and lived out in Crystal Lake for a spell. We visited each other during that time. After I left my Chicago residence to be based in Cleveland. I had many layovers at the Palmer House. Mike either visited me in my room or we met at Billy Goat's.

What an outstanding person he was. Very few days go by when I don't think about him and our times together there in Washington State. After I met Carol it was easy to see why he harbored the love for her that he did as she was a wonderful person also. I used to see him sitting at the desk in our barracks room writing those letters every day. Of course he never spoke of the content of those letters - he was like Captain Miller in "Saving Private Ryan" when asked about his wife. Captain Miller replied "Those are things that I preserve for myself". That was Mike.

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