Mike Royko...smitten: son publishes love letters by future columnist during time in Air Force
"Royko in Love: Mike's Letters to Carol"
Edited by David Royko
University of Chicago Press, $24, 254 pages

This city worships Mike Royko as an icon; the sharp-tongued, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist who feared no one. Whether people sat next to him at Billy Goat Tavern by night or read his work every day, they felt they knew him.

Even those who knew Royko through his books, such as “Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago,” found him genuine and familiar.

But how well can we really know such public characters, writers who elicit such feelings of intimacy that they seem to be speaking directly to us?

The public got a glimpse once, with his famous column, “A November Farewell,” an homage to his wife Carol, who died of a cerebral aneurysm in 1979 at age 44. This moving tribute showed the raw tenderness of Royko’s love and grief, a sentiment usually obscured by columns about kooks and nuts, bosses and crooks.

A new book, “Royko in Love: Mike’s Letters to Carol,” reveals a new dimension of the columnist, and introduces Carol to the world. “Nobody really has any idea of who my mother was,” explains Mike and Carol’s elder son David Royko, who edited the book. “For me, it’s really wonderful to resurrect her back into the stable of Mike Royko people.”

The story of the Roykos’ courtship via the postal service was ingrained into family mythology, but David did not grasp the missives’ power until he saw the box of letters, precisely organized by postmark date. After Carol’s death, Mike toted the letters with him with every relocation, and when he died in 1997 the box landed with David.

The Roykos’ love story did not have an auspicious beginning. Despite his crush on Carol, Royko headed for Korea with the Air Force; she married someone else. That ill-fated marriage was brief, and when Royko heard the news, he went for broke. “I’m in love with you. Surprised? Well I am and the result has been mental hell,” the young airman wrote in a letter postmarked March 16, 1954. “I love you. I don’t harbor much hope but please answer or I’ll be forced to call you on the phone.”

"Royko in Love" reads like a great epistolary novel even though it only spans two years. This isn’t a harrowing tale of life on the battle front. Nor are the letters hot and steamy. They were written by a slightly insecure young man from the Northwest Side of at a rural Air Force base in Washington state. Royko’s depiction of life more resembles “Hogan’s Heroes” or “F Troop” than “All Quiet on the Western Front” or even "M*A*S*H." There’s a sweet goofiness to the letters, which “Mickey” Royko often signed: MYMNTE. (“Missing You Now More Than Ever.”)

David Royko learned about the letters from his mother when he was 13 years old but never saw them until he received many boxes following his father’s death. “They existed the way I fantasized they existed,” reflected David, now a father of two teen age sons.

While his mother’s letters have not survived, the one-sided correspondence provided a new way for him to see his parents. "What these letters really did was give me a better sense of why, no matter how bad things got at certain times, Mom and Dad never broke up," David explained. "There was never a moment of doubt, for whatever his rock 'n' roll behavior … Mom was the center of his world."

David Royko, as director of the Marriage and Family Counseling Service of the Circuit Court of Cook County, deals with families in conflict. A genial sort, whose wise bearing inspires confidence, he specializes in "child-focused mediation," so parents fighting about custody or visitation can resolve their disputes rather than go to court. Sitting in his office, surrounded by books, photographs of his sons and trinkets such as a Sigmund Freud figurine on the shelf, he has devoted himself to ensuring the emotional health of children.

He has come to believe that prediction of the success of a marriage is impossible, yet his father’s letters showed him how his parents made it through tough times. “As much as Dad worshipped at the altar of Mom’s letters all that time, it was Mom who kept them in the box,” David explained. “Mom never parted with them. And Dad, when he died, he didn’t part with them. It’s not an accident they survived.”

David and his wife, Karen, aren’t taking any chances. Karen transcribed the letters for the book and the originals are in her parents’ safe deposit box.

etaylor@tribune.com