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A golden era of Chicago newspaper journalism can arguably be said to have occurred from the mid-1950s into the 1980s, when the internet began to undermine the printed daily newspaper business model. Armed with a combination of grand wordsmiths, street-smart columnists, relentless investigators, old pros who could rewrite Bible chapters in an hour if asked, the occasional scallywag, and lots of shoe leather, the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Today and Chicago Daily News slugged it out day by day, deadline by deadline, to beat the competition and, in the process, grab readers’ attention.
In the midst of that colorful journalistic maelstrom stood Bob Herguth, who during his tenure at the Chicago Daily News from 1955 to 1978 and the Chicago Sun-Times from 1979 to 1999 carved out a kinder, gentler, eternally optimistic style and niche uniquely his own.
A few, but not many of the longtime Wilmette resident’s old colleagues and friends at the Daily News and Sun-Times still click the keyboard for a living. One of them is nationally respected Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell, who upon Herguth’s death on May 22, 2019 at age 93 summarized his professional life this way.
“Chicago journalism is famous for bulldog reporters who rake muck for the public good. Robert J. Herguth had a different approach. His gentle demeanor and lighthearted, pun-filled way of viewing the world made interview subjects open up to him. Readers looked forward to the hard-hitting stories in the newspapers, but when they turned the page to ‘Hergie,’ they felt like they were visiting a friend.”
As a rewriteman and assistant city editor at the Daily News, George Harmon sat two dozen feet away from Herguth for years. “He never changed: soft-spoken, humorous, friendly, a man who daily demonstrated his extraordinary skill in writing and reporting. Incapable of missing a deadline. Total professional. Hergie truly was a role model for everyone in the newsroom. He could handle any type of assignment with competence and dispatch. No doubt the news sources trusted him to tell their stories with accuracy and respect. And as a human being, no finer man could you meet.”
Herguth was born in Chicago but grew up in St. Louis. He received a journalism degree at the University of Missouri then worked for newspapers in El Paso, Texas, and Peoria. Drafted during the Korean War, he wrote Army propaganda leaflets that were translated into Korean.
He was hired by the Daily News in 1955, and over the course of a 45 year career in Chicago took on hard news, investigative, feature, obituary and editorial writing. Herguth hit his best stride, however, as the author of “Hergie’s People” in the Daily News and “Public Eye” and “Chicago Profile” in the Sun-Times. The popular columns were typically filled with a mix of gossip, light news, and celebrity interviews.
Dennis Byrne worked with Herguth both at the Daily News and the Sun-Times and recalled how his career as a columnist began. “He started at 4 a.m. and was assembling light news from the wires and notes from staff for the first edition. He was already recognized as a wordsmith, and finally somebody said, ‘why isn’t his byline on this?’” Soon it was, and over the years, Herguth interviewed thousands of people, ranging from the likes of Chuck Norris, Jerry Lewis and Paul McCartney to John F. Kennedy and Nelson Algren.
Herguth’s columns also featured one of his favorite literary vehicles — puns. Writing the foreward to Harvey Gordon’s “PUNishment: The Art of Punning or How to Lose Friends and Antagonize People,” he explained his fascination with the art form: “Puns are to words what Bach is to music, what Rembrandt is to canvas, what a French chef is to pot roast.”
“He was a maestro of the pun, which he unleashed in his bright and breezy columns upon delighted if sometimes dizzied readers of the Chicago Daily News and then the Sun-Times,” said former colleague Jack Schnedler. “He could also handle breaking news with his practiced reporting and writing skills when the occasion demanded. As a colleague, he always gave a morale boost when it was needed.”
Along the way, he on occasion put his money where his heart was. Twelve days after Herguth became president of the Chicago Press Club in 1987 it shut down because of money problems. He threw in $2,600 of his own money to help pay staff.
“He loved his craft and was a writer to the core,” said his son Robert C. Herguth, who followed in his father’s footsteps and has fashioned a successful career at the Sun-Times. “He lived his life with gentle humor and kindness, and that came across in his writing.”
Father also passed on to son important journalism lessons. “He told me, ‘if you make a mistake you apologize, you correct it and learn from it and hopefully don’t repeat it,” said Robert.
While at the Daily News, Herguth met his wife, Margaret. They were married from 1966 until her death in 2014. The Herguths moved to Wilmette in 1968, where they raised their family and for four decades could often be seen riding their bicycles around town.
“He was a really gentle, kind-hearted man, and he was always encouraging to all of us,” said Jeni Sellers of her father.
Margaret died in 2014. Herguth is survived by three children, Amy (Sean), Robert (Sue) and Jeni (Brad), and grandchildren Mila, Annika, Eli, Matthew, Aidan, Luke, Lauren, Ava, Otto, nieces Jan and Jill, honorary daughter Coralie. He was preceded in death by his sister Joan.