‘I’m on my way’
Edmund J. Rooney, Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism in 1957, was a Neiman Fellow in 1959 and earned a PhD in 1992 at the age of 67 while teaching journalism at Loyola University. The Chicago Tribune even called him “Dr. Rooney” in his obit.
Ed Rooney did all those things and did them well. But his greatest work was as the ace “outside man” for the Chicago Daily News, where he worked from 1952 until the paper closed in 1978.
Ed seldom came to the office, because his real value was on the street, where he had phenomenally deep and wide connections among cops, firefighters, crooks, politicians, businessmen, flacks, the Catholic hierarchy and anyone else who mattered in the complex ecosystem that produced the city's news.
He’d dash off to a 5-11 fire, cover a mob hearing or pump Mayor Richard J. Daley for a quote. After lunch, he’d enthusiastically do it all over again.
When Ed did stop by the newsroom in his customary baggy brown suit, he was a mess, with his glasses sliding down his nose, his hair scrambled and bits of blood-soaked toilet paper dotting his face.
The son and grandson of Chicago cops who lived his entire life in the working-class St. Columbanus Parish on the South Side, Ed patrolled the town in a car equipped with a police scanner, a two-way radio, police riot gear, a fireman’s coat, a gas mask and a suitcase in the event of an emergency overnight assignment.
“I’m on my way,” he’d say, regardless of the difficulty of the assignment, the hour of the day or the need to forgo Thanksgiving dinner with his wife and six kids.
His overnight trips included the civil rights marches in Alabama in 1965 and Chappaquiddick Island in 1969, where a car driven by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy plunged off a bridge, resulting in the death of his woman passenger.
While Ed was in Alabama in 1965, Barry Felcher answered a call at the city desk from a long-distance operator asking if he would accept a collect call from “Ed Rooney”. “I replied yes,” recalls Barry. “Then, a male voice thanked me for taking the call. But it wasn't Ed's voice. It was the voice of Martin Luther King.... Ed had asked King to leave the march for a few minutes and stop at a roadside phone booth to call the Daily News.”
Ed's true specialty were the stories closer to home, like the investigation of the state auditor for which he shared the Pulitzer, the methodical mass murder of eight student nurses by Richard Speck in 1966 and the riots during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
An exclusive bedside interview with the dying Cardinal Albert Meyer in 1965 is a classic example of Ed’s technique. Although a nun was stationed at the hospital “to keep the reporters at bay,” recalled long-time rewrite partner, Phillip J. O’Connor, Ed knew his way around the building because his wife worked there as a nurse. “So he climbs up a back stairwell, goes into the cardinal's room, kisses his ring . . . and got a bunch of quotes, probably the last person, certainly the last reporter, to speak to him.”
In addition to nailing several careers worth of scoops, Ed’s unabashed resourcefulness earned him a reputation as the city’s premiere “door kicker,” an honorable sobriquet bestowed by colleagues with reverence and affection.
Although he aggressively and relentlessly pursued the news, Ed didn’t actually kick down doors to get his stories. He did it with intelligence, skill, diligence, charm and plenty of old-fashioned hard work.
He was way more than a door kicker. He was a kick.