I can't spend a day in the newsroom without thinking about my good friend and legendary columnist Jack Mabley. We sat next to each other for 16 years at the Daily Herald. Jack had the cubicle wall between our desks lowered so we could chat without straining our necks. I still display his nameplate on one of my cubicle walls, along with one of his handwritten notes (scribbled while I was on the phone) explaining how he had won all his tennis serves on Saturday -- the closest the modest Jack ever came to bragging.
There was plenty to brag about with Jack, who died in 2006 at age 90, a few weeks after breaking his hip -- a setback the upbeat Jack referred to as a "speed bump on the road to 100." Friday would have been his 97th birthday.
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In a golden age for newspapers, Jack was the biggest name in the business for decades. You don't have to take my word for it. The Newberry, Chicago's acclaimed independent research library, includes Jack and his papers in its special 125th anniversary exhibition featuring 125 of its most interesting, unique and intriguing items.
Jack would have been honored (and maybe slightly embarrassed) to have made the cut in a library that boasts an amazing collection of literally millions of items spanning hundreds of years. Jack's papers, many of them from his work covering the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, share library space with an aria written and signed by a 9-year-old Amadeus Mozart, the first Bible published in North America (written in native Algonquian and not the English of immigrants), a Shakespeare First Folio, some rare correspondence between a slave man and his freed wife, a funny postcard from Jack Kerouac, letters from Thomas Jefferson and Ernest Hemingway, a 1789 police ordinance from French King Louis XVI days before the fall of the Bastille, and the toe shoes of famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.
"Oh, that's good," says Jack's widow, Fran Mabley, 92, whom Jack always credited as a vital part of his success.
In a special book to commemorate the Newberry's 125th anniversary, the tribute to Jack -- described as "a lifelong newspaperman and an impassioned crusader who was not afraid to take a stand" -- takes up page 97. Ernest Hemingway and his letters are on page 96.
"This material from Mabley was compelling," explains Martha Briggs, the Lloyd Lewis Curator of Modern Manuscripts at the Newberry, who pored through the notes of Jack and his assistant, Dwayne Oklepek. Jack had Oklepek infiltrate the Students for a Democratic Society and report back.
"I looked around, noticing a series of small tables and a row of stools which stand about three quarters of a leg off the floor. I didn't see anyone that I had met. I bought another pack of cigarettes and a cup of the blackest coffee I'd ever seen," begins one of Oklepek's dispatches.
What stands out about Mabley is "the way he got information from these groups, and how he wrote about them fair-mindedly," notes Briggs. "That and the photo -- Jack Mabley on a bicycle."
Unable to cover the political news and the riots in the street on foot, Jack sped around the city on a bicycle. His "press" flag was no guarantee of safety, and neither was his "Red Cross" flag, Jack liked to say, explaining how he barely avoided getting injured in clashes between protesters and police.
"Reading the columns today, one finds that Mabley covered both sides in a fair-minded and balanced manner," reads the Newberry's account of Jack's work. "At the time, another leading protester, Jerry Rubin, as well as members of the Chicago Police Department, agreed."
Jack may be the only columnist to ever get fan mail from both those groups. Rubin signed his letter, "Love, Jerry." The collection also includes fan mail from Mayor Richard J. Daley and Mike Royko.
"I always thought you were about six-feet-three," wrote Royko, who upgraded his opinion in response to one of Jack's columns. "You are not an inch under eight feet." Royko signed the letter, "with lasting admiration."
The 125th exhibition galleries are free and open from 8:15 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and from 8:15 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays. Free public tours of the Newberry are offered Thursdays at 3 p.m. and Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. Please call (312) 255-3595 or visit newberry.org for more information.