Naked truth of how Jack Mabley started Jacobson's career
The dean of Chicago TV journalists, 75-year-old Walter Jacobson leans back in his chair and props his feet, in well-worn New Balance shoes, on his cubicle desk in the middle of a busy CBS newsroom. In his dress shirt, tie and trademark suspenders, Jacobson's a lot better dressed than when he got his start in the journalism business.
"I earned my first newspaper byline after visiting a nudist colony whose naked female proprietor told me that if I wanted the story, I would have to take off my clothes," reads the first line of Jacobson's new memoir, "Walter's Perspective: A Memoir of Fifty Years in Chicago TV News," published by Southern Illinois University Press.
The man who sent Jacobson on that assignment for the now-defunct Daily News was legendary newspaper columnist Jack Mabley, who spent the last 16 years of his esteemed career at the Daily Herald before his death in 2006 at age 90. Mabley and Jacobson first crossed paths in 1952, when Mabley was sitting in Wrigley Field to write his "Voice from the Grandstand" column, and the teenage Jacobson was the new batboy for the Chicago Cubs.
The previous season, Jacobson had written Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley asking to be a batboy, and the team said no. Even as a teen, Jacobson didn't take no for an answer. He wrote Wrigley again the following year and got the job. Jacobson did the same with Mabley, begging to be his intern. For five straight years, Mabley rejected Jacobson, kindly advising him to "focus on high school and getting into college," Jacobson remembers.
"I did what he said," remembers Jacobson, who graduated from New Trier High School on the North Shore, attended Grinnell College in Iowa and spent a semester at the night-school division of Columbia University in New York City, where he later would get his master's degree.
In the spring of 1958, Mabley sent a handwritten note: "Walter. You ready? I need an assistant, and can put you to work. Still interested?" Forty-eight hours later, the young reporter was working in a real newsroom, "which led me to that nudist colony I mentioned, and then to 50 years in Chicago news looking for trouble," Jacobson says.
A co-anchor of the weekday CBS 2 News at 6 p.m. with Bill Kurtis, Jacobson still stirs up trouble with his award-winning "Walter's Perspective" commentaries during the 10 p.m. news on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He says thanks when Kate Sullivan, the co-anchor at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., swings by to tell Jacobson how much she liked his raw and gritty interview with gangbangers in Englewood. A week later, Jacobson tells viewers that piece "touched a nerve" with a community leader who said Jacobson didn't show the other side.
"So," Jacobson says as he introduces a segment on that man's anti-gang program, "I asked him to please show me."
Being nosy and doing whatever it takes to get more information has been in Jacobson's blood since before he was Mabley's legman.
As the Wrigley Field batboy assigned to the visitors' dugout, Jacobson once had a baseball bat slam into the wall near his head after an angry player caught Jacobson stealing signs. At the start of his journalism career, Jacobson worked for the City News Bureau, newspapers and wire services. He once lied, saying he was Christian instead of Jewish, to get a visa for his trips in the Middle East that he had hoped would secure him a job as a foreign correspondent.
While researching a story for United Press International about shoplifting, Jacobson boldly tried to see how easy it was and ended up getting fired for swiping a $30 pair of sunglasses from Marshall Field's. He ethically returned two $100 bills of "Cook County holiday cheer" given to reporters by an elected official. And, as the only reporter in the City Hall pressroom at lunch, he once drew the ire of Mike Royko by pocketing all the news releases he was supposed to share with competing reporters and dashing back to his newsroom to type out a front-page exclusive.
"Seeking information from public officials who are averse to yielding it, I've misrepresented myself," Jacobson writes. "Sometimes it's the only way for me to find out what I believe the public has a right to know."
He writes about his frequent feuds with TV brass, laments his "stunning" conviction for libeling the tobacco industry, discusses his drunken-driving conviction, notes that he's been married three times and admits that sometimes he can be an annoying pest.
"I did. I was. I am," Jacobson says, running through his own personal gauntlet before softly concluding, "I did jerky things."
He seems surprised to be popular enough with the people to keep his job for a half-century in an industry known for casting away the familiar in pursuit of the next big thing.
"I was an anchorman in an Irish town and I'm Jewish," says Jacobson. "Television people here become more part of the family. They think of us as family. I'm at their dinner table every single night."
In a city of big shoulders with Midwestern values, Jacobson is the scrawny, scrappy little brother to his co-anchorman Kurtis, who is four years younger but always possessed the good looks and reassuring sound of a classic anchorman.
"Now, here's the guy," Jacobson says as Kurtis, talking on a cellphone, parades past his desk, which is next to Jacobson's. Kurtis wrote the forward for Jacobson's book.
"Walter and I learned quickly that our futures depended on each other's success. We never had an argument," writes Kurtis, who will interview his partner Wednesday during a sold-out luncheon at the Union League Club of Chicago.
"We really do genuinely love each other and respect each other. We're like brothers. If I'm about ready to get crazy, he calms me down," Jacobson says, adding that if Kurtis seems a little complacent, "I do something to amp him up."
The duo dominated the evening newscast ratings during the 1970s and early '80s. Jacobson had a successful run as an anchorman with Fox affiliate WFLD-TV as well. He was reunited with Kurtis at CBS in 2010. The pair have announced that they will leave the anchor desk at the end of February. Jacobson says he'd still like to continue doing his "Perspective" pieces that have helped him earn more than 40 Emmy Awards, which he believes is more than all other Chicago TV anchors in history combined.
He's covered mayors, governors, presidents and a queen. He's interviewed everyone from serial killer John Wayne Gacy to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. He's hitchhiked from Springfield to get back to the station in time for his broadcast, and he once gave a ride to Muhammad Ali. In one of his most-memorable stories (so popular he did it for two stations), Jacobson went undercover as a homeless man on the streets for 48 hours.
"When I was out there, I really did feel it. I felt for those guys," Jacobson says. Those pieces won praise for bold reporting, and criticism from people who thought it was a cheap, publicity stunt. "A little of both," Jacobson concludes.
Married for the last 20 years to his third wife, Jacobson is a grandfather of three with four adult children. His son, Peter Jacobson, is an actor with dozens of credits, including his role as Dr. Chris Taub during the run of TV's "House."
As an anchorman, Walter Jacobson has always lived in the city and can often be seen riding the L.
"I've been lucky all my life in this business. It's been a great way to spend my life," he says.
But is the man who has made a career of being a pain in the neck to others content with his own life?
"I'm happy," Jacobson says, before his reporter's instinct kicks in and he questions that simple answer. "If I have to think about it, maybe I'm not. How much right do you have to be happy?"
One of his regrets is that he can't find a copy of his first story, that Daily News column about him going naked to get the scoop on a nudist colony for Mabley. But he remembers everything about Mabley.
"Wow, what a break it was meeting him. I idolized that man," says Jacobson, whose longevity is beginning to rival that of his idol. Mabley retired from the newspaper business at age 88. Jacobson suspects the reason for Mabley's success might be the secret to his own success.
"Maybe," Jacobson says, "it's because I'm right."