Tom Grieger was in bed when the call came, early on July 31, 1985.
“Arlington Park is on fire,” said Ernie Schweit, who was an assistant city editor at the Daily Herald.
“What time is it?” muttered the newspaper's director of photography. When Schweit told him it was about 6:30 a.m., Grieger responded, “The damn thing better be burning to the ground.”
Tragically, it was. And under Grieger's direction, the pictures that Daily Herald photographers got of that blaze remain some of the most iconic in the history of the Northwest suburbs.
Grieger, by turns a dedicated newsman and warmhearted mentor, started with Paddock Publications in 1963, and was director of photography from 1975 until his retirement in 1995. The Arlington Heights resident died Saturday at the age of 83.
John Lampinen, senior vice president and editor of the Daily Herald, said the photography department was molded in Grieger's image.
“Tom was the architect of the Daily Herald photo department,” Lampinen said. “He recruited and mentored an award-winning staff. He set high standards for ethics and photojournalistic excellence. And he led with resolute dedication and good humor.”
The staff Grieger built grew to be recognized as one of the best in the state.
But he never forgot that people bought his newspaper to see stories and photos of their families and neighbors.
“He liked the fact that I did a good job on the local news assignments,” said Bill Zars, Daily Herald photographer. “He knew those are the Herald's bread and butter. It was good to work for a person who respected community journalism. And this was when he had a stable of photographers who jockeyed for the big assignments and wanted to cover national news.”
Bob Frisk, the Daily Herald's longtime preps expert and former assistant managing editor for sports, said Grieger also understood that covering high school sports was good business.
“He was always good to us in the high school preps area, helping us make it the best coverage anywhere,” Frisk said. “If he had to he would bounce assignments around to get the local high school game covered.”
Kent Kriegshauser, a former Daily Herald photographer, recalled the day in 1987 when he was at Chicago City Hall to cover the political aftermath of the death of Mayor Harold Washington.
“In the middle of the chaos, a man came downstairs to address the crowd,” Kriegshauser wrote Monday in his blog, ramblingmadman.blogspot.com. “He was roundly booed. I made pictures, and asked a woman who was near, 'Who is that?' 'That's (Eugene) Sawyer,' she told me, without hesitation.”
Kriegshauser got back to the office, excited about scooping the competition with his shot of future Mayor Eugene Sawyer — until the next day when he saw other newspapers and realized the man he had put on the front page of the Daily Herald was not Eugene Sawyer.
“That afternoon, Tom was there to greet me, wiggling his pointer finger at me. 'Come here, honkie,' he said. He was calm and polite. He even told me the copy desk should have caught my mistake. But we had a good discussion on double-checking facts and identification, And not taking a stranger's word on something. Ultimately, I caused a major embarrassment to the paper. I was forgiven, and life went on.”
Retired Daily Herald manager Bob Finch recalled that in 1977, at the scene of another iconic fire in the Northwest suburbs, Grieger talked the fire department into letting him go up with the lift to get a better shot of the blaze that destroyed Goldblatt's in Mount Prospect.
Sharon Grieger, Tom's wife, said she worried about her husband at such times, and again when he covered the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. But risk had its rewards — at a later political convention, Grieger sat on a bench, and the man on the other end reached over and offered his hand. “I'm Jimmy Stewart,” said one of Sharon Grieger's favorite actors.
Grieger took Finch and other photographers to discussions with famous journalists like Art Shay, renowned photographer for Life, Time and Sports Illustrated, and Angus McDougall, Milwaukee Journal photographer and University of Missouri professor who lived in Arlington Heights for a time.
That group inspired Grieger and other shooters to teach photography to young people at the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago's South Side, but the program never attracted many youngsters with a passion for making pictures, said Finch.
Doug Ray, chairman, publisher, CEO and president of Paddock Publications, said Grieger was first and foremost a professional.
”As a young journalist, Tom showed me the way a true professional applied his craft, and he loved the business and the photojournalism that has been a hallmark of the Daily Herald,” Ray said.
“As managing editor and later as editor, I worked with Tom every day, planning the news budget and the photography and graphics that accompanied the stories and in some cases told them better than words could do,” he added.
When longtime photographer Bob Chwedyk was first hired he asked Grieger if he had to wear a tie every day.
“I hired you wearing a tie, and you will work here wearing a tie!” was the response.
Grieger's mantra, Chwedyk said, was simple and direct: “Do the best you can ... but don't screw up!”
Sharon Grieger wants her husband remembered for his kindness and generosity. The couple helped care for one of their four grandchildren, and Grieger spent time taking the youngster to basketball games and practices, not a tough assignment for a graduate of Indiana University who remained a big fan.
Besides Sharon, Tom Grieger is survived by two sons, John, of Round Lake, and Mark, of Arlington Heights. Visitation is from 4-9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, at Glueckert Funeral Home, 1520 N. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights. A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, at St. Simon's Episcopal Church, 717 Kirchoff Road, Arlington Heights. Memorials may be given to St. Simon's or the Salvation Army.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.