Renowned Chicago investigative reporter Bill Recktenwald dies at 79

  • Bill Recktenwald

    Bill Recktenwald

  • Bill Recktenwald in the 1970s as one of the proprietors of the Mirage tavern.

    Bill Recktenwald in the 1970s as one of the proprietors of the Mirage tavern.

 
 
Updated 8/21/2021 6:53 PM

William Ames Recktenwald, 79, of Karbers Ridge, Illinois, and formerly of Chicago, died peacefully on Friday at the Linda White Hospice House in Evansville, Indiana, after a brief illness.

"Reck," as so many knew him, had been the senior lecturer in journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale for more than two decades before his retirement in 2021.

 

Before that, from 1978 to 1999, he enjoyed a storied career as an investigative reporter and deputy bureau chief at the Chicago Tribune, winning acclaim for work that often saw him going undercover in daring journalistic stings that exposed graft, corruption and malfeasance in the city. He was a lead player in the legendary BGA/Sun-Times "Mirage" team that exposed the shakedowns facing businesses in Chicago, and went undercover as a guard in the Pontiac Correctional Center to uncover the prison conditions that led to the 1978 riot.

As a newspaper reporter, he also worked to shine a light on gang violence across Chicago, particularly where the victims were children. He worked on multiple stories that were finalists for Pulitzer Prizes, and he was part of two Pulitzer-winning teams. He was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 and has been the recipient of many other professional honors.

He was born Oct. 12, 1941, in Detroit, Mich., the son of William Arthur and Mildred Rose (Gately) Recktenwald. Bill's family, which included two sisters, moved when he was young to La Grange Park in the near west suburbs of Chicago, where Bill attended St. Francis Xavier Catholic School and all his teachers were nuns. Some later wrote him at the Tribune to marvel at how his spelling had improved. "Obviously," Bill commented, "they never heard of the copy desk."

Bill attended Lyons Township High School in La Grange, graduating in 1959. By his own admission, he was a disinterested student and struggled with reading. He found the most engagement with the Civil Air Patrol, a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, which he joined at 14 and rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel at age 26. It was during this time Reck first earned his reputation as a tough but kind mentor -- a role he continued to play in his multiple careers to come.

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He attended Lyons Township Junior College and eventually earned an associate degree, but he still had little interest in school. He had a string of jobs that included selling shoes, working a liquor store cash register, selling groceries and driving nails into prefabricated boxes. He also served in the U.S. Army, earning an honorable discharge as a Private E-2 in 1964. He subsequently served six years with the National Guard, acting as a military policeman during events that included the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Early on, Bill displayed a skill for investigation. In 1962, he went to work as an investigator for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office where he proved useful as a young undercover agent, posing in taverns to gain information that led to warrants and arrests related to illegal gambling. In 1967, be began a long tenure with the Better Government Association, providing investigative support to journalists at Chicago's competing daily newspapers, as well as the city's radio and TV stations. Reck stayed with the BGA for nearly a dozen years, investigating allegations of voter fraud in Chicago, the city's shady building inspectors and many other stories. He continued to go undercover, including once as an ambulance attendant. He eventually became the BGA's chief investigator.

In 1975, Bill took a leave of absence from the BGA to go to Washington, D.C., to become the chief investigator for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. This effort included an examination of nursing home abuse across the nation. Bill's work included the establishment of a phony clinic in Chicago that showed medical lab representatives were offering bribes and kickbacks. This effort attracted the attention of many, including "60 Minutes."

In 1976, back at the BGA, Reck partnered with Chicago Sun-Times reporters Pam Zekman, Zay Smith and others for one of the most sensational journalistic stings in the city's history. Reck and Zekman posed as husband and wife to buy a rundown tavern on Chicago's North Side they named "The Mirage." The Mirage operated for about four months, with Reck often slinging cold brews as bartender. Using hidden cameras and microphones, the team captured abundant evidence of bribes, shakedowns and kickbacks proposed by public officials and building inspectors, revealing a network of payoffs and schemes baked into the city's bureaucracy. Detailed in a series of more than two dozen stories in the Sun-Times in 1978, as well as nationally on "60 Minutes," the Mirage affair resulted in a federal investigation of city hall and numerous reforms aimed at cracking down on graft.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The work attracted widespread attention and was considered by many a front-runner for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. It did not win, however, after other national newspaper editors suggested, to some controversy, that the journalists' efforts amounted to entrapment.

In the wake of the Mirage success, and looking for a new direction, Reck reached out to Bill Jones, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. In March 1978, Reck began a new career at the Tribune, now as an actual reporter -- a fact that astounded him, given that had little advanced education, was dyslexic, and typed with only one finger despite the clear presence of nine others.

Yet, Bill challenged himself and worked to develop his writing skills, and he also took on increasingly bold undercover work. Following a 1978 prison riot at the Pontiac Correctional Center, Reck went undercover there as a guard, to suss out the conditions that led to the riot. Bill got the job, much to his surprise and growing apprehension, and began work on his first night as a corrections officer in the prison's violent segregation unit.

The danger was clear, and Reck admittedly grew more concerned -- so much so that he even began sending his notes each night to Jones and the Tribune's city editor, Bernie Judge, just in case something were to happen to him. After about two weeks, the editors pulled Reck out when it looked like his cover might be blown. They had gotten enough. Reck had captured an unparalleled view of the poor conditions and simmering violence contained within the prison walls -- as well as prison administrators' attempts to deceive the public about some of it. He snapped photos with stealth and dictated his notes into a recorder, sometimes while on duty and concealed only by shadow.

Safely back at the Tribune office, Reck and rewrite man Mark Starr took just a week to rework his notes into a series of stories that led to the replacement of the Pontiac warden and the director of the Department of Corrections, among other changes. The story also increased Reck's standing at the Tribune.

"It helped me because it showed that I could do investigative journalism not only as an investigator but also in putting the words into a story," he said. "It was a good year for me." Another story he worked on that year was an examination of aging in America that was a runner-up for a Pulitzer.

Bill, sincere in his desire to grow as a writer and toughen as a reporter, arranged to work deep in the newsroom's trenches, covering breaking news and crime stories on the weekend desk. He loved the challenge of daily news and proudly worked in the Tribune newsroom every Sunday for the rest of his career there. As time progressed, Reck also was asked to work as a mentor to new employees, especially younger workers and interns who were starting their careers also working weekends.

He took increasing joy in his work at the Trib and used his background to build easy relationships with police officers and investigators, eventually turning his attention toward the problems of street gangs, youth crimes and homicides in Chicago. New observations led to new stories, and the resulting work on gang violence in the city put Bill's work among the finalists for yet another Pulitzer. Bill dug in deeper on the issue, compiling crime statistics to highlight trends and hot spots across the city. Using crime numbers and an office calculator, Bill deciphered revealing facts, including that Chicago was seeing an armed robbery occur, on average, every 20 minutes. He also was refining the skills needed to transform these observations into easily understood newspaper stories that showed the faces and stories behind the numbers.

During this time, Bill also took the opportunity to indulge in more interests and hobbies. In 1983, he bought his first sailboat. The following year he bought another and began sailboat racing on Lake Michigan, completing the 1987 Chicago to Mackinac Island race in 40 hours. He convinced the Tribune sports editors to allow him to cover the race, which he did for years, and this led to even more random assignments from the sports desk. By the early 1990s, Reck proudly had written for every section of the Chicago Tribune except the food section, and he began work as the newsroom's "scheduler," directing the daily comings and goings of the metro staff's 150 or so employees.

Once again, he found compelling narratives in the persistent violence on Chicago's streets. In 1993, Reck was integral in the newspaper's effort to report on each of the city's child homicide victims for a year, always with front page stories. Not only would the homicide be reported, he said, but so would the child's background and circumstances.

Even as he worked to increase understanding of these issues impacting Chicago, however, Bill took a growing interest in the great expanse of Illinois lying beyond the city. He began to report on places and attractions in central and southern Illinois, culminating in the 1999 series "The Other Illinois," which divided the state into five parts and explored each in detail. Taking all of the photographs to accompany Bill's work was Tribune photographer Phil Greer, a longtime colleague of Bill's and a native of southern Illinois.

Reck retired from the Tribune in 1999. More than a hundred colleagues turned out for a party in his honor at the Billy Goat Tavern. Bill was on to a new, and presumably quieter, chapter in his life in southern Illinois, where he bought an idyllic spread of land set among the trees and hills of the Shawnee National Forest.

But other opportunities came knocking. That same year, Reck got a call from Mike Lawrence, whose own career in newspapers and state government had brought him to the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Lawrence told Reck the School of Journalism could offer him a yearlong teaching assignment. Was he interested? After a little hesitation, Bill joined the faculty of the SIU School of Journalism in 1999 as "Journalist in Residence."

Bill found he now enjoyed the classroom. "The first students that I met I liked and I guess they liked me," he said. "By the second semester my classes were filling and getting wait-listed very quickly. A number of students told me that they had actually learned things from me. And I enjoyed teaching."

At the end of his year, Bill signed on for another. He continued doing this, over and over, for the next 20 years. His longtime colleague from the Tribune, Phil Greer, joined him on the faculty. Bill took on a larger course load -- upper-level classes in news writing, investigative reporting and public policy reporting, among others -- and was correctly regarded as the most professionally experienced member of the journalism faculty.

The reputation he earned among his students was not unlike the one earned as a lieutenant colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, or as mentor to interns at the Trib: tough and exacting, but also kind and gifted with an odd sense of humor. In addition, he became a guiding force and mentor to many in the newsroom of the Daily Egyptian, the award-winning student newspaper at SIU.

Bill advanced to become the senior faculty member of the SIU School of Journalism, as well as eventually its deputy director. He was a Fulbright senior specialist in Uganda and served as the president of the SIU Faculty Senate in 2011 and 2012. He also helped coordinate special publications for the School of Journalism, including student-produced books on the Shawnee National Forest, the 2012 "Leap Day" tornado in Harrisburg, and the 100th anniversary of the Daily Egyptian newspaper. He advised the SIU chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists and went to particularly great lengths to champion the careers of young and able journalists of color.

In 2008, a young journalism student, Ryan Rendleman, was killed in a car accident while on his way to an assignment for the Daily Egyptian. Bill later called the day of Rendleman's death "the worst day in his life." Afterward, Bill worked with great purpose to secure for Rendleman national recognition among the ranks of journalists killed while gathering the news.

In early 2021, Bill retired from the university and back to his land in Hardin County near the Garden of the Gods. In previous years, his travels abroad with friends and colleagues had taken him to Uganda, China, Nicaragua, Iceland and many, many other favorite destinations. In 2004, while traveling, he had witnessed the historic tsunami that pummeled Sri Lanka. He hoped to travel more during this, his actual retirement, and discussed plans to do just that with some of his many friends and past traveling companions.

Unfortunately, he experienced an abrupt decline in his health beginning in July. After nearly 80 years of life, he encountered a few short weeks of illness, and he died peacefully and without pain as his many friends around the country sent him their prayers and best wishes.

Bill lived a life filled with large accomplishments and occasionally striking contradictions. A poor speller and reader from youth, he challenged himself and became a revered reporter at one of America's great metropolitan newspapers. Once a lackluster student with little interest in schooling, he became a respected university lecturer who guided the ambitions and goals of countless young journalists. Without even a bachelor's degree to his name, he was selected by the faculty of a large research university to represent their interests.

Bill never had a close family or children of his own and lived in seeming isolation. Yet, he was a happy man who knew he was living a full and interesting life. He could be tough, and even downright stubborn, but he was also warm, concerned and kind without limit to his friends. He maintained close relationships spanning states, nations and continents, building a close network of people about whom he cared deeply. His friends were always welcome, whether for a party on his sailboat, or later at his guesthouse under the trees of the Shawnee. He was a true friend and guide in this life, and he is already missed by so many.

Throughout his life, Bill remained devoted to his Catholic faith. He was a beloved member of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Elizabethtown. Preceding Bill in death were his parents, William Arthur and Mildred Rose (Gately) Recktenwald, and his two sisters. Surviving him are several nieces and nephews, as well as his close friends, neighbors and colleagues.

A Funeral Mass for Bill will begin at 11 a.m. Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, at St. Joseph Catholic Church near Elizabethtown. Father Vincent Mukasa will officiate the service with burial at St. Joseph Cemetery.

An additional celebration of Bill's life is being planned for a later date. Memorials in Bill's memory may be made to St. Joseph Catholic Church. Vickery Funeral Chapel in Equality is in charge of arrangements.

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