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Dillon Smith, Chicago TV newsman known for his editorials, dead at 71

DillSmith longtime TV newsman Chicago WMAQ-TV WGN-TV has died age 71.

Dillon Smith, a longtime TV newsman in Chicago at WMAQ-TV and WGN-TV, has died at age 71.

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Updated: March 28, 2013 6:21AM

The broadcast bug bit Dillon Smith early.

His grandmother stoked his interest in the news by telling him stories about surviving the Johnstown flood of 1889, when a dam collapse killed 2,209 people in his Pennsylvania hometown.

At 10, he helped broadcast Pittsburgh Pirates games on his local radio station, using wire-service copy to re-create the games for listeners. As a youngster, he lugged around the weighty tape recorders of the day, collecting stories for radio. He snared an interview with Jackie Robinson, the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers star who broke the color line in baseball.

Mr. Smith went on to become an influential broadcaster at Chicago’s WGN-TV and at WMAQ-TV. During a 15-year career at WMAQ, he was a five-time Emmy-winning producer, program director and editorial director.

Mr. Smith, 71, died Friday at the Naples, Fla., home where he lived with his third wife, Patti. At the time, he was doing one of his favorite things: watching golf on TV. His home — which bordered the Quail Creek Country Club, where he often golfed — featured an embroidered chair pillow that said: “If There Isn’t Golf in Heaven, I’m Not Going.”

After growing up in Johnstown, he headed to Evanston to attend Northwestern University, where he received his bachelor’s degree, a master’s in journalism and a law degree.

While at Northwestern, he visited WMAQ, impressing Robert E. Mulholland, who would go on to be president and chief operating officer of NBC.

“He was inquisitive, just nuts about broadcasting, wanted to know everything about broadcasting and how it all worked,” Mulholland said.

Mr. Smith began his career at WGN in the late 1960s, said his daughter, Lisa Fulton.

He moved to WMAQ-5, where he helped develop “On Stage on 5,” a series of theatrical productions, and “You’’ magazine, according to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

He produced editorials on the Equal Rights Amendment, encouraging the Republican Party to avoid “weasel-worded” policies that gave the proposal only lip service.

“The party’s nominee-to-be, Ronald Reagan, is 100 percent in favor of equal rights for women,” Mr. Smith said in one broadcast editorial, “and 100 percent against ratification of the ERA. That puts him right up there, straddling the old ranch fence.”

His “Beef about It” editorials, which questioned butchers’ union regulations that prohibited meat sales after 6 p.m., helped make it possible for Chicagoans to buy meat at any time in groceries.

“He understood the role the news department played, and you had to support that mission — because, besides a profit component, there had to be a public-service component,” said Chicago Sun-Times columnist and NBC5 political editor Carol Marin.

Mr. Smith sometimes went out with a camera to busy places like Woodfield Mall to get interviews, asking people to weigh in on any issue that was on their minds.

After retiring from WMAQ in 1984, he started Dillon Smith Communications, a production company that worked with comedian Tom Dreesen and Chicago Bear Tim Wrightman.

In 1996, he retired and moved to Florida, where he continually worked to perfect his golf game. He had a couple of holes-in-one in the past year, and he was proud of golfing his age when he was 69.

One of his favorite trips was to the golf mecca of St Andrews in Scotland. “For him, it was like going to a cathedral, or going to the Louvre,” said his son, Kevin Smith.

He was a fan of golfer Luke Donald, another Northwestern alum, and fellow Pennsylvanian Arnold Palmer.

Throughout his life, he was an early adapter when it came to technology. One of the first to get a Kindle, he used to seal it in a quart-size plastic bag so he could read in the hot tub, his son said.

He remained an active NU alum, according to Mulholland, who said, “Right up until his death, he was interviewing prospective candidates in Florida for the [Northwestern] Law School.”

Mr. Smith is also survived by two daughters, Colleen Lenderman and Kerry Smith; the children’s mother, Lori Smith, who was his first wife; and 10 grandchildren. Visitation is from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Friedrichs Funeral Home in Mount Prospect, with a funeral at 10 a.m. Thursday at Old St. Patrick’s Church, 700 W. Adams.


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