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Paul McGrath, journalist and former chief of staff to Mayor Jane Byrne, dies at 75

Paul McGrath

Paul McGrath

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Updated: August 23, 2012 10:49AM

Journalist Paul McGrath had a hand in one of the most stunning political upsets in Chicago history.

An early supporter of candidate Jane Byrne, Mr. McGrath helped introduce her to consultant Don Rose, who would became the equivalent of a political Merlin in crafting Byrne’s strategy.

When a blizzard left the city paralyzed — and Chicagoans infuriated — Byrne rolled over Mayor Michael Bilandic like a snowplow. She won the 1979 Democratic primary despite decades of domination by The Machine, and went on to become the city’s first and only female mayor.

Eventually, many of the same old political hacks and shady characters found their way back in roles of influence at City Hall.

But for a time, fresh air was the order of the day, and Mr. McGrath was one of the lead fumigators.

Mr. McGrath, who had been Mayor Byrne’s chief of staff and deputy mayor, died of an aortic aneurysm Wednesday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He was 75.

Byrne remembered him as “a fine individual. . . . He was both honest and smart.”

“I thought he was a straight shooter,” she said.

In Chicago parlance, a “goo-goo” is a good government type. Legendary columnist Mike Royko once called Mr. McGrath “Mr. Magoo-goo,” Rose said.

Mr. McGrath was still in his teens when he began working as a photographer. He became an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Tribune. He had a gift for being able to examine documents and contracts — and make connections about money and political influence that some might call “the Chicago Way.” He also covered labor; worked as an editorial writer; and wrote on politics for Chicago magazine, said his ex-wife, Bonnie McGrath.

“Paul was a pillar of the newsroom, productive and colorful, and was a great fit in Mayor Byrne’s staff,” said Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert.

He went on to teach writing and reporting at Northwestern University and Columbia College. In his later years, he returned to earning a living with his first love, photography.

Mr. McGrath grew up in Humboldt Park and attended Tuley High School.

After his mother bought him a camera, he started photographing weddings. “He made more money than my father did, as a teenager,” said his sister, Eileen Jankovsky.

He started as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago before moving on to the daily papers, where his intuition and curiosity earned him “scoops.’’ Though humble, “Paul was really good,” said Chicago Reader columnist Mike Miner.

A career high point was his probe of the for-profit manipulation of taxicab medallions. Byrne was then in charge of regulating the industry at City Hall, and she took notice of McGrath.

In the Byrne administration, he pushed successfully for a policy change that stopped police raids on gay bars. “That was all Paul’s doing,” Rose said.

After teaching journalism, in 1990 he returned to photography. He worked for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and did portraiture for law firms and shot weddings. He even photographed some of the Occupy Chicago and NATO protests, McGrath said.

“What I remember most is his wry humor, belying his tough grading standards,” said Sun-Times writer Maudlyne Ihejirika, a former student of Paul McGrath’s at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. “He was quiet and soft-spoken but firm about his expectations of us as budding journalists.”

“He had such a passion for and a deep institutional knowledge of politics and he passed some of that knowledge on to me with no-nonsense candor, wit and just the right amount of cynicism,” said Janan Hanna, a Northwestern instructor and a former staff writer at the Tribune.

Mr. McGrath was married three times before marrying Bonnie McGrath. His daughter, Kelly, is director of marketing and communications at the Newberry Library.

“He was the most wonderful grandfather” to her daughter, Margaret McCullough, Kelly McGrath said. “When she was very young, they started bonding over politics and social action, marching in anti-war demonstrations together.”

Another daughter, Molly, 29, is autistic. Mr. McGrath indulged her love of whimsy by taking her to the American Girl store to buy dolls, or to plays like “Pinkalicious.” He also crafted special casseroles that Molly requested made with with hot dogs, hamburgers and potatoes.

Services are being planned.

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