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WGN traffic helicopter reporter

John Camden obit photo.

John Camden obit photo.

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Updated: October 9, 2012 2:31PM

Long before commuters had instant access to travel times on smartphones or GPS devices, John C. Camden hovered above Chicago in a WGN chopper reporting traffic jams on the radio.

Mornings and afternoons, he surveyed the roads below, his son Marc Camden said, surviving at least two flameouts where the helicopter had to make an emergency landing,

“This is Flying Officer John Camden, of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police, now over to Jim in traffic copter number two,” is how his only son remembered his signoff from his years in the air.

“That’s one of those things ingrained in your head,” Marc Camden remembered.

Mr. Camden, who also worked for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, died Wednesday of a heart attack in the Chicago Ridge home he shared with his second wife, said Pat Camden, his younger brother and spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police. He was 71.

“He basically directed my course of life,” Pat Camden said. “John was my idol.”

Mr. Camden was the second of four children raised in the shadow of Midway Airport, in Chicago’s Garfield Ridge community. Their father, Oscar, was a salesman, their mother, Patrinella, stayed home with the children. The family had no car.

Mr. Camden was a trickster and quick with a joke, his family said.

“We would be tasked with watching our baby sister, well, he would,” his brother said. “The minute mom was out the door, it was my job.”

Mr. Camden and his siblings attended the old Catholic school at St. Camillus Parish, 5426 S. Lockwood. The parish ­— with a 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning mass catering to airport workers — later provided cover for the brothers who liked to stay out later than they were allowed.

They’d tell their mother they’d been to mass, even handing her a bulletin, Pat Camden said.

Mr. Camden attended St. Ignatius College Prep High School and three terms of its summer school until the priests suggested to his father he might be better off sending his money and his son elsewhere.

The teenager tried Kelly High School, but that didn’t work either. He quit to join the Air Force at age 18.

“John was a very bright person when he wanted to be,” his brother said. “He was just obstinate.”

The Air Force trained Mr. Camden to be a communications airman, made him a Morse Code interceptor and sent him to North Africa, his brother said. It also gave him a high school diploma.

Returning home in the early 1960s, he joined the Cook County Sheriff’s Department and bought a house in Oak Lawn with his first wife. They had a son. He moonlighted as security at the legendary Sabre Room nightclub when Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Liza Minnelli played there.

By the mid-1970s, he’d made homicide detective with the sheriff’s police when he took a job with WGN radio as a traffic reporter.

The split shifts out of Midway Airport meant he could spend breaks with his parents, his brother said.

“The hours were bad, but I think he liked the idea of being able to help people in a bigger way,” Pat Camden said, “people listening to the reports and being able to determine what course of traffic they were going to take.”

Mr. Camden’s radio voice, ­medium deep, a little raspy, was his speaking voice, his son said.

“They sounded the same to me,” Marc Camden said. “He was always really clear when he would speak, no matter what.”

The radio gig also put Mr. Camden, sometimes with his first wife, on TV as a local host during the marathon Jerry Lewis telethons, his son said.

While raising their son in Orland Park, the Camdens divorced. Mr. Camden would remarry in 1989.

Meanwhile, Mr. Camden returned to the sheriff’s department to work in the witness protection wing of the jail, where on holidays, his son said, he liked to indulge in his other love: cooking.

A memorial mass will be celebrated at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday at Our Lady of the Ridge Catholic Church, 10800 S. Ridgeland Ave., Chicago Ridge.

In addition to his son and his brother, Mr. Camden also is survived by his wife, Judy; his sister, Constance Williams; three grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews.

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