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Reporter was expert at turning facts into prose on deadline

Former Sun-Times reporter Bob Omstead with his grandaughter Evy Olmstead October 2010.

Former Sun-Times reporter Bob Omstead with his grandaughter Evy Olmstead in October, 2010.

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Updated: June 11, 2013 6:36AM

Before computers and cellphones, newspapers had banks of “rewrite men” dashing out clear, complete stories on typewriters from information called in by frantic reporters.

Bob Olmstead was one of those unflappable writers, weaving straw into gold on deadline.

He could investigate, report and write. He churned out reams of copy for the assembly line that is a newspaper. When stories could be kicky and creative, he added filigrees of style and fun.

His articles made readers laugh, and cry, and fume.

He was someone Chicago Sun-Times editors relied on when news was breaking and deadlines loomed.

In 1983, when a man angry over his divorce opened fire in a Cook County courtroom, killing a lawyer and a judge sitting on the bench, Mr. Olmstead’s work anchored the story about the shocking murders that prompted the installation of metal detectors at the Daley Center.

In 1976, then-Sun-Times reporter Pam Zekman investigated Chicago’s flourishing “baby-selling racket,” in which attorneys, adoption agencies and abortion clinics colluded to provide babies to desperate couples — for five times the cost of legitimate adoptions. Mr. Olmstead wrote the series in a way that was at once dramatic and straightforward, shocking readers and prompting government scrutiny, Zekman said.

“He was a pleasure to work with, always mindful of real issues at stake in a story and able to simplify complicated aspects,” Zekman said. “Most of all, he just had a wonderful touch, using a turn of phrase that made a story a great read.”

Mr. Olmstead, 86, died of pancreatic cancer Sunday at Sunrise Senior Living in Willowbrook. After being told he probably had six months to live, he hung around for three good years that were filled with family tenderness and togetherness, said his son, Rob Olmstead.

Mr. Olmstead and his wife, Virginia Marie, raised their children in a home in which doing the right thing mattered — like taking the kids to volunteer at soup kitchens. The couple met as members of the Young Christian Workers Movement in Chicago.

“Her plan was to become a nun, and my dad’s plan was to become a priest,” said their daughter, Carol Miecznikowski. “The first time he noticed my mom was when he saw her in a bathing suit, and it was all over from there.”

They married in 1958 and moved to Maywood to raise their children in an integrated community. On a reporter’s salary, they put four of their five children through St. Eulalia grade school.

Children of the Depression, they knew how to stretch a dollar. When Mr. Olmstead was a boy in Cleveland, the Army train used to chug past the park where he and other children played. One day, the train chef shouted out the window, saying, “Any of you kids got a mother?”

When young Bob said yes, the chef offered him a huge hambone. He returned a hero, knowing his mom would use it for bean soup. “He came running home with the biggest hambone, with all kinds of meat on it, and it was as if he had come home with a bouquet of roses, he was so proud,” his mother said in a family history.

He studied at the University of Notre Dame but returned home when his father became ill. He went to work for the old Cleveland News but later returned to Notre Dame to finish college.

During his 30-year career, Mr. Olmstead also worked at the National Catholic Reporter. He joined the Sun-Times in 1970 and made a splash when he investigated security at O’Hare Airport, finding flaws by passing through detectors with a metal hammerhead.

He had the laconic, sarcastic sense of humor that pervades newsrooms, and young journalists looked up to him. He was “everything you would want in a reporter — fast, accurate, integrity; someone you could rely on to do a story on deadline,” said former Sun-Times reporter Jim Ritter.

“He would take a tangle of quotes and facts from other reporters, do some of his own reporting sometimes and within minutes churn out a clear story,” said former Sun-Times managing editor Mary Dedinsky.

“Bob was one of those reporters and rewrite wizards whose work hid how hard the job can be,” said Nancy Moffett, a former Sun-Times city desk editor. “The editors knew he’d turn in a polished piece, and that made him invaluable on everything from breaking news to weather features.”

At times, he struggled with depression, his children said, but he coped with a contrarian streak that attracted him to disparate hobbies, including setting up an elaborate stereo system; crafting homemade soap and candles, and riding motorcycles.

“He kept getting progressively bigger motorcycles,” his son said. On one, “He thought the horn was so wimpy, he replaced it with a truck horn or something, so instead of a ‘meep-meep,’ it went ‘BWAAAH.’ ”

As a young man, he had hunted. So he decided to turn his basement into a gun range. He outfitted his kids with ear protection and taught them gun safety. Still, looking back, they’re astonished he was so free.

“He would let us practice with a .22-caliber rifle in the basement,” using newspapers to catch the small slugs, Rob Olmstead said. “We had targets; swinging lightbulbs, which we’d shoot. Today, it’s called ‘unlawful use of a weapon.’ As a matter of fact, even then, I think it was called unlawful use of a weapon.”

Camping trips were an economical way for the Olmsteads to go on vacation. All five kids slept in a big tent, playing with their flashlights after dark, horsing around and laughing till their stomachs hurt.

Once, they drove to Canada so Mr. Olmstead could write a story about going all the way to the end of the road. But they got stuck in mud 25 miles short of their goal. With the kids tired and cranky — and the need for a logging truck to dislodge them from the muck — Virginia Olmstead pronounced the trip over.

Mr. Olmstead liked Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the music of Bach and Louis Armstrong. He enjoyed movies ranging from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Captain Horatio Hornblower.” An insistent sweet tooth gave him dental problems. He made great fondue and root beer floats.

He believed in “God and family, and his needs came after that,” said Carol Miecznikowski. A member of Opus Dei, a group that adheres strictly to Catholic doctrine, he once refused to attend a daughter’s wedding because the ceremony was performed by a justice of the peace and not a priest, relatives said.

For a time, it created friction, but his children said they always knew where their father stood.

“He and my mom sacrificed everything for us,” their son said. “He worked long after the job was no longer exciting and glamorous so that we could get help with school.”

Other survivors include daughters Mary T. Olmstead, Ruth Olmstead and Monica Eberz; a sister, Louise Agos; brothers James and Thomas Olmstead; and eight grandchildren. Visitation will be 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Adolf Funeral Home, 7000 S. Madison St., Willowbrook. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Hugh’s Church, 7939 W. 43rd St., Lyons, with burial at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Evergreen Park.

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