Dick Mitchell, former Sun-Times editor, dies at 67
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter September 27, 2013 10:28PM
Dick Mitchell former Sun-Times Editor
Updated: October 30, 2013 6:52AM
Watching Dick Mitchell on deadline was a little like watching Fred Astaire dance.
Tall and slim, “Mitch” glided through the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom, communicating intelligence, elegance and graceful authority.
As a reporter, that unruffled calm helped him investigate “heater” stories, like the bloody Attica prison uprising of 1971. When he became an editor, it gave confidence to the reporters who worked for him.
Mr. Mitchell, 67, died Wednesday at his Oak Park home of complications from emphysema.
He won awards at the Chicago Sun-Times for his 1983 reports on how $10,000 in campaign re-election funds for Mayor Jane Byrne found their way into the coffers of the notorious El Rukn street gang. Within days, Mr. Mitchell reported, the gang that authorities considered “the city’s most sophisticated and dangerous practitioners of drug peddling and extortion” was “handing out Byrne campaign literature, canvassing voters and putting up 700 to 1,000 Byrne posters on eight buildings they own.” He also reported on how the El Rukns accumulated $2.5 million in property — and avoided paying $500,000 in overdue property taxes.
Later, he was promoted to the posts of deputy metro editor and Sunday editor. He retired in 1995, at age 49. He didn’t want to work for Sun-Times owner Conrad Black, who would later be convicted of fraud for siphoning off money from the company. When Mr. Mitchell glided out of the newsroom for the last time, his co-workers gave him a standing ovation.
He kept busy, traveling to Europe; going to Grand Prix races, and visiting car shows with his Iris Blue 1959 MGA Roadster. He cooked dinners of duck confit, cassoulet and red beans and rice for his wife, Doreen Wurster Mitchell.
One of his passions led to a new avocation. A wine lover who enjoyed sharing treasured bottles with friends, he used his oenophilic expertise to analyze peoples’ wine cellars. He’d study their collections and issue detailed reports that assessed what they had, offering background on vineyards and value.
Adrienne Drell benefitted from his analysis.
“He compiled a list of what they all were, and gave me a list of whether it was good, or bad, or ‘get rid of it,’ ” said the former Sun-Times reporter. “He was like the sweetest of wines. He was a good editor, and so kind.”
Mr. Mitchell grew up in blue-collar Elmira, a New York town situated between the Pennsylvania border and the Finger Lakes.
He played tennis at his high school, Elmira Free Academy. He attended Howard University and Corning Community College. In 1969, he began working at the Elmira Star-Gazette newspaper.
Mr. Mitchell gravitated toward coverage of the penal system. He became such an expert, that when the Attica revolt occurred, the Gannett Newspaper group assigned him to team coverage. He won a Gannett award for an Attica investigation. A year later, he won another Gannett award for reports on U.S. jails. In 1976, he won a Unity in Media award for a series about inmate groups in prisons.
From 1979 to 1982, he worked at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle as a reporter and assistant metro editor. He received an A.P. award for stories on “Being Black” in Rochester.
He joined the Sun-Times in 1982. His El Rukn coverage netted him awards from UPI, the Inland Daily Press Association and the Chicago Newspaper Guild.
He became an editor reporters adored. He taught them to trust their intuition and respected their opinions.
They returned that respect. “He had covered the strife at Attica,” said former Sun-Times reporter Lee Bey. “Here was a guy who worked in the trenches and earned his stripes.”
To young African-American journalists, “It meant the world” to see someone like Mr. Mitchell in the newsroom, Bey said. “Here’s a guy who looked like me, and he had a career. He wasn’t just there because of the color of his skin. This was a newsman.”
“As fine as a journalist as Dick was, he was a better human being,” said former Sun-Times reporter Dirk Johnson. “Dick acted kind of like a big brother.”
He often shared his ATM card with Johnson when he was a broke young reporter who needed money for a beer after work.
Mr. Mitchell even helped save a life in the newsroom. When Sun-Times editor Frank Devine was felled by a brain embolism, Mr. Mitchell did chest compressions while then-reporter Susy Schultz administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
“Mitch was pumping,” Schultz said. Devine revived — and gifted them with bonuses and dinner at the Union League Club.
Mr. Mitchell met Doreen Wurster at Chicago’s Billy Goat tavern. They wed in 1989. “The love of his life,” said friend and colleague Leon Pitt, “with whom he traveled the world.”
They honeymooned in Paris, and drove through the Loire Valley, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. They rented a houseboat in Amsterdam.
“Every morning, he had a swan that came up, and he would feed him bread,” his wife said.
After retirement, “He was a most amazing cook,” his wife said. Every afternoon, he pulled out cookbooks to plan dinner — often, something with a French flair.
He took language classes at the Alliance Francaise, and returned to France often. He loved the freedom he felt there.
“In France, I feel like a man, and in America, I’m a black man,” he once said.
Perhaps because he grew up near New York’s Watkins Glen race course, Mr. Mitchell loved cars. He tooled around in a 1959 MGA Roadster, and he and his wife attended Grand Prix races in Canada, Hungary, and Spain. Their last Grand Prix was in 2012 in Monaco. It’s a memory she cherishes. “We had seats that faced the harbor,” she said. They were only feet away from Princess Charlene, wife of Prince Albert.
Every time they traveled, she surprised him with trips to car museums, including the Saab and Volvo museums in Sweden.
He collected so many auto parts, “We used to tease him that we had another MG in the basement,” his wife said.
He loved his little cockapoo dog, Hannah. She used to snuggle next to him on his blue chair.
Visitation is 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home, 203 S. Marion St., Oak Park. A service is to begin at 4 p.m. Sunday at the funeral home.