William Recktenwald, investigative journalist who infiltrated Sun-Times’ Mirage Tavern series, dies at 79
William Recktenwald could be anyone.
The notorious investigative reporter tricked corrupt Chicago city inspectors into believing he was a naive rookie bar owner.
Then he made his way to a job as a guard at a lower Illinois jail to reveal his deplorable conditions.
“It was a natural to sneak in,” said journalist Pam Zekman, one of Recktenwald’s longtime investigative cohorts. “He had the ability to adapt to any type of situation. He had a low-key way of dealing with people to gain their trust.
But “Reck’s” role as a mentor to young reporters was no disguise. Over the course of four award-winning decades in the newsrooms, he also had an affinity for helping journalists looking to get their foot in the door.
“He created a real community among his colleagues,” said Geoff Ritter, a close friend and former Recktenwald student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. “There was something Bill had that stood out, and that was the exciting nature of his job.”
Recktenwald, 79, died in hospice care in Evansville, Indiana on Friday following a brief illness unrelated to COVID-19.
Born in Detroit, he grew up in the western suburbs of La Grange Park with his parents and two sisters. The future Pulitzer Prize winner was diagnosed with dyslexia and struggled to read as a student. He later told Ritter how the nuns who taught him at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School wrote him letters to the Chicago Tribune expressing astonishment at his improved spelling.
“Obviously, they never heard of the copy office,” Recktenwald joked of the editors who cleaned up his work.
He earned an associate’s degree from DuPage College and continued to work a series of odd jobs alongside a six-year stint with the National Guard.
Recktenwald took his first steps in the investigation in 1962 with a job in the Cook County State Attorney’s Office.
This experience landed him a job in 1967 as a watchdog for the Better Government Association, where he became chief investigator and often infiltrated in tandem with Chicago reporters to expose corruption and waste. .
As the BGA’s chief investigator, Recktenwald partnered with winning Pulitzer teams at the Tribune in 1971, when he infiltrated as an attendant for a series of reports on private ambulance companies. and again two years later for a series on voter fraud.
But his best-known work came in 1978 with Zekman, Zay N. Smith and photographer Jim Frost at the Chicago Sun-Times for a successful investigative series centered on the Mirage Tavern – a River North dive bar that the newspaper bought to expose greedy inspectors who were only too happy to look past blatant code violations in exchange for bribes.
“We couldn’t have done it without him,” said Zekman, who posed as his wife and business partner, “Mrs. Ray Patterson,” for the legendary series. any man, he may have taken on different roles without suspicion.
Reflecting on the Mirage series, Recktenwald wrote “[w]What made it interesting and effective was its presentation. He named names. There were no anonymous sources. The public believed what they read.
After his brief career as a bogus bartender, Recktenwald joined the Tribune staff and used his own name to secure a job as a guard at the Pontiac Correctional Center following deadly riots. His gritty reporting “sparked a top-down household” at the ailing facility, where he described a “living hell in which everyone loses, guards and inmates”.
Recktenwald has written for almost every section of the Tribune during his career, and he has made a point of helping newcomers learn the ropes of writing.
“It was not a formal responsibility. He did it naturally, ”said BGA director of investigations John Chase, who cut his teeth under Recktenwald. “He would approach all the young reporters and try to calm your nerves and let you know that you are here to do a good job… He was really happy to see his lessons passed on to the young reporters.”
This allowed for a natural transition to teaching at SIU in 1999, launching a 20-year term that included service as a Senior Fulbright Specialist in Uganda.
He loved sailing, completing the Race to Mackinac in 40 hours in 1987, and he has traveled to dozens of countries including Sri Lanka, where he suffered a devastating tsunami that struck on his trip in 2004.
“Like a bulldozer blade, he entered and destroyed a village that I had walked through the streets the day before,” he recalls.
He reveled in entertaining his colleagues and friends in his woodland estate in the Shawnee National Forest. Recktenwald retired in January.
“A Fulbright Fellow, award-winning journalist and legendary investigative journalist, he has shared his experience and expertise with countless students at SIU Carbondale,” said University Chancellor Austin Lane.
Recktenwald is survived by several nieces and nephews, as well as many colleagues, students and mentees in the journalism industry.
Services are scheduled for Monday morning at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church near downstate Elizabethtown. An additional celebration is planned at a later date.
Contribution: Manny Ramos, Maureen O’Donnell