Charles Nicodemus was both a force for good and a hater. An extraordinary investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily News and, after it closed in 1978, the Sun-Times, Nicodemus was also a relentless advocate for the Newspaper Guild. He once told me why he refused to shake management’s hand when a new contract was finally settled on: “The things I feel in negotiations are strong and genuine, and they have been often bitter and always emotional. Neither side gets what it wants. I never had the stomach to turn around and make nicey-nice with the other side.”
Nicodemus’s greatest hour at the Sun-Times may have been neither a story he wrote nor a contract he negotiated but an exodus he refused to join. In early 1984 Rupert Murdoch took over the paper, and the top editors and writers headed for the hills. Nicodemus stayed. He later told me: “To have the Tribune as the only major journalistic print voice in town would be a disaster, and therefore preserving and fighting for the quality and the existence of the Sun-Times is a moral necessity from my point of view. I had opportunities at a major western paper and a wire service, and I never in any way considered them.
“Mike Royko was a good friend. He and I had been on the middle watch together back in 1959 when he first came to the Daily News. I never forgave Mike for going to the Tribune. That’s how strongly I felt about it. We didn’t talk all that much once he left. And I didn’t read his column all that much once he left. Mike, of course, made his famous comment that the Murdoch paper wouldn’t be worth much except for–however he phrased it–wrapping fish in. There were people who left without a job, out of moral indignation. My feeling was that we can impact Rupert Murdoch. And we did. Obviously he impacted the paper, and very little of it for the good. But we were a brake on Rupert Murdoch–the staff in particular, but some members of management as well. We dragged our feet in pursuing the themes and the kind of writing that the Murdoch people wanted, and eventually someone like Frank Devine, who became Murdoch’s permanent editor here, ended up editing a paper that was significantly different than Murdoch had wanted.”
Devine was the Murdoch editor who in 1986 set Nicodemus loose on the central library story — the city wanted to convert the Goldblatt’s building on State Street and put a new library there. That, Nicodemus argued in a series of stories, was a stupid, unfeasible idea that was unworthy of the city — and in the end Chicago held an architectural competition and a new central library was built instead. The Harold Washington Library Center is as much Nicodemus’s monument as it is Washington’s.
Nicodemus died Thursday in Boulder, Colorado, at the age of 77. I’ve been quoting from the column I wrote when he retired in 2000 so he could go west and climb rocks. There’s not much I can add now — aside from recalling that whenever we talked, and that was frequently, his blood was up and he was a happy warrior. A sense of idealism and a sense of grievance are the critical makings of a great journalist, and Nicodemus was one of the best Chicago’s seen.
Or as a corporate PR type once said, to an exec but also into Nicodemus’s voice mail, not realizing it hadn’t disconnected, “You know, Charles is the kind of guy that’ll call you and tell you that if you don’t call back he’ll send a rat to suck your blood out of your neck.” She was advising the exec not to leave his home phone number.