By noon Wednesday, the street in front of Northwestern Memorial Hospital was closed to all unauthorized vehicles. A police car blocked Superior Street at Michigan. Within the police blockade were four or five minicam trucks with their antennas pointed high into the cool fall air. Thousands of feet of wire and cable ran from the trucks through bushes, around parked cars, and under the feet of the hundreds of people standing outside the hospital. A lot of the people were news people. None of them seemed to find any pleasure in their reason for being there. But most of them thrived in the excitement.
Dick Kay of Channel 5 stood in the enclosed entryway of the emergency room and tried to get someone inside to talk with him. Every time the doors opened, Kay yelled at whomever he saw and asked him or her to come out and talk. For a while he had the Reverend B. Herbert Martin in his sights, but his repeated requests to Martin went unanswered.
At about 1 PM Kay was gazing into space, his microphone dangling loosely in his hand, when his cameraman notified him that he was about to go on the air. Kay gave a report that contained little or no new information on the condition of the mayor. The cameraman looked at Kay and said, “We’re looking good.” Kay nodded slightly and said, “We were last, way last, as far as I know.”
A few minutes later, Judson Miner, the city corporation counsel, emerged from a police car and made for the sliding glass doors. Jim Avila of Channel 2 noticed Miner and asked him a question about the health of the mayor. As Miner began to answer, Kay noticed the conversation and barged in with a different question. Kay’s sudden movement and loud voice alerted a pack of reporters who immediately circled Miner with tape recorders and microphones. Miner quickly changed his mind about answering questions and went inside to join the friends and coworkers of the mayor.
“Nice going Dick, you screwed it up,” Avila hollered. “What did you do that for?” Kay walked away and said, “You were not doing anything–you had nothing.” Avila glared as Kay returned to his position in the entryway. Away from the front door, Basil Talbott Jr. of the Sun-Times told a few reporters that he had seen the mayor just two days before. “He looked fine,” Talbott said. “This is a real surprise. There is going to be an announcement soon, so it does not look good.”
At about 1:15, Congressman Charles Hayes arrived and walked through the mass of reporters. He stopped for a minute to visit with Talbott, who asked how the mayor’s health had been lately. “He was full of life and very jovial,” Hayes said. “He had a little stomach flu, but he said it was nothing.”
Another reporter interrupted the conversation to request that the congressman do a live interview. Hayes refused and proceeded into the hospital.
Most of the reporters stood outside looking in at the lobby like a pack of dogs wanting to be let inside on a cold day. But it was not relief from the cold they wanted, it was deliverance from the suspense.
Chuck Goudie of Channel 7 turned to Avila, who was standing behind him, and said, “This blows [Jay] Levine out of the Persian Gulf. He’s probably on a plane right now.” Avila smiled, while keeping his eyes glued on the movement inside the hospital lobby.
About 1:25 PM, Goudie went on the air with a report: other reporters, he reported, have reported that the mayor has died. Within a few seconds of the Channel 7 report, Kay was live on Channel 5 with his report: Washington’s heart attack had been fatal; but, Kay added, this report was not confirmed.
At 1:30 there was a lot of movement in the lobby. The media readied for what looked like an announcement. A hospital spokesperson announced that a statement would be made in 45 minutes, or at 2:30 PM, in an auditorium located in an adjacent building.
In the auditorium, members of the press gathered to set up cameras and position themselves for the much-awaited news of the mayor’s condition. The front row of seats was filled by 11 cameras from different television stations. A group of reporters sat in a circle on the floor and compared notes.
A reporter from CNN instructed his cameraman to hold his position while he investigated the atmosphere outside. “Word is going to leak outside before it happens here,” the reporter said. The cameraman replied, “Oh of course.”
Another cameraman asked his partner to watch his camera while he called his wife; she expected him home at 3:30, he said.
In the next room, about 20 telephones were scattered across a ten-foot table crowded with reporters. At another table, coffee and soft drinks were there for the taking. Sipping a drink, Basil Talbott talked on one of the phones about the procedures to elect the next mayor.
About 2:15, the auditorium became crowded with reporters waiting to verify the obvious. The time dragged; it became very quiet; an eerie foreboding hovered in the room. A cameraman yelled, “Down in front. Get your ass down now.” One of the reporters in the front responded, “Let’s maintain some dignity.”
Alton Miller, the mayor’s press secretary, stepped into the room and announced to a dead-silent audience that the mayor had been pronounced dead at 1:36 PM.
Dr. John Sanders, chief of staff at Northwestern, followed Miller with a brief statement. The silence in the crowd was broken when one of the reporters called out to ask the doctor his name.
After the official press conference, a scramble began among the media to get exclusive interviews. A pecking order seemed to take hold, with the television stations having the upper hand.
Alton Miller, Dr. Sanders, and Ron Smith, chief paramedic and first on the scene in the mayor’s office, were available for questions. All three moved in something of a line among channels 2, 5, 7, 9, 11, 26, and 32. WBBM and WBEZ radio tried to pull the central characters away from the bright television lights; a reporter from WBBM handed Dr. Sanders a telephone, and the doctor answered questions from the studio.
The cameraman who had yelled ‘Down in front” now became impatient with Channel 5’s questioning of Dr. Sanders. “When are you going to wrap this shit up?” he said. “Damn, we got people waiting.”
Linda MacLennan of Channel 2 touched the doctor on the sleeve while he was being interviewed on Channel 5; she asked, “Doctor, can I get in line, Channel 2.” The doctor nodded.
After Paul Hogan of Channel 5 finished his interview with the doctor, he thanked him and off the air said, “They are all waiting in line like a bus station over here.”
As the room began to empty and the media focus turned away from the hospital, one woman said, “We have lost a friend.” Another woman standing next to her said, “This is so strange, just like that.” She held her arms in the air. “It’s over.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.