“Shots fired–hostage situation,” says Larry Schreiner, mimicking the flat police-radio voice that lured him to this very corner last fall. “I pull up and park right here,” he remembers. We are sitting in Schreiner’s Mercedes at the northwest corner of Webster and Hoyne. Schreiner is spinning his tale in his favorite spot in the world: behind the wheel on a Chicago side street.
“The cops are scurrying,” he continues. He points to the southeast corner. “See the fireplug? They got the woman laying there–she’s shot. I jump out. I know the guy’s in one of those buildings.” He points to a three-flat on Hoyne. “The guy is sitting in that window there and he’s got a straight shot right at my stomach. I’m shooting here and the assistant deputy superintendent is going crazy because he don’t like Schreiner.
“I had the best picture but I was either under the car, laying next to it, or slouched down below the dash. I was shooting videotape and plus I was broadcasting live on WGN radio. [Bob] Collins kept calling me saying, ‘I want more! I want more!’ But I became a soprano after about two hours because I realized I was in trouble. If this guy wanted to, I was dead meat. Could I have left? Absolutely. But once I pulled out, I [would have] lost my spot. Plus your machoism gets into you, and I figure when I go, I’m going with a big story.”
Schreiner outlasted the guy in the window. The gunman gave up after six-plus hours and Schreiner’s camera was still running. Thanks to Larry Schreiner, television viewers of Channels Nine and Seven saw the hostage taker, a baby in his arms, descend the rear stairs of the three-flat into police custody.
Schreiner may have trouble with syntax, his pronouns often don’t have antecedents, and he’ll invent any word he needs, but he’s probably Chicago’s most prolific communicator. Is there a person in this city who hasn’t seen Schreiner’s footage on television or heard his radio reports? Anytime there’s a gas leak in an elementary school, a shooting on a quiet suburban street, or a fireman gagging from smoke at a factory blaze, Schreiner will be on the scene. He’s a cowboy in a car, roaming the metropolitan area in search of crime and distress.
Off the air, Schreiner tells tales of countless fights. You soon come to understand there are just two kinds of people in Schreiner’s life: his friends and the enemies trying to crucify him.
Of course, the fights weren’t fistfights. They were contests of will–powerful bosses versus everyman, an unfair world against the little guy.
Schreiner is short and wiry. His appearance suggests someone who probably couldn’t deliver a KO punch, but would keep poking and jabbing, moving and ducking, punching and kicking, until cooler heads stepped in or the tough guy threw up his hands. Schreiner has taken on police commanders and superintendents, mayors, TV news stars, and common criminals. He’s never been knocked out.
“I’ve been fighting everybody all my life!” the former Chicago cop says. “I fought the Police Department. I fought dishonest policemen. I fought the gin mills. I fought the narcotics racket. I like to think I did some good but it was always a battle.” For over a decade, he moonlighted as a cameraman and reporter for WGN radio while the police high command tried to stop him. Eventually he got tired of banging his head against a brick wall, quit the force, and went into journalism full-time.
Schreiner was born 49 years ago in Chicago. His natural father died before little Larry, an only child, could talk. His mother went to work in City Hall, where her clout was the 45th Ward boss, Charlie Weber. The Schreiners lived across Western Avenue from Riverview. “I could never go there because we didn’t have enough money,” Schreiner recalls. Then he corrects himself. He went to the fabled amusement park once a year on Charlie Weber Day. His mother would bring home the free ticket but Schreiner wasn’t all that enthusiastic. “All year I’d have to listen to the noise. After living across the street from it, the novelty wore off,” he says.
His mother got married a second time, to a fellow named Pierce Fleming. “I never use the word ‘stepfather,'” Schreiner says. “I always say ‘my second father.'” Fleming was a sergeant with the old Chicago Park District Police, a department separate from the Chicago Police Department that patrolled the city’s parks, boulevards, and Lake Shore Drive. Fleming moved his new family to the Montclare neighborhood on the northwest side.
“All he did was read,” Schreiner says of Fleming. “He studied like a son of a gun. He took all the tests and eventually became the number-two man [deputy chief] in the Chicago Park District Police.” While Fleming crammed, Schreiner began listening to the police radio at home, a habit he’s never shaken. Habit? It’s his trademark.
Schreiner attended Catholic elementary schools and decided he would become a priest. He enrolled at Quigley North. He hurt his back playing basketball in high school and spent six months in and out of Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston. (That’s where he discovered nurses. Schreiner has been fond of nurses ever since. He talks them up on the radio every chance he gets, and while a cop tried to know by their first names the nurses in every emergency room he frequented.
Memories of those nurses encouraged him to quit Quigley. He graduated from Saint George High School, which doesn’t exist anymore but used to stand next door to Saint Francis.
An obedient son, he traveled to Memphis to attend Christian Brothers College. “I went to college because I was told to go to college. I was not a student. I was horrible. I couldn’t sit and read a book. I don’t brag about it but I can’t remember the last book I read,” he shrugs.
Schreiner spent two years in Memphis, then transferred to Indiana University and studied law enforcement. Two things drew him into police studies. “Partially it was my father [Fleming], and as hokey as it seems, partially I wanted to help people. My father was an honest policeman and in those days that was a little unusual. I knew he was honest–we didn’t have any money.”
But the academic world bored Schreiner. In the fall of 1963 he learned that the village of Skokie was offering its police exam. He came home from school to take it. “There was no hanky-panky. You took the test on Saturday morning and they gave you the results two or three hours later,” Schreiner says. The Chicago police exam was different–Schreiner had taken it months earlier and hadn’t heard anything yet. “I ended up passing [the Skokie exam] all by myself. No help from my father.”
Skokie put him on the street at once. He’d get his formal training months later down at the Chicago Police Academy. In Skokie, the rookie staked out the parking lot at the Old Orchard Shopping Center, watching through binoculars for car thieves. He also did some gambling investigations. Finally he was shipped to the city for training. About a year after he started work as a Skokie cop, Schreiner graduated from the academy. That was a Friday. The same day he was notified by Chicago that he could start work Monday. That night Schreiner sneaked into the Skokie police station and left a letter of resignation on his commander’s desk. Monday he was a Chicago cop. “I felt sort of bad leaving–they had paid me all through school–but that’s life in the big city,” Schreiner says.
By this time the Chicago Park District Police had merged with the Chicago Police Department. Pierce Fleming had risen to become the third-ranking officer, a deputy superintendent, on the combined force. Schreiner swears he didn’t use his father’s pull to get through the Chicago exam. “I was like 230 on the list. Everybody else could use their clout but I wouldn’t use my clout.”
Schreiner was assigned to beat 2023 in the old Summerdale (now Foster Avenue) district. Four years earlier, in 1960, the district had been rocked by the biggest police scandal till then in Chicago history. It was learned that Summerdale patrolmen had been operating a burglary ring. The cops would provide protection and sometimes even transportation to crooks looting homes. In reaction, Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed a new superintendent, civilian criminologist O. W. Wilson.
“It never got real clean,” says Schreiner.
Schreiner felt a chill from his police comrades. “Nobody wanted to work with me because of who my father was. They didn’t trust me. They don’t trust the boss’s kid. They figure you’re gonna report back to Daddy,” he says. Schreiner worked a one-man beat in what he describes as “the toughest part of the district.”
“Oh, I loved it! It was a ball. It was fun. It was exciting. [But] it was a problem being 135 pounds. I was always getting beaten on. There was always fights in those taverns. There was two policemen that were unofficially told to keep an eye on me. They were two real bad dudes. I’ll always remember I was hassling a prostitute, trying to get her in the wagon. I said, ‘Would you please get in the wagon?’ I must have said it six times. One of those two guys walked up, he was about six inches taller than me and about 100 pounds more, he just grabbed her in between the legs by the butt and said, ‘Get in the wagon, bitch!’ and threw her in. She said, ‘OK!’
“The point was they [the people on the street] respected toughness. I would have never survived out there by myself at 135 pounds. You can’t shoot everybody! I didn’t have anything behind me. I was a lightweight.”
Schreiner worked at Summerdale for nine months and was transferred to Intelligence–“a plush unit,” he says.
“One of our units at the time was the Red Squad,” Schreiner says. The notorious Red Squad kept too vigilant an eye on antiwar and civil-rights groups and finally was halted by lawsuits filed in federal court. “I can only say this–in my nine months or a year in the intelligence unit, I didn’t spy on any priests, I didn’t spy on any politicians. What I did I did because I felt that it was good for the city. If I did do anything illegal at the time, one–the statue [sic] of limitations has run out. And two–if there was any illegal activity, it was based on the hoodlum type, syndicate Mafia type.”
As a spook, Schreiner never got to make busts, never got to see the results of his work. “I went to the number-two man in the Police Department, Jim Conlisk, who eventually got to be superintendent, who eventually got to be one of my biggest enemies. I said, ‘I’m impatient.’ He put me out on the west side as a vice man and I had a ball.”
John Neurauter was the commander of the 15th (Austin) District, to which Schreiner was assigned. Neurauter was an expert in gambling, prostitution, and liquor laws, and he took Schreiner under his wing and gave him an education. Neurauter liked the idea of his cops getting good press. A month into his term at Austin, Schreiner made his commander beam.
There was a pharmacist at Lake and Cicero who catered to the special needs of some of the students at nearby Austin High School. The slightly built, baby-faced Schreiner, 23 at the time, started hanging around the drugstore. With the help of some snitches, Schreiner determined that the druggist was selling barbiturates. On February 18, 1966, Schreiner passed the pharmacist $4 in exchange for ten “goofballs.” Schreiner thanked the man, went outside, gave a signal, and the store was raided.
All four dailies wrote up the bust. Schreiner was portrayed as plucky and heroic just for walking into the drugstore. “We had the good sense, I don’t know if it was John Neurauter or it was me, we dropped a dime to the media. Got excellent coverage. One–the media can help the police. Two–it’s an ego trip,” Schreiner says.
It was his first contact with the news media.
Ever since high school Schreiner had liked firehouses, and in his free time in Austin he hung out at the fire alarm office with the other “fire fans”–guys who spent their free hours rubbing shoulders with firemen. Many fire fans used to drive their personal cars out to big fires; some even helped handle hoses. “Twenty-five years ago, all these frustrated firemen were drawn to the firehouse,” says Schreiner’s best friend, Father Tom Mulcrone, the Fire Department’s Catholic chaplain. “As a kid, I hung around a firehouse on the west side in my neighborhood. Now, it’s frowned upon. The old days are gone.”
In the old days, even well-known politicians could be fire fans. As a youngster Schreiner had met election board commissioner Sidney Holzman at the fire alarm office. “He would take me out to lunch every now and then,” Schreiner remembers.
Schreiner also met Holzman’s son James, who eventually became a police commander. In the spring of 1966, Schreiner got an unexpected phone call. “I was home sleeping. The phone rang and it was Commander Holzman askin’ me if I wanted a job. I said, ‘I have a very nice job.’ He said, ‘You don’t have that job anymore–there’s been a big shake-up.'”
Commander Neurauter was being transferred to headquarters at 11th and State, Holzman told Schreiner. His replacement at Austin would be Mark Thanasouras. Schreiner already knew Thanasouras by reputation, and it was a bad one. Thanasouras would operate Austin as his private preserve, and in 1974 he’d plead guilty to shaking down 30 tavern owners to the tune of $275,000.
Holzman offered Schreiner a job at the 18th [East Chicago] District covering the Near North Side. Schreiner didn’t make Holzman wait for an answer. “I said, ‘Oh God, I want out of 15! I want nothin’ to do with that guy.’ I accepted the job right then and there on the phone. The idea of being in 18–that was the dream of every vice man!
“I went into Austin that night to pick up my belongings and I ran into Thanasouras [a name he mispronounces, typically, as Stanasthauras]. He said, ‘You don’t have to leave just because I’m coming here.’ I said, ‘Oh yes I do! I know your rep and I know my rep. We’d never make it.’ So I left.”
Schreiner explains, “I didn’t like the man; I didn’t like his rep. I didn’t want to embarrass my father. That was one reason why I never did anything. My father’s father was a policeman, my father was a policeman, his brother was a policeman–they were all untarnished over all those years.
“In retrospect, everybody that was with Thanasouras went to the penitentiary.”
Because he turned around and testified against his own men, Thanasouras only spent 18 months in prison. In 1977 he was gunned down in the street. By this time, Schreiner was selling photos to the newspapers. “I took the picture [of the body],” Schreiner says. “Had it on the front page. If nobody was lookin’ I’d have peed on him right there on the spot! The man was a disgrace to the Chicago Police Department.”
Schreiner brought an untouchable reputation to the 18th District and began getting noticed. Chicago American columnist Maggie Daly wrote blurbs about him without mentioning his name at first. The other cops at 18 knew exactly who Daly was talking about. He was turning the district upside down by busting people who tried to bribe him. “This was shocking,” Schreiner says. According to Schreiner, 50 percent of the vice men in the district were clean and the others took bribes. The word was a number of beat cops were taking payoffs. “They didn’t like [me] because [I] was hurting what they were doing,” Schreiner says. Holzman, he adds, was “squeaky clean.”
A few months after he started at 18, Schreiner’s intensity betrayed him; he landed in Saint Joseph Hospital with a raging case of ulcers. Maggie Daly wrote him up in her column, finally mentioning his name and devoting several paragraphs to the ailing cop hero.
The high profile of the Near North Side helped keep Schreiner in the news. “We went after Michael Butler one night. He had a place on Burton and Wells called Le Bison. He was running illegally. He had four floors with one liquor license–you can’t do that. I must have gone in there four or five times and I kept saying, ‘I’m warning you for the last time.’ So one weekend, Holzman called me and said, ‘The joint’s goin’ down tonight.’ I went in there and the joint’s runnin’ kinky [with inadequate licenses]. It was a Friday night. I informed them they were under arrest. There was some large woman really givin’ me a hassle. I told her politely, ‘Get out of my way or I’m gonna kick you right in the rear end and lock you up!’ Next day, here’s the newspaper. Michael Butler’s picture–‘Le Bison closed.’ Here’s the woman, next to him, that I threatened to kick in the ass. Claudia Cardinale! I didn’t know who she was!”
In the station house courtroom, Schreiner claims to have “used” the media for the first time. “I had locked up a prostitute one night for solicitation, a very well known prostitute. Her name was Starry Washington. Locked her up, went to court. The judge made an ass of me. She made an ass out of me. It was a big laughing matter, like ‘What are you bothering her for?’ He had to find her guilty but [sentenced her to] time served.
“We had a horrible prostitution problem. I mean they were soliciting in front of Holy Name Cathedral! Next night, I went out looking for Starry because there was the loitering prostitute act at that time. If you saw a woman on the street you knew to be a prostitute, you could just lock her up on sight. She was moping around on the corner–it was around Rush and Walton. Starry was about six-foot-one, 180. She beat the living daylights out of me! I put in a 10-1 [officer needs assistance]. When the policemen got there, including a lieutenant, they joked about it. After we got her in the wagon, I said to the lieutenant, ‘You don’t have to like me, but when a policeman puts in a call for help, you’re supposed to come [and not ridicule him].’ They didn’t like me because I was gonna hurt his business.
“So I went to court the next morning and I knew what was going to happen. When it was time to get up, Starry comes out–‘Hi, Judge!’ Judge says, ‘Hi, Starry. How are you?’ I turned around and went like this [he makes a beckoning motion with his finger] to the front row [where the press sits]. This guy walks up and stands next to me. Judge says to me, ‘Is this a witness?’ I says no. He says, ‘Who is he?’ I says, ‘He’s a reporter friend of mine from the Chicago Daily News. He wants to make sure he hears everything well.’ The judge went crazy.”
The judge found Starry guilty, sentenced her to jail, and ordered the court sergeant to take Schreiner into the back room. Schreiner says the sergeant explained to him that bringing the press in just wouldn’t do at all and that Schreiner’s arrest reports had better be letter-perfect from now on or his cases would be thrown out.
Perhaps Schreiner now understood he would not emerge victorious from his fight against crime, corruption, and stupidity. Cops from commanders on down to grunts on foot patrol were taking cash payoffs. Prostitutes were laughing in his face. His fellow officers were treating him like a man with a hideous disease.
The other honest cops said no to payoffs and let it go at that. The cops on the take–kinky cops–wouldn’t bother with these clean cops, even though they considered them stupid for not getting in on the action. But a guy like Schreiner who busted bribers was taking money out of their pockets. Only the top officers made more than $20,000 a year in those days. And for what? For the animals to take shots at them from the rooftops of Cabrini-Green? For the judges to throw their good busts out of court on technicalities? For the goo-goos to accuse them of brutality every other day? If one of the guys wants to make it a little easier on his family, who is Larry Schreiner to say anything about it?
“He’s honest,” says Wayne Vriesman, who’s now vice president of the Tribune Company radio group and was news director at WGN TV when Schreiner was breaking into the media. “Definitely honest,” says Mark Schreiner, his son. “He’s uncompromisingly honest,” says attorney Marilyn Longwell, who is collaborating with Schreiner on a book about his life.
It never would have occurred to Schreiner to look the other way while other cops palmed cash. His fight against corruption became Schreiner versus evil. “He feels he’s so clearly right about what he believes in that if others don’t agree perhaps he feels it is a personal rejection,” Longwell surmises.
“I was gonna do the right thing,” Schreiner says. “If somebody didn’t like me doing the right thing, they can go pound sand.”
Schreiner often stood alone against the bribers. “I’ll always remember I [went into] a tavern on Wells Street. I took [the owner’s] money,” Schreiner recalls. A prostitute was plying her trade inside the tavern. Schreiner arrested them both. “Now we’re sittin’ in the back of 18 and the prostitute decides she wants to give me money. She takes it out from between her legs and gives it to me. I arrest her for bribery. We get to court and the judge is [Schreiner names a judge who’s dead now]. I’ll never forget him as long as I live. He threw the case out of court! He had my blood pressure going crazy. I shouted back at him, ‘What would you like me to do with the money?’ He said, ‘Stick it back where she got it from!’ Right there in broad court.
“You sort of get down on the system after a while,” Schreiner says.
In 1966 Commander Holzman was replaced at the 18th District by Clarence Braasch, as crooked a cop as Thanasouras. It wasn’t long before Schreiner called his old boss John Neurauter, now head of the citywide vice unit, and told him he was burned out. Neurauter had Schreiner transferred to the “bird-dog” unit–which meant undercover work in taverns without gun or uniform. Schreiner kept his own hours, turned in a report every week, and took it easy.
After a short stint on the tactical team at the 13th (Wood Street) District, Schreiner joined Assistant Deputy Superintendent Walter Vallee as his driver. It was a time when the department’s image was suffering badly. The force was seen as a cesspool of corruption and brutality.
“Vallee would say later on the smartest thing he ever did was to get me to drive him because I had all the connections with the media. We’d make a pinch, I’d drop a dime. We had more good publicity! This was about the time of the Braasch trial–the publicity was bad. We balanced it out,” Schreiner says.
In October of ’73, Braasch and 18 of his men were convicted of tavern shakedowns.
Vallee’s job was to take charge of crime scenes, and Schreiner knew which ones would interest the papers. There were some well-publicized rescues from burning buildings, and a newspaper account of one of them was headlined “Hero Cop Does It Again.” Other cops called them the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
A 1972 hostage incident straight out of a bad made-for-TV movie catapulted Vallee and Schreiner to superstar status. It began with a bungled robbery attempt at Kiyo’s restaurant on Clark Street near the intersection with Broadway and Diversey. “Three bad guys from the south side come up with shotguns, rifles, and shopping bags,” Schreiner says. “They go into Kiyo’s. There’s like 20 people [in the restaurant]. They stick the joint up. Somebody runs out, calls the police–‘They’re inside with hostages!'”
Vallee and Schreiner arrived in their high-performance communications and command car, known throughout the department as the “Blue Goose,” to take charge. They negotiated with the gunmen through the car’s loudspeaker for two and a half hours. A crowd of 6,000 gathered to watch the drama unfold.
“We convinced the guys to leave. They took five hostages with them,” Schreiner says. The gunmen were offered a car with the red taillight glass punched out to make the car stand out in traffic, and Schreiner broadcast the order, No hot pursuit! Vallee had decided that only his and a couple of other unmarked cars would follow at a discreet distance. Now they had to move the Blue Goose from Kiyo’s entrance so the gunmen could leave with their hostages. But the hours on the loudspeaker had drained the car’s battery. Vallee and Schreiner pushed the car away and frantically connected jumper cables to it as the getaway car squealed off. Moments later, the Lone Ranger and Tonto took off in the Blue Goose.
The robbers went north to Irving Park Road then west to the Kennedy Expressway. Along the way, marked car after marked car joined in the chase even though they’d been ordered not to. The getaway car went south on the Kennedy and onto the Dan Ryan and stopped for gas at 63rd Street. “They tell the gas station attendant, ‘Tell those policemen if they keep following us, we’re gonna kill these women,'” Schreiner says.
Just past the gas station, two cops tried to ram the car. One of the robbers lifted his shotgun and blasted the squad car. Both cops were injured. The gunmen pulled back onto the Dan Ryan, turned around at 95th Street, and headed north. The hostages were flat on the floor. “A canine unit car pulls up next to ’em at 100 miles per hour. The occupant [passenger] of the canine unit car takes careful aim, fires one shot, hits the driver in the head, kills him. Car goes up the embankment, through a fence, piles into some parked cars. The other two guys bail out. One guy runs down the alley and he’s shot and killed. The other guy throws up his hands,” Schreiner says.
“We grabbed the five women hostages out of the car,” Schreiner continues. “They don’t have a scratch on ’em. The car had a broken gas tank when it smashed up. The neighbors come out because of the gunfire and the crash. Some guy drops a cigarette, the whole street starts on fire!”
The next day’s Daily News carried a front-page story on Vallee and Schreiner.
Back in 1968, when Schreiner was assigned to the Wood Street station, he’d spent a lot of time at the old firehouse at Division and Western. That’s where he met Eddie Karas, another fire fan. “I seen Larry at all the alarms,” Karas says. “Every time you seen Larry around, you know somethin’s gonna happen–he’d have a tip or somethin’.” Karas eventually ran the city’s civil defense department from 1976 until its demise in 1986. Karas remembers Schreiner driving the shiny Cadillac he owned then into the toughest neighborhoods following a hot call. “He always left his lights on, then someone’d have to jump him,” Karas laughs.
Schreiner would bring food for the firemen, ingratiating himself with them and establishing relationships that last to this day. Big fire scenes fascinated him. “I wanted a remembrance of them,” he says. A Fire Department official told Schreiner he might get a good deal on a camera if he visited the photography unit. The head of the unit convinced Schreiner to buy a 16-millimeter camera and try to make some pocket money by peddling the pictures to WGN TV, which was free to buy from free-lancers because its camera operators weren’t unionized. Schreiner photographed his first “big one,” an explosion and fire at a sausage company, on February 1, 1968. He didn’t sell that piece of film to WGN but people at the station remembered his name.
WGN TV finally came calling on a Friday in early April 1968. Schreiner had just left Saint Joseph Hospital, where his ulcers had put him. He was with the bird-dog unit at the time. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis the day before. Chicago’s west side was exploding. “Everybody went into uniform, no exceptions,” Schreiner says. “But nobody really knew where I was.” So instead of getting a call from his commander, Schreiner was summoned by WGN. They wanted him to shoot film from a helicopter. “I don’t like helicopters,” he says. “We’re up there and the pilot tells me if I want to shoot somethin’, just tell him to turn. We’re over the scene and I want to start. I tell him, turn. Now when a helicopter turns it isn’t like a car. He turns and we’re almost on the side. I pointed the camera and closed my eyes. I always say it was the best footage ever shot with the cameraman’s eyes closed.”
Schreiner also shot from rooftops and on the street. He compiled the most dramatic scenes into a movie titled Black and White and Red All Over, which he sold to fire department schools and other training organizations around the country.
Soon he began shooting stills for the newspapers. His honesty got him into trouble. “I shot some pictures that the Police Department didn’t think were favorable,” Schreiner says. “Conlisk was the superintendent. He gave an order against free-lance photography for policemen. Well, it was crazy–there was one free-lance photographer. Me.” Schreiner continued to shoot pictures, using a pseudonym for his newspaper photo credits, until Conlisk was pushed out.
In April 1974 Walter Vallee was promoted to special operations deputy chief by the new superintendent, James Rochford. Schreiner expected Vallee to bring him along. He was sorely disappointed when no invitation came. Schreiner then spent some time at the 16th (Jefferson Park) District, where, as a member of the tactical team, he specialized in handling cops’ kids when they got in trouble. A lot of cops with families lived in the area.”The average policeman didn’t want to have to lock up children of other policemen,” Schreiner says. “Kids would say, ‘Do you know who my father is?’ I would say, ‘Do you know who my father is?'”
The next year Schreiner was made a temporary sergeant and assigned to the 17th (Albany Park) District. The promotion came after U.S. District Judge Prentice Marshall imposed sanctions on the Chicago Police Department for unfair hiring and promoting practices. Marshall had thrown out the department’s 1973 sergeants promotion list in November 1974 because, he ruled, it discriminated against blacks, Latinos, and women. Schreiner was one of 176 temporary sergeants who’d serve until an acceptable list could be drawn up and permanent sergeants picked. Schreiner remained at Albany Park even after he was restored to his former rank of patrol specialist some three years later.
Someone at WGN TV–Schreiner doesn’t remember who–tipped off WGN radio that there was a cop on the street who was hot to get into reporting. Soon Schreiner started doing free phone-in reports of breaking news. The first one described a shoot-out between cops and robbers at Foster and Harlem in 1977. Then Schreiner got a big, beautiful scoop.
On May 1, 1978, a man carrying a Save the Whales sign attempted to climb the Sears Tower. Reporters and photographers gathered on the street below. Strangely, Schreiner was nowhere to be seen. He was inside the building trying to intercept the climber. On the ninth floor Schreiner came face-to-face with the man. He pressed a telephone against the window and they carried on an interview, the two of them shouting at each other through the glass. It was carried live on Wally Phillips’s top-rated morning show. When it was over, says Schreiner, Phillips offered him a restaurant gift certificate for the dramatic coverage. Schreiner says he told Phillips to forget the meal. “Pay me,” he said. And so was born a working relationship with WGN radio that lasts to this day. “Wally Phillips was my Chinaman at WGN,” Schreiner says.
Schreiner started getting into big trouble for his media work. He contributed to WGN radio and TV, and actually appeared on WLS TV, which identified him as a “police reporter.” He pulled no punches, telling the city when cops did good work and when they did bad work. It was the admission that Chicago police officers might be less than exemplary that sent city leaders into orbit.
According to Schreiner, the new mayor, Jane Byrne, told acting superintendent Joe DiLeonardi to make him quit his media work. (Byrne and DiLeonardi would not return phone calls.) Schreiner submitted his biannual application for secondary employment in October 1979, and to his surprise, for the first time his request was denied. The department said his free-lance news work would interfere with his police duties. Schreiner hired a lawyer and filed suit against DiLeonardi and the Police Department. An injunction allowed him to keep his side job until an appeal could be heard in 1980.
In the meantime, Mayor Byrne appointed a permanent superintendent, Richard Brzeczek. Schreiner reached an agreement with Brzeczek that allowed him to continue free-lancing while working at police headquarters as what Schreiner calls the superintendent’s “spook”–someone who could let him know of unfavorable news coverage before it broke.
So here was Schreiner telling the media what the police were doing and Brzeczek what the media were doing. He says there was no conflict. “If I hear that station x is doing something, that’s no compromising position because I don’t work for that company.” Schreiner still sold footage to WLS TV but he no longer was a police reporter there. And, he says, WGN radio didn’t present a problem, either. “WGN didn’t do exposes. And at that time I didn’t work for WGN news. I worked for Wally Phillips.”
Although Schreiner cut his teeth in the Police Department, his heart is with the city’s other paramilitary service, the Fire Department. High fire officials are his pals. This past Christmas, Fire Commissioner Raymond Orozco’s wife Pat presented him with a personalized fire helmet, a gift from department officials. He carries an ax and fireman’s coat in the trunk of his car. Moments after I called Fire Department headquarters to get in touch with a few of the chiefs, a mole called Schreiner and warned him some snoopy reporter was asking questions about him. “‘We’re not gonna talk to ‘im if he’s gonna hurt you,'” Schreiner says the guy told him.
The chiefs talked. There were dozens of guys I could have talked to in the Fire Department. I didn’t have the same luck with the Police Department. “All my commanders are either in jail, dead, or retired,” Schreiner says. Couldn’t dig up any of his fellow patrolmen either. “Most of ’em are in jail,” Schreiner says.
Schreiner says he developed “personality problems” with Brzeczek and was transferred to a series of desk jobs. “I was being jerked around. They still didn’t like what I was doin’ with the media,” he says.
In February of ’81, Schreiner asked for a one-year leave of absence. He’d seen the coming of a new technology, videotape, and gambled he could make a living off it. Because processing film took time, as a practical matter Schreiner had been able to sell film he shot to only one station. With videotape so easy to duplicate, every local news shop became a market.
“I went out there on the street by myself,” Schreiner says. “But I had fun–that’s the most important thing.”
I’m standing on the curb in front of my house. It is the darkest part of the night, almost two hours before sunrise. It won’t be hard for Schreiner and me to spot each other–there isn’t another car or pedestrian on the street. After a few minutes, I hear a car round a curve two blocks away. Before the car can come into view, the warning gates for the el line next to my house come down. A big gold Mercedes pulls up to the gate. Its driver turns on his overhead light so I can see him. It’s Schreiner. He puts his finger to his lips in an exaggerated shushing motion. A nearly empty two-car train passes.
The gate goes up and the Mercedes pulls up before me. Schreiner leans across the seat and shushes me again. I nod and jump in.
“–I’ll have more details on last night’s quadruple homicide,” Schreiner says, speaking through a little microphone attached to the headset that he’s wearing. It’s a voice that’s a unique mix of cop, Chicago street wise guy, and broadcast reporter. It is the unmistakable sound of Larry Schreiner on the air.
He takes off the headset and apologizes. “I was going live,” he says. Schreiner does two regularly scheduled reports during Bob Collins’s morning show and can break in anytime with a hot story. He’s been driving since midnight. When he’s not driving he’s at home monitoring his radios. He sleeps “whenever.” For the next few hours I get to be this cowboy’s sidekick.
“It’s been a fairly quiet evening,” Schreiner says. “A few arsons, no major fires, and that homicide.” About this time he usually heads toward the lakefront, where he writes notes for his reports. The last few weeks (it is February), though, he’s been reaching the lakefront later and later each morning. He doesn’t want to get too far from O’Hare. “With the war goin’ on, I keep an eye on the airport,” he says.
He doesn’t need to explain why. If there’s a terrorist bombing or a hostage situation at O’Hare, Schreiner wants to be the first reporter on the scene. He’s been one of the first on the scene at countless local tragedies over the years: the crash of American Airlines flight 191 in 1979, the discovery of the bodies in John Wayne Gacy’s crawl space in 1978, Laurie Dann’s rampage in 1988, and the fatal crash of the car carrying Chicago Bears rookie Fred Washington and his girlfriend just last December.
Say a bomb went off at O’Hare. Even before the fire trucks, ambulances, and squad cars, Schreiner, an eye on his radar detector, would be rolling toward the Kennedy. How does he do it? Simple. His car is loaded with radios, scanners, and beepers. He also has his car phone, over which dozens of Schreiner tipsters call him whenever they see or hear of anything big. And he’s already behind the wheel. Oh yeah, he’d be the first reporter on the scene.
The local TV stations would probably cut into their regular programming. Eventually they’d get their minicams out to O’Hare, but that would be in half an hour or 45 minutes. By that time, many of the bodies would have been removed; authorities would have cordoned off the scene. So later in the day the stations would air tape shot by Schreiner: tape of emergency vehicles just pulling up, of bodies being covered by sheets, of the smoke of the bomb still hanging in the air.
God forbid it should ever happen! I thought, as Schreiner talked about keeping an eye on O’Hare. But if it happens tonight, I thought, I’m with Schreiner–I’ll be there.
More than a million people every morning are there vicariously as Schreiner does his reports. “Sometimes, at a fire scene, you can hear him breathing hard. You know he’s right there, he’s in it,” says Ed Curran, who cohosts WGN radio’s evening drive-time show. Curran’s turned the air over to Schreiner any number of times for breaking news.
“He’s the best on-the-scene reporter the world has ever seen,” says morning host Bob Collins. “He has provided some of the most exciting radio moments I’ve ever heard. He’s generally, literally, running down some dark alley. To Larry, a fire is always fresh and exciting. It’s not an act. He’ll say, ‘Watch out, that wall’s going to fall!’ And he means it.”
Most of Schreiner’s night is quiet and lonely. It’s just Schreiner and his radios. A voice comes over one of them: “The baby has been born. The cord is still connected. The placenta’s in the mother.” Schreiner explains that it’s a suburban ambulance crew.
“Now that’s something I can do,” Schreiner says. “I think you could do a birth like that classy. You could even do it with video and still protect Mommy’s privacy. You know, live, hear that baby’s first cry.”
The voice tells its dispatcher that the ambulance has pulled up outside the emergency room. “They’re safe now,” Schreiner says.
We pull onto Cannon Drive behind Lincoln Park Zoo. Here Schreiner can work on his notes in peace. He pulls out a Police Department murder-analysis booklet. “Look at this,” he says, pointing at a line item under the heading “Victims.” “Zero to ten years old, 24 murders in ’88.” He shakes his head. “Everybody knows I love babies.”
He’s looking for background information for the quadruple murder case. Here are the details Schreiner picked up at the scene before he met me today: Someone asked his mother for money to buy drugs. She refused. He walked into the kitchen, picked up a carving knife, and used it on his mother, his sister, her husband, an elderly boarder, and the family cat. Then he walked back into the kitchen and replaced the knife. The suspect’s in custody. “I got some stuff [pictures] that nobody else has,” Schreiner says.
He picks up a Sun-Times now. He peers at each page through reading glasses. He comes to TV columnist Robert Feder. “I haven’t been indicted so I won’t read the whole thing,” he says.
Schreiner tells me he wants to get a copy of the Daily Herald. We need to go downtown for that. We pull out slowly. A lonely jogger goes by. “I’m gonna do somethin’ about the joggers today,” he says. He can’t fathom why anyone would jog alone in the dark here in Lincoln Park. Another Schreiner trademark: the news report that is more like a wise old uncle’s scolding–“I don’t know how many times I have to tell you people, don’t jog in unlit areas. . . . ” We stop near some old-fashioned lampposts. Shattered glass litters the asphalt beneath them. “You know who did that?” he asks. “The bad people.”
We ease onto Lake Shore Drive, southbound. Schreiner’s conversation wanders to a case that took a bizarre turn last weekend. A four-year-old girl disappeared. A man who was helping police search for her was arrested. The police charged him with raping and murdering the little girl and dumping her body in Lake Michigan. “I’m not sayin’ he did it, you know, you gotta say ‘alleged’ and all that, but this guy deserves capital punishment,” Schreiner says. Then, almost as an afterthought, he adds: “I wanna be there when they do Gacy.”
The Gacy case was a Schreiner scoop. He lives not two blocks away from the lot on Summerdale, in Norwood Park, where Gacy’s house stood in 1978. Schreiner could tell something was up by monitoring his radios. A big surveillance was going on–but where? About a week before the story broke, a car squealed around the corner while Schreiner and his son were pulling out of their driveway. The car, a big black sedan with a spotlight, almost hit Schreiner’s car. Later that day, Schreiner ran a license plate check and found the sedan was registered to a construction company located at an address on Summerdale Avenue. The sedan, and the company, happened to be Gacy’s. A week later Schreiner heard some of the cops on the radio mention the construction company while talking about the surveillance. The puzzle was starting to come together slowly. Schreiner still didn’t know why the cops were watching that house–his police sources weren’t saying anything. That’s how he knew the case was big.
One night in December Schreiner got a tip to go to Gacy’s house right away. “I get there, there’s 22 squad cars,” Schreiner says. “One of the policemen there, one of the big shots, I went to police school with. I said to him, ‘What can you tell me?’ very inconspicuously. He says, ‘I can tell you nothing.’ I says, ‘What should I do?’ He says, ‘Under no condition leave this house.'”
The cops all left. Schreiner stayed put. “There was another guy [waiting] there and he shot stringer film like I did except he was shooting for Channel Nine and I was shooting for Channel Seven. We flipped a coin and I won. There was one policeman inside guardin’ the house and no policemen outside.
“I said, ‘You ring the front doorbell and talk to the guy.’ As he did that, I went around the back and pressed my nose up against the windows and was shooting as fast as I could. Just scenes of the house. There was a hatchet on the counter.”
Moments later, according to Schreiner, Jay Levine, then with Channel Seven, arrived. Schreiner says he’d been feeding Levine information over the telephone before Levine got there. “I’m tellin’ Jay of the surveillance, the car, the construction business, the license number. I was told there was five bodies in the basement,” he says. Schreiner claims he’s always happy to give another reporter information with the understanding the other reporter will do the same. In addition to his services for Channel Seven, Schreiner was doing phone-in reports for WGN radio. “I’m tellin’ Jay everything and he’s not tellin’ me nothin’!”
Schreiner recalls that Levine did a stand-up report in front of the Gacy house with information he hadn’t shared with Schreiner. “When he gets through I said to him, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that?’ Now it was me the peon and him the big star. He gives me some shit, I give him some back. We were standin’ there nose to nose, shouting and screaming at each other. We didn’t talk for about a year and a half.”
(“I have no memory of that,” says Levine. “I have a memory of a rift that developed between us but I have no memory of that incident.” At any rate, things have been smoothed over. “I was always one of Larry’s boosters,” Levine says. Schreiner concurs and says, “I would like to think that Jay Levine is a friend of mine. He gave me my nickname ‘the Torch’ and he has done a number of nice personal things for me.”)
We’re driving downtown looking for a Herald box that isn’t empty, but it’s too early. The streets are still almost empty. We pull up in front of the Tribune Tower, where the WGN studios are located. Schreiner runs inside, and emerges a few minutes later with a copy of the Herald tucked under his arm. He tells me he rarely makes an appearance in the WGN newsroom. “I belong on the street,” he says.
We cruise down Ontario Street past the motor homes and trailers of the Shrine Circus parked outside the Medinah Temple. At LaSalle, Schreiner eyes a telephone. He jumps out of the car to make sure it works; he will do his six o’clock report on that phone. “I like to use land lines. I save WGN a little money,” he says.
It’s three minutes before six. Schreiner gets out of the car again and takes his notes with him. He makes his connection in the phone booth. At 6:05 it’s time for Schreiner. “Police have called this a very vicious, violent murder,” Schreiner reports, stressing the alliteration.
After the broadcast Schreiner shifts from reporter to self-employed businessman. He calls WGN’s “traffic central” over his car phone and asks the woman there to call the WBBM TV newsroom. He tells her to ask for a particular woman. “Talk to only her, not the guy with the gravel voice,” he warns. He tells her to have the woman call him in his car. He hangs up, and explains that he saw another stringer for WBBM at the murder scene–somebody close to someone in the WBBM news department. “But I got two shots I know he didn’t get,” Schreiner says. Now he wants to make sure the station uses his tape. He’s worried that the station will show favoritism and use the other guy’s footage anyway. If that happens, Schreiner promises me that he’ll stop supplying WBBM with tape.
For various breaches of Schreiner’s code of loyalty, he has already cut off WGN for two stories and WBBM for a year. At this moment he’s got a boycott going against WMAQ. “Sure I lose money but I got my pride,” he says.
(It turns out that WBBM does use the other guy’s tape. Six months later, Schreiner’s still boycotting WBBM. He hasn’t forgiven WMAQ either.)
We head to the area west of the Chicago Stadium. It’s a rough neighborhood and the sky is still semidark. “Since you’re with me, I’ll use the phone here,” he says as we turn into a vacant lot at Damen and Madison. “If you weren’t with me, I wouldn’t get out of the car. Watch my back.”
He establishes the line for his 6:25 report. A hooker walks by on Madison. She smiles. He smiles. She waves. He waves. She walks over. “I’m workin’,” he says. “So am I,” she says. She looks in the car, the backseat filled with radios, cameras, and tape machines. “What you got all that stuff for?” she asks. But he can’t answer; it’s time for his live report. He gives a few more details on the big murder case. As he speaks, the hooker tries to read his notes over his shoulder.
A white sedan stops at the red light on Madison. The driver stares at the hooker. She runs up to the car to talk to him but after a few seconds runs back to Schreiner’s side. While live, Schreiner tells Spike O’Dell, WGN’s afternoon drive host who is filling in this morning for the vacationing Collins, about his new friend. Schreiner asks the woman to tell him her name. She giggles and refuses. O’Dell expresses disbelief that there is a hooker at Schreiner’s side. “It could only happen to me!” Schreiner roars.
Schreiner climbs back into the car and waves good-bye to the hooker. Another car stops and the driver calls her over. She runs to him. Why aren’t these white suburban guys afraid in a neighborhood that scares even you? I ask Schreiner. “Their raging hormones overcome their naivete until steam starts comin’ out of their ears,” Schreiner responds sagely.
Schreiner himself has been driven past the point of fear by his own urges. “He’s an action junkie,” says Father Mulcrone. “He’s addicted to adrenaline.” One day in July 1989, Schreiner gave himself one hell of a rush. Three car thieves had led police on a 100 mile an hour chase before ditching their car near the Kennedy Expressway and Irving Park Road. Schreiner arrived in the area in time to cover the foot search. He shot some tape of cops pounding the bushes and did a live report over WGN radio, then pulled over at a spot where he used to sit and fill out reports when he was a sergeant in that area. “[The police] were looking for a black man. Well, there aren’t too many black men in that neighborhood. I look to my left and there’s a black man in the weeds! Now, [the police] had an idea who the guy was. The other guy had finked on him. So let’s just say his name is Bill Smith. I said, ‘Hi, Bill! How are ya?’ With this, Bill gets up and zoom!–like a shot. I jumped out of the car and fortunately grabbed my two-way WGN radio. I thought of grabbin’ my camera but I didn’t.
“Up the railroad embankment, down the railroad tracks, and if the guy was six-foot-four, six feet of him were legs. I figured I’m never gonna catch this guy. So I hollered out, using profane language which I never use, but for effect, telling him stop or I would shoot, that I was a policeman. The guy dropped anchor right in the middle of the railroad tracks! I bluffed him!
“I figure I’m gonna get hit by a train now. So I get him off the tracks, stretch him out, and search him. I was a policeman for almost 20 years–it came back to me just like that. All the policemen pull up and it’s, ‘Hi Sarge, how are you?’ ‘Nice to see you. Ya back in the district?’ These were my men!
“They said, ‘OK, we’ll take him.’ I said, ‘Hold it! I’m gettin’ this guy’s picture. Stretch him out across that Mercedes and search him!’ I got all the pictures in the world.
“I did my regular radio report and I started to explain what had happened, then I got scared. I said, ‘Bob, now it’s startin’ to hit me what I just did. I did something very stupid! You know, I’m always tellin’ the public, drop a dime and be careful.'”
Schreiner got big play out of the incident. WMAQ TV and WLS TV did features and the Sun-Times ran a story on him. That September Alderman Ed Burke, an old pal from their teenage days when they both worked summer jobs for the Chicago Bureau of Forestry, sponsored a City Council proclamation praising Schreiner for his courage.
It’s getting lighter out. We pass the corner of Madison and Oakley. “This building here,” says Schreiner as he points at a boarded-up wreck, “it’s where I got stuck on the roof during the riots.” He was shooting film so intently during the west-side riot in ’68 that he didn’t hear police warnings to come down. The violence soon engulfed Madison. He had to stay on the roof until things cooled down.
One block west, he points at an old theater building. A savage murder happened there. The police allowed him to come inside because they needed his heavy-duty lights. In exchange, he got pictures of the body. “The guy was lyin’ under a picture of Jesus. Most amazing thing you ever saw,” Schreiner says.
We’re getting deeper into rush hour, and the radios fill with so many squawking voices that they run over each other. “I’m tryin’ to listen to everything from Indiana to Wisconsin and Lake Michigan to Elgin,” Schreiner says. The car has sprouted five visible antennae. A sixth is hidden. “Somebody once called this an antenna farm,” he says.
Schreiner is never out of earshot of the radios. When he stops for a cup of hot chocolate and a short stack in some corner dive, he carries a couple of portable radios and listens through earphones. He doesn’t need to be near a phone for his tipsters to reach him. “He’s never with less than four beepers on him,” says WGN radio’s general manager, Dan Fabian, who relates this anecdote: Every so often, the early-morning news staff goes to lunch with Bob Collins. Once they decided to play a trick on Schreiner. In the middle of lunch, one person after another excused himself, went to the public phone, and dialed one of Schreiner’s beepers. Schreiner’s beepers were sounding almost continuously. “He looked like a man swatting flies,” Fabian says.
Home isn’t a refuge; he never turns off the radios in his far northwest side ranch house. “He’s a strange, strange man. He works seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” says Collins. “He never sleeps; I don’t know how he lives.” Oh sure, Schreiner probably closes his eyes every now and again. He might even take off his clothes and get into pajamas. But if the voice coming over one of those radios as much as hints that this call might be a big one, Schreiner snaps to, throws on a pair of jeans, and cranks up the Mercedes.
The sound of those radios wafts through the Schreiner home. “When I’m at school I miss hearing the radios,” says his son Mark, a student at Michigan State University. “Now when I sleep at the dorm, I keep on a radio just to have some sort of noise.”
I would like to have asked his ex-wife what she thought of those interminable radios. But Schreiner implored me not to contact her or print information about their marriage. It’s not unreasonable to assume that those radios, and those hours, put it under some strain.
We shoot up Western Avenue toward the WGN TV studios, where Schreiner will deliver a tape of the quadruple-murder scene. Once we’re there, he fumbles through the equipment in the backseat, looking for the tape. He can’t find it. He gets out and opens the back door–a tape falls out at his feet. “I think this is it,” he says, “but I didn’t label it.” Schreiner runs the tape through his duplicating machine. “Yeah, this is it,” he says, then brings it inside.
We drift back to the lakefront. Near the totem pole at Addison, Schreiner delivers the last of today’s reports. It’s about 8:30. He can go home now.
Nothing stops Larry Schreiner. Hell, he was even buried by a brick wall 19 years ago. Schreiner was shooting pictures of a factory blaze at Lake and Albany; as usual, he moved in closer to the action than any sane person would. Suddenly, one of the walls toppled over on him, knocking him unconscious. One of the firemen immediately called Schreiner’s father and told him the bad news–Schreiner was dead. “He’s not talking,” Schreiner says the fireman told his father, “and you know if he’s not talking, then he’s dead!” Schreiner suffered head and back injuries that hospitalized him for three weeks. “I’ve been in the hospital 27 times,” Schreiner says matter-of-factly.
A little over two years ago, Schreiner thought he was through. He was out on the lake with friends off Diversey harbor, and the rough autumn waters tossed their boat around like a toy. One wave sent Schreiner skidding on the deck. A hard corner shattered his kneecap. Schreiner was in such pain that his friends considered calling for a Fire Department helicopter. He refused, of course, explaining through clenched teeth how terrified he was of choppers.
After an operation, Schreiner was fitted with a cast that would stay on for a month. Then a physical therapist walked into his hospital room. “You have to learn how to walk again,”‘ Schreiner says she told him. “This was all a shock to me.”
As he began his daily therapy sessions, Schreiner despaired. “I was afraid to go out of the hospital. I have never been a cripple.” Even after he was released, he remained sure that his life of action was over. “I go home and I sit there. I can’t drive. I can’t go nowhere. I’ve never been lower in my life,” Schreiner says.
“He didn’t even watch the news because he didn’t want to see what he was missing. He couldn’t do what he loved doing,” says Mark Schreiner.
At least he was around a lot of nurses.
Schreiner needed a kick in the pants. A friend at the time was dealing with a relative who had cancer. According to Schreiner, the woman got tired of listening to his tale of woe. “She called me selfish. She looked me in the eye and said to me, ‘What you had is not a tragedy. It is a temporary setback.'”
Schreiner’s back arched at selfish. “It was like a dare,” he says. He not only was going to recover, he was going to come back better than before. He made plans to run a mile down Michigan Avenue on behalf of the Illinois Special Olympics. On a stormy day in the spring of 1990, Schreiner, his sons Matthew and Mark, and Deputy Fire Commissioner Dick Fitzpatrick, a close friend, took off running south from Oak and Michigan. “We ran that mile in six minutes–we thought we were gonna get hit by lightning,” Schreiner says proudly.
But he still couldn’t shake the memory of his friend calling him selfish. So, without telling them exactly why, he sent dinner invitations to all his close friends who’d suffered through the trauma with him. The guest list ranged from Fire Commissioner Orozco and his wife to the nurses who cared for him in the hospital. “We were guessing the sucker got married and was announcing it,” says Wayne Vriesman.
When the 50 or so guests entered the restaurant, each woman was given an orchid. Then Schreiner took the microphone and introduced everyone in the room, thanking each personally for helping him recover. It was a new Larry Schreiner who hosted that dinner. “The injury gave him time to think about life,” Mark Schreiner says. “It made him look at things differently.”
This unabashed sensitivity and the ability to express his gratitude may indeed have been new facets of the old man, but one thing has been a constant throughout his life–his fierce devotion to his sons. “He’s never afraid to say he loves his sons,” says Al Lerner, Ed Curran’s broadcast partner. “He would cut off his limbs for them and they for him,” says Father Mulcrone.
“I’m majoring in telecommunications because of him,” says Mark Schreiner. Mark speaks lovingly of his father and mentions qualities like honesty, fairness, and trust that Larry tried to teach Mark and his twin brother Matthew, a sophomore at DePaul University. Like his father, Mark considers himself a rebel. “I’m a rebel not to what he taught me but because of what he taught me. I’m not a bad-kid rebel. I’m rebelling because I’m standing up for what I believe in. [Larry Schreiner] sticks by what he believes in.”
Yet in at least one respect Mark is unlike his dad. Larry Schreiner tells this story: Mark, now a sophomore, arrived at Michigan State and immediately auditioned for an on-air position at the college television station. He didn’t make the cut. “If it was me,” Schreiner says, “I’d a said ‘Screw ’em!’ I’d a gone back to the dorm and I’d never talk to ’em again. He says, ‘Well, could I be a cameraman?’ Now he’s a cameraman on the crew. He’s a team player.”
Mark and Matthew have assembled and produced a two-hour video called Fires . . . Chicago Style. A percentage of the proceeds will go to the Gold Badge Society, which aids families of fire fighters and paramedics killed in action. Ostensibly, the video honors the city’s fire fighters using footage shot by Schreiner since 1968. My suspicion is that the project really is two boys’ homage to their dad.
Schreiner and the WGN broadcasters in the studio frequently make small talk together, and Schreiner talks about his sons every chance he gets. This helps make him particularly popular with WGN’s middle-aged female audience. “My mail is very positive and it’s running 80 percent female,” Schreiner says.
“Women find him attractive because he’s mysterious,” says Marilyn Longwell. “They sense that there’s more behind the surface. He’s not as perfect and strong as the image on the radio. They hear him talk about children, friends, and people in the hospital. They find him more emotional than the man on the air.”
“He’s a dangerous teddy bear,” Dan Fabian says.
The Christmas after his injury, Schreiner attended Sunday mass for the first time in 20 years. “Now I sit in the front pew,” he says. “I only hope this–I haven’t talked to Father Tom–but I am sure he will bury me from his parish.”
“I didn’t twist his arm,” Father Mulcrone says. “When he decides to do something, he does it with abandon. It’s something he chose for himself.”
Rush hour is nearly over. It’s time for Schreiner to head home, where he’ll continue to monitor his radios while partaking of one of his few diversions–TV soap operas. But first, he slowly drives south along the lake, while searching for the words to describe what makes him run.
“When I was a sergeant, I always took care of my patrolmen,” Schreiner says. “The guys always said, ‘Sarge, you’re always here for the little guy.’ I am a little guy. It’s my competitiveness. I played everything [in high school] but I didn’t excel in anything.”
He pauses. We are at another of his favorite spots–the parking lot behind the boat house at North Avenue Beach. Although it’s a restful spot, his eyes continue to dart, scanning the horizon for–for what? “Look at those beautiful waves,” he says, pointing to the whitecaps kicked up by today’s chilly wind.
In the blink of an eye, he picks up his train of thought. “I played golf, basketball, tennis, baseball. I always remember the saying, ‘Do you feel like a bed sheet always being turned down?’ You get tired of people saying, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ ‘No, you’re not good enough.’ I wanted to prove everybody wrong. I think I have. I still like to get out there and battle. It’s the fun of beating everybody else.
“There’s a lot of competition in the street now. You’ve got young people, you’ve got amateurs coming out here. But what sets me aside is I know how to cover a story real good. With the new people with cameras out here, we call it hit-and-run. They get to a fire, they take three minutes of tape, they get in their car, and they run to the TV station so they can beat Schreiner.”
He pauses again. A squirrel climbs up on a garbage drum. “Look at that squirrel,” Schreiner says, even in repose still the reporter. “That’s their whole purpose in life,” he says, starting the Mercedes for the ride home. “To beat Schreiner.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.