They don’t make reporters like Hugh Hill anymore.
A giant of Chicago journalism for 43 years, he practically invented the role of political reporter on local television news and played it longer and with more gusto than anyone.
Hill, who died Friday at 89, interviewed every U.S. president from Truman to Clinton and covered every Chicago mayor from Daley to Daley. His in-your-face style of interrogation and remarkable institutional memory made him a legend.
“When he talked, politicians listened,” veteran reporter Chuck Goudie recalled on Facebook Friday. “Hugh taught me this: at any news conference ask the first question, make it the only question that matters — and ask it loud enough that it has to be answered.”
The son of a coal miner from the southern Illinois town of Gillespie, Hill graduated on the G.I. Bill from the University of Missouri journalism school and worked at radio stations in St. Charles, Aurora and Hammond before joining WBBM AM 780 in 1953. He segued to television as “special events director” at WBBM-Channel 2. (“ ‘Special events director’ was a pseudonym for ‘reporter,’ ” he once told me. “They just gave you a title in those days.”)
After a decade at CBS, Hill jumped to ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7 (then WBKB-TV), spending the next 33 years working the political beat from City Hall to Springfield to Washington, D.C.
Long before he was known as the dean of Chicago television newsmen, colleagues in the press room dubbed him “Give Me a Fill Hill,” owing to his frequent requests for a synopsis of the day’s big story. But none could match Hill for his tenacity, his thoroughness or his booming voice, which was audible anywhere with no need for amplification.
Hill declined numerous offers to become a network correspondent over the years, preferring to stay close to home in Naperville with his wife, Jackie, and their five children. “I love local reporting much better,” he said. “You get paid as much if not more, you have more freedom, and you don’t have to travel.”
Two years after his retirement as political editor in 1996, he returned briefly to ABC 7 to report part-time on political campaigns and election night. In 1999, the year he was inducted into the Silver Circle of the Chicago Television Academy, he suffered a mild stroke.
In 1988, on the eve of his 25th anniversary at ABC 7, Hill shared his thoughts with me on everything from the politicos he’d covered to the business he loved:
On politicians’ peccadilloes: “There’s a lot of things you never put on the air and you never report. Nightlife down in Springfield. Let’s face it, you see a lot of politicians out in circumstances that they wouldn’t want to be revealed back home. You just don’t do it. I don’t like to get into a personal thing with any politician I cover. Their personal life is their own until it becomes part and parcel of their job. Then it’s a different story.”
On the key to his success: “I get by because I know what I’m talking about. It’s been my life. I love the business of television news. I think knowledge is power in journalism as well as any other line. If you know more than the next guy, you’re better off, and you’re worth a lot more to the station or to the newspaper you’re working for, And I have more knowledge about the field of politics than anybody in journalism in Chicago. I have an uncanny memory and can remember a lot of things. And I do a hell of a lot of research and a lot of reading. I mean, I work hard.”
On why he jumped from Channel 2 to Channel 7: “For money. Things were going nowhere at Channel 2 and [Channel 7 boss] Red Quinlan promised to build a news operation. He hired me and Frank Reynolds the same day — Oct. 7, 1963. I had just done some documentaries about the prison at Stateville and had done an investigative report on slum conditions with the Chicago Daily News. Four years later, [Fahey] Flynn and [Joel] Daly joined.”
On the “happy talk” label at Channel 7: “‘Happy talk’ was a misnomer. We were much deeper than that. We had a solid news operation. I didn’t like the antics. I didn’t like [John] Coleman standing on his head doing the weather and all the banter back and forth on the air. It kind of sickened me. It was so shallow. We were much better than happy talk. I just refused to get involved in it. I didn’t like it at all. Everybody I talked to at that time I told: We don’t need that kind of silly nonsense on the air. We’re a good news operation.”
On working in a young person’s business: ”If there were something I could do that’s as much fun as broadcasting, then I’d go and retire to it. But there is no such thing. This is more fun than I could ever possibly hope for. Sure, it’s a job and you make good money. But I do it because I love it and I wouldn’t ever want to do anything else. It’s very, very tiring and exhausting physically. But mentally, it’s great. It’s an exercise in real journalism. It’s the essence of broadcast journalism.”
On anchoring: ”I anchored a morning show for about a year at Channel 2, and at Channel 7 I did a co-anchor with Frank Reynolds at 6. I’ll tell you the truth: I never did really like it. I always thought of it as an acting job. I wouldn’t want to let John Drury hear that, but that’s what I thought. You had to be more of an actor than a newsman. You had to come in, pick up a script and read it. I never enjoyed that very much. It’s going out on the street and covering these things that I really love. That’s my game.”
On Mayor Richard J. Daley: “Daley was the best politician I ever knew in my life, bar none, and I’ve known hundreds of them. Without any question of a doubt. He knew everything about politics and he knew about power. There was no second best. He was always No. 1 and he took over everything. He was a one-man show from beginning to end. He lived and dreamed politics and Chicago. He had the power because of all of that. I admired him very much.”
On Mayor Jane Byrne: “Mayor Byrne threw a hell of a party for the four years she was in. I went to several of them. They were really terrific. She wore magnificent clothes every day to the office. She was fun to cover. But let’s face it, she was a lousy mayor.”
On Mayor Harold Washington: ”He was an extremely powerful man. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had enough time to prove whether he could be a good mayor or not. The first term was turmoil. But he overcame them. I think Harold Washington could have become one of the finest mayors this city has ever had. Here was a man devoted to a city and to politics. Like Daley, he was honest and had great integrity.”