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Journalist John Callaway dies

June 24, 2009

Legendary Chicago journalist John Callaway died Tuesday evening in Racine, Wis., his wife confirmed.
Callaway, the longtime host of WTTW-Channel 11's news program Chicago Tonight, died of a heart attack about 6:30 p.m. after growing faint in a Racine store, said his wife, Sandra Callaway.

He was 72 years old.

Callaway founded Chicago Tonight and was the show's host for 15 years before retiring from the job in 1999. He wasn't out of action long though, returning to WTTW a year later as host of the station's Chicago Stories documentary series.
He hailed from New Martinsville, W.Va., where he lived with his sister and parents. His father, editor of the town's newspaper, was "a boozer" who had trouble holding a job, and the family was poor for much of John's early years, according to a 2001 Tribune story about his one-man show, "John Callaway Tonight."

After arriving in Chicago as a college dropout Callaway began his journalism career at the City News Bureau of Chicago and soon rose to radio and television eminence, the story said.

Callaway later was news director at WBBM-780 AM and in 1968 helped change the station to its current all-news format. According to his biography on the WTTW Web site, he was named CBS Radio's vice president for development of all-news stations around the country.

He returned to Chicago a few years later and joined WTTW in 1974 as the station's news director.

"It has been said that John Callaway, who has won more than 60 awards, including seven Chicago Emmys, is the best interviewer on television," according to a 1994 Tribune article. "He can be tough, like when he told Sen. Paul Simon he hadn't mastered his own campaign material. He can be sensitive, like when he delicately asked director Gordon Parks about the death of his son. He can elicit quotable sound bites. Mike Ditka, when he was Bears coach: 'My motives are right, even if my methods stink.' Rich Daley, when he was state's attorney: 'I could subpoena you overnight if you became my enemy.' He made the Frugal Gourmet cry. When Johnny Carson asked William Buckley who was the best interviewer, Buckley answered, 'That chubby fellow in Chicago.' "

Speaking about Chicago Tonight around the time of his retirement in 1999, Callaway said: "We tried to be fair. We tried to view complexity as complexity, as opposed to trying to oversimplify it. And we had a lot of fun, too. But I think if you looked at that program for 15 years, you'd see a lot of the fabric and soul of the city."

Callaway continued to work in the final months of his life, conducting interviews and mediating panels, his wife said. Most recently, he moderated a panel at an iron and steel industry conference in St. Louis in May, she said.

Callaway is survived by two daughters, Liz Foster Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway, from a previous marriage. He was also stepfather to four of Sandra Callaway's children, she said. Funeral arrangements have not yet been made.