Monday, April 22, 2013

College Intern Breaks News of Mass-Murderer’s Arrest

A mass-murderer on the loose terrorized Chicago 47 years ago this summer. His name and photograph were splashed across the local media as the citywide manhunt fanned out across Chicago. The city breathed easier when the news of his arrest was reported on an early Sunday morning. The reporter who broke the story, Philip Justin Smith, was interning at United Press International (UPI) while on summer break from college. He went on to become the best pubic-relations practitioner I’ve ever worked with and a dearly loved friend.

During the summer of 1966, I was serving my first stint as an office boy at the since-shuttered law firm of Altheimer, Gray, Naiburg, Strassburger & Lawton. Exiting the firm’s offices at 1 N. LaSalle Street to make a delivery in the mid-morning of July 14, I was struck by the headline on the early edition of the Chicago Daily News: “Lone Man Kills 8 Nurses.” The women, several of whom were natives of the Philippines, were murdered in a townhouse on E. 100th Street on the city’s southeast side. One nurse, Corazon Amurao, had escaped death by hiding under a bed. The murderer apparently lost track of the number of women, and Amurao managed to see a telling feature on the man’s arm: a tattoo that read “Born to Raise Hell.”

Through fingerprints and other evidence, the police identified the killer as Richard Speck, an itinerant merchant seaman who worked freighters through the National Maritime Union (MNU) hiring hall, just steps away from the murder scene. Back then, suspects often weren’t granted the courtesy of being innocent before proven guilty, and Superintendent of Police O.W. Wilson announced at a news conference that Speck was the murderer. An APB featuring Speck’s NMU ID photo was splashed across television and the city’s four daily newspapers. Chicago lived in fear that the savage would strike again.

That summer, Phil Smith was going into his senior year at Holy Cross College. He came from a line of newspapermen (as they were known in the day). His father, John Justin Smith, wrote for the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times from 1937 to 1983, except for a stint at the local CBS affiliate from 1963 to 1967. Phil said his father hated working in television, but with a wife and nine children to support, the money was too good to pass up. His great uncle, Henry Justin Smith, was managing editor of the Chicago Daily News, where he thought very little of a young staff member, Henry Luce.

Phil was working at UPI that summer, intending on a career in journalism. Because July 17 was a Sunday, and the Tribune and Sun-Times had already completed their massive Sunday editions when Phil reported for work on the overnight shift (and the Daily News and American wouldn’t print again until Monday’s editions), the lad was the only person working in the Chicago bureau. Some time after midnight, he received a call from what he told me was an “informant:” “Speck’s in Cook County Hospital,” the caller said. Phil quickly called County, as it’s known in the vernacular, and to his surprise, a police sergeant answered. “I hear Speck’s been admitted,” Phil said. “Yeah, he’s here and in surgery,” the conversation roughly proceeded, then followed by “Who is this?” Phil promptly hung up and called the bureau chief at home with the news of his scoop. He was told to run with it, and the story hit the wire ten minutes before the Associated Press (AP) followed with its account. For his work, Phil was rewarded by cabbing over to County to work with his boss on the developing story.
In brief, Speck had attempted suicide by slitting his wrists at the Star Hotel, a Skid Row SRO on W. Madison Street, just down the street from the old Chicago and Northwestern train station. He was rushed to Cook County Hospital as a John Doe. A young resident surgeon, while washing the blood off Speck’s arm, spotted the Born to Raise Hell tattoo, and the murderer was identified and arrested.

Another noteworthy event for Phil that summer was his 21st birthday. He sometimes drank with UPI’s veterans after working the overnight shift and was never carded. Completing his shift at 8 a.m. on his birthday, he asked his colleagues to join him at the Billy Goat but found no takers. Phil decided to celebrate for himself and was promptly carded. After eyeballing the driver’s license, the bartender handed it back and said, “Couldn’t you have waited a little longer?”

Phil Smith began his public-relations career at U-Haul through fellow Holy Cross alum Joe Shoen, the son of the company’s founder Sam Shoen. Phil and his wife moved to Phoenix, U-Haul’s headquarters, where their elder daughter, Sarah, was born. From there he returned to the Chicago area and headed public relations at American Hospital Supply, which was acquired by Baxter in 1985. He directed public relations at Baxter during one of the most contentious periods for the company.

Baxter in the early 1990s had been rumored to be cooperating with the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. Management assured Phil that was not true, but the company eventually pleaded guilty to aiding the boycott, a violation of federal law, and paid a $6.5 million fine in March 1993. Phil told me he was livid; after some thought he met with CEO Vernon Loucks and told him “this is what you are going to do” to win back support of the Jewish community. It was not a suggestion. The program was so successful that Loucks was awarded “Industrialist of the Year” by The American-Israel Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Chicago a mere three years later. Phil would resign from the company after, as he told me, “I had to report to a woman in human relations who was not only clueless but clueless that she was clueless.”

I met Phil in 1998, after my partner and I hired Sarah for our fledgling public-relations agency. Phil was a sole practioner, and one of his clients was Dade Behring, Inc., where several ex-American Hospital Supply veterans had landed. He and I worked on the announcements of the controversial recapitalization of the company led by Bain Capital, which paid millions in dividends to Bain and its investors and left Dade with a crushing debt load. We also developed a crisis plan that luckily wasn’t needed when a software malfunction threatened the entire supply to a European country’s blood bank network.

Two years later I left my company to be on my own, and it was then that I witnessed the genius of Phil Smith. He was one of two persons (the other a Harvard-educated lawyer) I’ve known with the greatest ability to take the many and varied opinions from a group of people and synthesize the discussion into the most salient points for use going forward. He was also an excellent writer; some would say he was a perfectionist but working with him I found that untrue. What he would say is, “Don’t show it to me anymore because I’ll only tinker with it.” With that, I knew the work was as close to perfect as possible. For one assignment, we were asked to do a last-minute rescue of an annual report for a major New York Stock Exchange health-services company (when the annual report was a most important document). The investor-relations director told Phil his price was rather high, to which he replied, “It’s because we will get it right the first time.” And deliver it to the CEO’s satisfaction we did.

During this time, Phil was diagnosed with colon cancer. He battled it bravely, and for some time it looked like it was licked. However, the disease had spread, and Phil told me, “The grandkids won’t be buying me a tie for Christmas.” We arranged to meet at his home on September 12, 2001.  As we walked into town for coffee and muffins, I almost asked, for everybody, “Did you ever think you’d live to see something like [9/11] happen?” I think he would have understood. Phil passed away one week later.

Despite (or maybe because of) his Catholic upbringing and education, Phil was not a particularly religious man. He consented to a memorial service, which was more than standing-room-only; many attendees had to listen in the hallway. More than a few people were surprised that we’d known each other for only a few years.
A lone college student breaking a major story on a wire service has been replaced by Tweets and social-media posts. Phil called himself a curmudgeon, so I've wondered what he'd make of this new media order. He was best at what he did, so I'm sure he would have found a niche. You can put that on the wire.