Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Chicago Icon #3: Art Petacque

Art Petacque
     I might never have heard the name "Abraham Lincoln Marovitz," whose life brought us Monday's and Tuesday's icons, were it not for Art Petacque, the unofficial mob reporter at the Sun-Times, back when our staff was deep enough to have such a thing. So it's natural to feature him next, while I'm on taking time off from the paper, doing what I normally do on vacations: working.
   Reading this again after many years, two omissions stand out. First, I can't believe I didn't mention the pride Art took at giving mobsters their colorful nicknames—John "No Nose" DiFronzo lingers in memory, as well he would—and that if you look at one photograph of the crime scene of the 1955 Schuessler-Peterson killings that the Sun-Times splashed across their pages, sickeningly graphic by today's standards, there is a rumpled figure in a raincoat clomping around the naked bodies of the boys: Art Petacque. 

     Art Petacque was a police captain when he needed to be a police captain, and a doctor when he needed to be a doctor. He could be a burglar, too, if necessary, slipping into a basement window to snatch a photo for a story.
     "He was the ultimate go-to guy," said former Sun-Times Editor in Chief Ken Towers. "When you needed the story and needed it fast, Art never let you down. He always came through. He was a classic reporter, of the old school."
     Mr. Petacque, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the Chicago Sun-Times, died Wednesday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He was 76.
     He was a colorful presence from a vanished age, with wild, unkempt eyebrows and a soggy cigar, drawing scraps of paper and matchbooks out of his pockets, reading notes on the doings of mobsters and madams. A reporter, not a writer, he gathered facts for stories that were written by others.
     "Art Petacque was a classic Chicago character, and that was his charm," said Metro Editor Don Hayner.
     In an era when Chicago had four major newspapers and fierce competition for scoops, Mr. Petacque was relentless. Every colleague had a story of him placing a call and identifying himself as a detective, or the coroner.
     Or the time he called a mob restaurant hangout, told them the police were on the way for a raid, then strolled in the deserted place to swipe a photo he wanted of a gangster hanging behind the bar.
     "He was an aggressive reporter; he screwed me out of a lot of stories," said former colleague Jim Casey. "He had contacts on both sides of the fence, law enforcement and the outfit. That's what some of the talk was."
     Mr. Petacque was born in Chicago. His father was the second Jewish captain the Chicago Police Department ever had. He went to Austin High School and played football, then attended the University of Illinois.
     In 1942, Mr. Petacque became a copy boy at the Chicago Sun, one of the precursors to this newspaper. He got his big break in 1944, covering the mob hit on Ben "Little Zukie" Zuckerman, and organized crime remained his specialty for the rest of his career.
     "He was never threatened by the mob," said his brother, Gerald Petacque. "People respected him."
     Mr. Petacque once brought a wife-killer to justice, tracking down a key witness, then arranged for another killer to give himself up in 1962. He forced a New York firm to back out of a Chicago real estate deal by revealing its mob connections. He covered the Gacy murders, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.
     In the Summerdale police scandal, when Mayor Daley and Police Commissioner Timothy J. O'Connor had a private meeting that led to O'Connor's resignation, Mr. Petacque had the dramatic details.
     Unable to get close to John F. Kennedy during a 1960 campaign visit to Chicago, he persuaded the manicurist at the Drake to pepper the candidate with questions while she did his nails.
     Mr. Petacque received the Pulitzer Prize, along with the late Hugh Hough, in 1974 for a series of stories implicating convicted robber Francis L. Hohimer in the 1966 slaying of the teenage daughter of Sen. Charles Percy.
     In the old-style division of duties, Mr. Petacque was the reporter, and Hough was the writer. When news of the Pulitzer hit the Sun-Times newsroom, Hough was out and Mr. Petacque was asked—so the story goes—to express his emotions.
     "I wish Hugh were here to tell you how I feel," he said.
     Mr. Petacque also won a local Emmy for his TV reporting for Channel 7, and numerous other awards. When he retired in 1991, the North Avenue Bridge was renamed in his honor.
     "He had so much to teach today's generation of reporters," Towers said. "About aggressiveness. About persistence, about making his editors look good and his paper look good. . . . He made news interesting, and he made it lively and exuberant. His whole life was news. He was one of a kind. There will never be another Art Petacque—his name will live forever."
     Survivors include his wife, Regina; daughter, Susan Block; son, William, and two grandchildren.
     Services are 10 a.m. Friday at Piser Chapel, 5206 N. Broadway. Burial will follow at Memorial Park Cemetery, Skokie.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 7, 2001


  1. The only problem is that Valerie Percy wasn't killed by a burglar, she was killed by a jealous woman, according to the FBI Behavioral Science profilers.
    She was killed by multiple stab wounds to the chest & torso & burglars don't do that, but jealous women do!

    1. Not the only problem, Clark St. Percy's wife saw a man, standing over her body with a flashlight, who then fled. Kinda knocks a hole in your theory....

    2. It's pretty likely that whoever killed Valerie Percy is now dead, but Loraine Percy is still very much alive, though I'm sure she's tired of being interrogated about what she saw.


    3. Lorraine Percy "claimed" she saw a man! No proof of that. No one else saw anyone! There was never a "burglar"!
      She also turned off the alarm system, again "claiming that the older children always forgot to turn off the alarm when they returned home".
      Petaque got played by Percy, who if you remember turned into quite the anti-Semite when he got older!
      Don't forget, the case was investigated by Chicago Police Area 6 detectives, since Kenilworth hadn't had a murder in decades. That means Richard J. Daley controlled the investigation. I wonder what he got out of it?
      And why did Valerie's twin sister, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, fight the release of the autopsy records a couple of years ago? Much of that was published in the Chicago papers afterwards.
      So Neil, go to the paper's morgue or microfilms & look them up.
      I'll trust the FBI profilers, more than I'd trust Lorraine Percy or Sharon Percy Rockefeller.

    4. The murder is still officially listed by the FBI and other agencies as unsolved. The prime suspect was part of a multi-state burglary ring. He bragged about the crime while behind bars. The suspect escaped from a Pennsylvania jail in 1967, and fell to his death from a railroad trestle while being chased by police.

      Several of his accomplices later told authorities that the deceased burglar was the killer, and their stories matched. So some of the investigators believed them. But even after more than five decades, the case has never been officially closed.

      Art Petacque was still in his heyday when I worked at the Sun-Times, in the late Seventies, and one of my older female cousins and his daughter were close friends. So she knew him well, and she assumed that I did, too. But only by sight.

    5. I can see, Clark, that nobody is pulling the wool over your eyes. However, to imply that Loraine Percy and Sharon Rockefeller would conspire to mislead or impede FBI investigation of the Percy murder is unkind, unseemly and unjustified without some evidence. If you know something the rest of the world doesn't know about this case, cough it up, let us all know. Plus, the claim that Charles Percy became an anti-Semite in his dotage is nonsense. That he was no friend of the Israeli right wing doesn't make him a Jew hater in my opinion.


    6. Percy wasn't in his dotage when he became an anti-Semite, he was still in the US Senate! Out of nowhere, he hated Israel, which is why a rich Jewish guy spent millions to defeat him, which made Paul Simon a senator.
      After leaving the Senate, Percy became the head of a totally phony anti-Israel group, based mostly in Lebanon. That group did nothing, except pay Percy for years.
      Even Percy's friends were baffled by his newly found anti-Semitism.

      As to Hohimer's supposed confession, over the years we've discovered that the police have given so many details in their screwed up interviews with suspects, that they know all the details the cops keep secret, except from the actual criminal. Plus claiming to have done such a infamous crime, is a great way to get extra cred in prison.

  2. This weeks columns are great. You have a great many columns in the archives. Great to revisit these old columns. Hope you get some vacation in.

  3. I was Art adjacent one day in the 1990s at the currency exchange that once occupied the entrance to the subway at north and clybourn. He was ahead of me in line . The proprietor Les Bernstein told me who he was. Happy to have never met him proffesionally . I was once pretty mobbed up.

  4. I'm sure he was a great reporter and all, but I can't say I'm exactly inspired by him misrepresenting himself as a police officer or the coroner. That doesn't seem consistent with journalistic ethics, unless ethics don't apply to colorful presences from vanished ages.

    1. Consistent with CURRENT journalistic ethics, you mean. The path is a foreign country, as somebody once said. They do things differently there. Sorry to be the one to tell you.

    2. Did you mean "The past is..."?

    3. Read up on the lore and the history of early and mid-20th Chicago journalism. Art wasn't the only one. Hell, the old-timers at the City News Bureau, Chicago's journalistic basic-training camp for hundreds of reporters, practically tought that kind of stuff to neophytes,in what was probably the best and most competitive newspaper town in the country. To call the rivalries fierce or cut-throat would be a vast understatement.

      Back in the day, it was hand-to-hand combat with pencils, pens, and typewriters. Art was just doing what he had to do. Those tactics were basic survival skills, in a town where it was skill or get skilled.

  5. A fun piece that had me googling a lot of Chicago crime stories. Thanks.


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