Hank DeZutter, reporter who championed neighborhood news and profiled Barack Obama in 1995, dies at 80


LINCOLN PARK — Hank DeZutter combined the street smarts of a Chicago reporter, the whimsy of a jazz-loving poet, and a reformer’s distaste for things unfair or unjust.

But while doing and teaching journalism in a career spanning half a century of social and political change, DeZutter is best known to those who knew him. He was, said one of them, “a remarkably gentle man.”

DeZutter, 80, died July 14 from a traumatic fall to the brain suffered July 10 at his apartment in Lincoln Park, where he lived in retirement with his wife Barbara Belletini Fields.

An avid city dweller and observer, DeZutter made no secret of — or pushing — the fact that he attended Glenbrook North High School, where he led the golf team and edited the school newspaper. He pursued literary studies at Williams College, but later transferred to the University of Michigan, just in time for the revival of anti-war activism. His interests widened from Shakespeare to IF Stone, and he pursued a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

He worked summers, then full-time after graduation, as a reporter for the Lerner newspaper chain covering the northern suburbs. DeZutter’s coverage of ’60s-style social unrest caught the attention of the editors of the Chicago Daily News and soon, as the paper’s education editor, he was explaining to readers the methods and motivations of radical groups such as the Weather Underground. . At one point, he would later tell friends, he had to beg radical organizers not to deliver their freshly drafted manifestos to his north side apartment.

In 1970, he won a national journalism award for exposing the FBI’s recruitment of students to spy on radicals on the University of Illinois campus. Later that year, his follow-up coverage of the fatal shooting of students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guardsmen was also praised. Studs Terkel considered him one of the best journalists he had read covering the movements of the time. He and his second wife Pamela Little DeZutter were featured in Terkel’s tome “Race” exploring their lives as a bi-racial couple. Both stories later co-written for the Chicago Reader.

Perhaps doubtful that sit-ins and walkouts can end the war in Vietnam or racial inequality closer to home, DeZutter took time off from daily journalism to serve as an assistant to Seymour Simon, a freelance attorney at spirit who once served as a Chicago alderman. , a member of the Cook County Council and ultimately a justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois.

His testimony of both public advocacy and behind-the-scenes pragmatism has helped make DeZutter a uniquely effective interpreter of current events…and a gifted teacher for the next generation of urban affairs writers and community organizers. “Very few people have done more to fight institutional racism, in journalism and education, than Hank,” said first wife Janet Jonjack.

In 1968, he helped launch The Chicago Journalism Review in reaction to the strongly pro-police coverage the mainstream media gave to the violence surrounding the Democratic National Convention. CJR ceased publication in 1975, but last year DeZutter ran a commemorative edition. The online effort recalled CJR’s damning 1969 criticism of the equally one-sided mainstream media coverage of the deadly pre-dawn police raid on the sleeping leaders of the Black Panther Party.

DeZutter left the Daily News in 1970 and began teaching journalism and essay writing at Malcolm X College on the Near West Side, with side gigs at Truman College in Uptown and Columbia College on the South Loop. Along with publisher/activist Thom Clark, he helped launch the Community Media Workshop, a foundation-funded effort to help community organizations get better press…or tell their stories directly to a wider audience. The Community Media Workshop was the predecessor to Today’s Public Story.

“He loved listening to people who were making a difference, who weren’t making headlines, but then writing their stories in such an engaging way,” said longtime contributor Clark. “Hank understood the dangers of ‘objective’ journalism, or simply telling ‘both’ sides of a story. He practiced and taught a “fair and balanced” approach to reporting that went beyond official sources and led to better stories for the reader.

DeZutter also became a regular contributor to the weekly Chicago Reader, where he specialized in what one of its editors, Michael Miner, remembers as “neighborhood issues no one else knows about.” ‘would write’. One, about a block in Bucktown where angry residents shut down a drug house, sparked a citywide movement. The mainstream media, DeZutter once argued, too often viewed neighborhoods as “places to find ethnic restaurants or the occasional festival.”

His most compelling story for the Reader involved a little-known South Side attorney running for state senate. DeZutter’s 1995 in-depth biography charted the rise of a young Harvard-educated lawyer with a gift for community organizing. He was titled “What Makes Obama Run?” He would later complain to friends that, a decade after this story appeared, he would be spending half his working days answering phone calls from fact-hungry political reporters stationed around the world writing about Barack Obama. . He and Clark also collaborated on a Reader weekly photo report “Snap Judgments”.

In 1993 he published a popular children’s book, “Who said a dog did Bow-Wow?In his spare time, DeZutter contributed poetry to the Chicago Journal, played jazz and piano boogie, made plenty of golf putts, and often outbid his hand at bridge and poker tables with friends.

DeZutter is survived by his wife, Barbara Belletini Fields, former executive director of Esperanza Community Services, a provider of opportunities for children and adults with developmental disabilities; his daughters Jayne Mattson and Ana Boyer Davis; son Max, Chris and daughter Amanda Kotlyar; as well as his stepson Agward “Eddie” Turner and five grandchildren. Also sisters Joyce Mooneyham and Wendy Callahan.

A memorial will be held at a later date. Contributions are welcome at Gabby Gifford’s Courage to Fight Gun Violence, PO Box 51196, Washington, DC 20091 or here.

DeZutter’s 1995 Chicago Reader Profile on Barack Obama.

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