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Meet the Rascals: Cate Plys

Ron Garzotto and Cate Plys

Chicago journalist and historian Cate Plys is one of the newer regular members of “The Mincing Rascals” podcast team. This autobiographical sketch is based on an edited excerpt of an interview I conducted with her in April 2024:

I became obsessed with being a reporter in the third grade. Mom would let us order a paperback book from the monthly Scholastic Books program at school, and I got “Nellie Bly, Reporter” by Nina Brown Baker.  Bly was a pioneering woman journalist in the 1800s who did things like go undercover into an asylum. I thought it was just the coolest thing, the stuff she did.

And of course newspapers were a big deal then. Everybody I knew subscribed to at least one local newspaper. We were a Chicago Daily News family, so that meant Mike Royko on Page 3. I read Mike Royko as soon as I could read. I didn’t understand it a lot of the time, but I read it and just loved him. One of my brothers got Royko’s compilation “Slats Grobnik and Some Other Friends” for Christmas one year, and I loved that book. So yeah, like everybody else who went into journalism around here back then, I wanted to be Mike Royko

My family was all Southeast Side—my mom’s family in South Shore, my dad’s in Hegewisch and East Side. My parents got married in what I think of as the iconic year of 1956 and were ready to buy a house in 1960, when Dolton was rapidly expanding. That was right across the Chicago border from my grandparents in Hegewisch. We were all born in Hyde Park at the University of Chicago hospital, and then my two older brothers and I grew up in a classic ‘60s bungalow in Dolton near my grandparents—though when I was in junior high, we moved three blocks away into a house that actually had a second story, which was amazing to us at the time.

Dad worked at the Sinclair Oil Corp. refinery in Whiting, and then worked his way up into management and eventually became head of the Atlantic Richfield technical center in Harvey. My kids thought it was crazy, and I guess I did too, but his dream growing up was to be a chemical engineer and work for Sinclair, so that worked out for him!

My mom was a homemaker after she got married. Before that, a secretary. I did ask her once, “Didn’t you want to go to college and get a job?” Because growing up in the dawn of the women’s movement, I couldn’t believe anybody would want to be a housewife. I’m sure I was a little jerk about it, because in the ‘70s, society was telling me that girls were not as good as boys, but also that girls could be anything they wanted and we better do something more than be a housewife.

 My mom said she didn’t really want to go to college—and she didn’t have any money to do it anyway–because she didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse, and as far as she knew, that was what she could’ve done with a degree. In the ‘50s and ‘60s society really encouraged and expected women to be homemakers, if they could financially. My mom was the only one of her four sisters who was able to do that, but as far as I knew, all the women in our immediate neighborhood were housewives.

My dad’s parents came directly from Poland, and my mom’s Irish parents had already been here a couple of generations so our ethnic identity felt 100% Polish except on St. Patrick’s Day, when we’d claim that half. I read recently that studies show people’s worldviews are set more by the educational levels of their parents than their own and I think that is so true. We were lucky, and my grandparents and parents worked very hard, so we were middle class by the time me and my brothers were in high school, but a good part of our mindset was grounded in our parents’ poor and working class roots.

My mom’s family, I just found out recently that our first Irish ancestor here on that side arrived just before the Civil War and fought for the Union Army before coming to Chicago. Mom’s parents had been pretty well off until her dad died when she was six, leaving my Gramma with six kids before Social Security even existed. They lived in South Shore but they were spiraling downward financially and pinching pennies my mom’s whole life.

My dad was the first in his family to ever graduate from grammar school, much less high school or college. My Gramma and Grampa from that side both grew up on farms, in Poland and here. Grampa got here by 1912 but Gramma watched World War I firsthand before coming over by herself to stay with an aunt. Grampa started work in the Ford Plant in Hegewisch pretty quickly after he got to Chicago. Gramma brought over two younger brothers, John and Joe, and then they heard everything about World War II from the rest of the family–Nazis invading the farm, taking all the food and shooting one of my great uncle’s eyes out. Meanwhile, here John worked in the Pullman factory and Joe enlisted in the Army, going back to Europe to fight when he could barely speak English.

He fought through North Africa and into Italy before getting killed in Anzio in 1943. He was best friends with Audie Murphy, who used to be very famous as the most decorated soldier of World War II. Audie Murphy’s book “To Hell and Back” is dedicated to my uncle and another of their mutual buddies. I have Uncle Joe’s Army portrait, his Purple Heart certificate, and the telegram telling my Gramma he’d been killed, all framed and hanging in my front room.

So, being Polish and Irish, of course we were Catholic, and everybody I knew was Catholic practically until I went to college.

But by the time I got to journalism school at Northwestern I was a little jaded because I worked as a stringer through high school for the Southtown Economist covering south suburban town meetings and it was sooooo boring. Meanwhile I’d been reading my older brother’s Mad Magazines my whole life and then National Lampoon when he started getting that. I grew up in the ‘70s really, and that was a real heyday for National Lampoon, which most people these days remember for its movies, like Animal House. So when I got to Northwestern and found that a few other people had started a humor magazine, I joined that instead of working for the Daily Northwestern. And that’s how I met two of my lifelong friends–Robert Leighton, who’s a New Yorker cartoonist and puzzle maker if that’s a word, and Neil Steinberg, who became a columnist at the Sun-Times. They started the magazine with a couple of other people, and they may not want the responsibility for it but they all picked the name “Rubber Teeth.” It was supposed to mean “biting humor that doesn’t hurt.” Even though I’m of the view that, sometimes, humor should hurt. And they are too. I don’t know why they picked that name.

So all my free time, I put into Rubber Teeth for all four years. I just did one thing for the Daily in all the time, a big feature on the professional wrestling scene here at that time. I didn’t do the smart thing and amass a big set of clips. Actually, I almost did one smart thing but then I screwed it up. My advisor when I got there told me to take classes with Garry Wills, who had just arrived, because he was a well known journalist with a syndicated column. I had never seen his column because it didn’t run in the Daily News and then I guess I just didn’t notice it in the Sun-Times. Garry Wills is not your typical reporter though. He reads ancient Greek I think. He was almost a priest. But I took his first class at Northwestern, which was about art featuring revolutionary Americans like George Washington mostly. I didn’t see what it had to do with reporting. But later he did classes like an entire one on Kissinger, so Garry Wills became a big influence on me. Just the smartest guy in the world with a voice exactly like Orson Welles.

What sticks with me the most was that Garry Wills was obviously the smartest person I’d ever meet, but he always specifically told us not to just believe other people were right, even him. To figure things out ourselves. That’s actually a big lesson. Anyway Garry Wills was my one real opportunity to get a foot into journalism, because frankly Medill did nothing for us back then. Just nothing. There was a bulletin board with a few index cards about reporting jobs, and that was it. And I never had a journalism professor that I had any relationship with, which was probably partially my own fault. But I took all these classes with Garry Wills. And he had a friend who edited the newspaper in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He told me toward the end of junior year that his friend would give me a summer internship. This was right at the beginning of unpaid summer internships, I think. God knows I had never heard of such a thing. When I told my parents I could go work at a newspaper in Fort Wayne, but they wouldn’t pay me anything and we’d have to pay my rent in Fort Wayne on top of that, my parents just laughed. That’s what I mean about getting your parent’s mindset. The idea that I would work for free instead of working full-time and living at home to save money for the summer, it was just insane. They said no, and I spent the summer as usual working as a receptionist. I’ll never forget the look on Garry Wills’ face before class one day when I told him that I couldn’t do that internship. He just could not believe it.

I ended up going to grad school for a master’s in public policy at University of Chicago, and it was really all because my best friend was doing it, the program was new and handing out scholarship money to get started, and I had double majored in political science, and I had no job prospects. So I just thought, well, this could be useful in getting a reporting job maybe. Or it won’t be a blot on my record. I had no clue really. I concentrated in urban policy and nuclear weapons policy, which will give you an idea of how all over the place I was at the time. But while I was there I got a job working at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which is located on the UChicago campus, and that year they were celebrating their 40th anniversary and needed somebody to coordinate the thing. Then I just segued into being what we called the Promotions Director, learning how to run a tiny magazine’s direct mail campaigns and advertising.

And then, most importantly, SPY Magazine started up in 1986 as I was getting out school and I was crazy about it. It was journalism, it was real stories, but always completely hilarious. It was like National Lampoon if it had turned to journalism. I was already freelancing while I worked for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and my whole focus became getting into SPY. It was clear the only way to do it was to be able to meet someone who worked there to pitch them a story directly. I was already living with my husband Ron. He’s a tax accountant, who grew up in Roseland,  also Southeast Side. He went to NIU and DePaul to finish his bachelor’s and then get his master’s.

So Ron held down the fort here with our cats while I lived in New York for a year or so, working as a temp at offices during the day and working on SPY proposals at night. Temping paid very well. My friend Rob was in a comedy group with an assistant editor at SPY, and that was my way in. We pitched an article together comparing real biographies of famous people with their biographies written for children. We could have done the whole thing on John F. Kennedy alone, of course—adult biography JFK cheating on Jackie with everybody in sight, versus child biography JFK who’s a devoted husband and father. Then I had my SPY relationship and I could move back home to Chicago and pitch from here.

My favorite SPY article was a big spread on the ridiculous dress codes at some of the big firms in town, which I discovered from temping all over Manhattan.One day I went to a job at a Wall Street financial firm and the woman who showed me around the office looked me over and said, “Welllll, OK, I guess you can stay, even though you’re wearing pants.” Now these weren’t jeans. I was dressed nicely for work. But I looked around and, sure enough, there wasn’t a woman on the vast floor who was wearing pants. This is 1990. When SPY bought the idea later, I flew back for a week and hung out in front of major office buildings to catch employees coming out and quiz them on their dress codes. Talk about fun research.

Well SPY actually went bankrupt after only a few more years, right before they could publish another big article I’d done for them. But luckily at just that time, in 1993, the Reader hired me as a staff writer. I’d been freelancing for them as soon as I got back to Chicago, and I just gave them that SPY article to run—it was a timeline of failed Doomsdays throughout history. Ron and I had finally made ourselves legal and gotten married, and what I loved best about the Reader was that they hired me when my stomach was out to here because I was at least eight months pregnant with my oldest daughter. I thought when I went to see Mike Lenehan, the editor, that he’d take one look and say yeah, maybe not. Because that would not have surprised me back then, even though we were out of full-on Mad Men kind of days. The offices I worked in through college and in New York, there was a foot still in that time period—I mean, remember the pants. But Mike Lenehan didn’t even bat an eye. And that’s the Reader for you. I didn’t have to move anywhere to pitch stories to the Reader. They read the first pitch I ever sent them as a complete stranger, they liked it, they bought it, and a few years later, they hired me.

One of the things Mike Lenahan wanted me to do was develop short articles to break up the longer ones in the Reader. And one of the ideas I just threw out at him on a whim was, well, what about City Council? At that particular time there was only straight regular news coverage of City Council so I said, come on, there’s gotta be all kinds of crazy stuff going on at these meetings. And he said “Fine, go do that.” So I started a City Council column organized around their meetings, and after I’d been doing that for maybe five years Nigel Wade came to edit the Sun-Times. He was either from Australia or New Zealand. Great accent. He wanted to inject some of that Brit-tabloid sensibility into the paper’s coverage. God knows he didn’t read the Reader, but he mentioned it to Neil, who told him that was kind of what I was already doing. Nigel was like, “Yeah, that’s what I want.” So I started writing a City Council column for the Sun-Times but kept my staff job at the Reader.

Nigel told me after a while that he’d like to put me on page six on the days when political editor Steve Neal’s column wasn’t there, which I perhaps stupidly took to be the offer of a staff job. He said if I started writing an op-ed column for him weekly, and he was happy with it, we’d do that. Ron and I decided that was worth the risk of leaving the Reader, because I had two young daughters at that point and there was no way I was going to keep working full-time for the Reader AND do the Sun-Times every week, at least well enough to earn a job there. But it was a gamble and I lost. Before Nigel followed through he got bounced out unexpectedly and the two new editors weren’t going to do anything for me. I heard from a reliable source that I was too feminist for them. Which I should have known since my direct editor there told me they wanted me to stop writing anything with a feminist bent after I wrote a column about a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas suing over being required to wear high heels to work. But I think I couldn’t really believe it, so I didn’t take it too seriously. Whatever—they made it clear they weren’t going to hire me or give me a better spot in the paper. So I asked Bruce Dold, who was op-ed editor at the Tribune, if he’d be interested in my column, because I figured if I wasn’t going to get back on staff somewhere I might as well work at a better paper.

Bruce, bless him, took me on, and I stayed at the Trib for I’m going to say less than two years because my old editor at the reader, Alison True, wanted me back there. I went back to the Reader for a while, but they were already not doing well financially anymore so it was still not an opportunity to get a real staff job with benefits again. The Reader just wanted political stuff from me at that point, and free lancing doesn’t pay much when you’re having to put on a suit most days of the week and pay for transportation or parking to go downtown and hang around in City Council committee meetings and regular meetings and so on. I wasn’t just out of college anymore. So eventually I decided to chuck it and, while still freelancing here and there, work more creative stuff because frankly, that’s how bad freelance journalism paid.

I spent a lot of time teaching myself screenwriting, and my cousin and I wrote a play we produced at the Atheneum, but we couldn’t sell the screenplay. For a good ten years I worked on screenplays while raising my kids and starting to care for my parents, because my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimers and my mom wasn’t doing well either. One of my screenplays was a rom-com where the three adults in the triangle had grown up in Roseland, and I decided to turn that into a novel where I’d flesh out their childhood in 1972 for the first half of the book. And that turned into my main project these days, “Roseland, Chicago: 1972.”

Roseland, Chicago: 1972” is a website with several features related to its center, the serialized story of Steve Bertolucci, a ten-year-old Roselander in 1972. The thing is Steve and his friends live in this strange world of 1972, a place so far removed from 21st century Chicago that even those of us who are from there may barely recognize it anymore. My own kids would not be able to understand the intensely Catholic world those kids lived in, because Ron and I aren’t religious. I’m an atheist, he doesn’t like to define himself with that label. But my kids wouldn’t even know what Confession or Communion was. Not really.

So I knew I’d have to reconstruct the basics of that world for anybody to understand the story. The kid’s part of the plot revolves around their Catholic school. When I turned the book into a website on Substack, besides the novel chapters, I added a section of Notes, giving background on all kinds of things from the beginning of Chicago as a city to the history of Chicago newspapers. The other two main sections are THIS CRAZY IN 1972, and Mike Royko 50+ Years Ago Today. TCD1972 goes through that year week by week, pulling fascinating pieces out of all five of Chicago’s daily newspapers at that time. If you dip a toe into that, you get used to the sexism, racism, teenagers getting expelled from school for long hair, planes getting skyjacked every day, and of course Mayor Daley—the first one.

And I had to add Mike Royko, because of course I always wanted to be Mike Royko, but also if you want to understand 1972 Chicago, he’s a great place to start. Steve, the novel’s main character, also comes from a Daily News family, so he relates things to Mike Royko columns too. In the Mike Royko 50+ Years Ago section, I take every 1972 column and break down the political and pop culture background so today’s readers will understand who he’s writing about and get all the jokes.

Going through the papers and Royko, I often run across fascinating Chicago history tidbits that really deserve an entire post of their own, so I began setting those off as Chicago History Rabbit Holes, and now that has its own section too. For instance, in Mike’s February 25, 1972 column–Mike gets a tip that a has-been mobster named Louis Tornabene is scheduled for a small-time hearing at the Chicago Avenue police court. Mike shows up to mock Tornabene, because he used to be a tough guy running a mob strip joint called Eddie Foy’s, and now he’s a used car salesman. So after covering that in the Mike Royko section, I looked at Eddie Foy’s—what the heck is that? That turns into a rabbit hole that leads me through FBI wire transcripts to the seedy strip joints that used to line Wabash and State in the South Loop, and then to Eddie Foy himself, who used to be one of the most famous entertainers of the late 19th century-early 20th century. And Eddie Foy takes us to the worst single-building fire in Chicago history, the Iroquois Theatre fire.

So, that’s what I’m doing when I’m not cramming on news for “The Mincing Rascals,” running or walking the dog. Ron is still a tax man. We’ve lived in Hyde Park since 1984, our kids are both grown up and for now living in Brooklyn, until they understand that Chicago is the place to be.