Walter Oleksy, of Glenview, born June 24, 1930 and died February 11, 2021, was a Chicago Tribune and City News Bureau reporter, magazine editor, freelance writer of magazine articles and author and/or co-writer of more than 70 books, both fiction and nonfiction for adults and young readers.
He attended the two-year University of Illinois at Navy Pier (1951-1953) where he was vice president of a student organization promoting the need for a four-year university which later became The University of Illinois in Chicago at Circle Campus. He was graduated with a degree in journalism from Michigan State University (1953-1955) where he was an editor of the student newspaper, The Michigan State News.
After graduation, he worked as a reporter on the Plymouth (Ind.) Pilot-News. Then he served two years in the U.S. Army as managing editor of the 3rd Armored Division newspaper, Spearhead,in Fort Knox, Ky., and Frankfurt, Germany, from 1955 to 1957.
After the army, he became night rewrite man for Mike Royko at the City News Bureau of Chicago. Royko told him one night, “Walt, you ought to be in television news, instead of on a newspaper,” and when Oleksy asked why, Royko replied, “Because you look normal.” He and Royko often breakfasted together and then played golf, Royko always winning. Royko later became a popular columnist for the Chicago Daily News.
While a reporter for the City News Bureau, Oleksy’s scoop of how a nun saved the lives of dozens of children in the Our Lady of the Angels school fire of December 1, 1958, in which 92 children and three nuns died, became the biggest feature story of the fire and led to him being hired by the Chicago Tribune a few days later.
During seven years on the Tribune (1958-1965) Oleksy rose from neighborhood news reporter to general assignment reporter and then to Criminal Courts reporter. As Federal Courts reporter in 1962, he covered the second trial of gangster Tony Accardo on tax evasion charges. Convicted of those charges a year before, Accardo was acquitted in the second trial.
Oleksy then became a Tribune city desk rewrite man, which he said is “the toughest job on a newspaper, writing front page headline stories as they break and are phoned in by staff reporters.”
As assistant TV editor, Oleksy reported on television’s week-long fast-breaking coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald and Oswald’s subsequent on-camera fatal shooting by Jack Ruby.
By then, Oleksy was a member of the staff of the Tribune’s Sunday Magazine for which he wrote many feature articles. But finding that his work involved editing freelancer’s articles more than writing his own, he left the paper to freelance.
Oleksy considered his most important published book to be Lincoln’s Unknown Private Life, an Oral History By His Black Housekeeper, Mariah Vance, 1850-1860, which he co-edited with Lloyd Ostendorf, a noted artist specializing in Abraham Lincoln images. Oleksy said, “It was a labor of love for me to edit the memoirs of Mrs. Vance’s white biographer, Adah Sutton, and get them published. That was despite strong objection by some Lincoln scholars, although others called it ‘The most important book on the Lincolns in a century’ and ‘They’re like the Lincoln Dead Sea Scrolls.” It was published in 1995 by Hastings House. “It was important to me to get the memoirs published so each reader can decide for themselves to believe them or not. Isn’t that what Freedom of the Press is about? Who ‘owns’ Abraham Lincoln, anyway?”
Oleksy also authored The Old County Cook Book, with hundreds of recipes from Chicago grandmothers who had come to the city from Europe. His books for young readers include a series of four books on maps, science books, histories, archaeology, and biographies of Princess Diana, Christopher Reeve, James Dean, Charlie Chaplin, and Mikhail Gorbachev, World War II generals and admirals, and Hispanic scientists.
His humorous novel for middle readers, If I’m Lost, How Come I Found You, became a two-part ABC-Television movie and spawned a three-book series about a lovable orphan boy seeking a father. He also authored a three-book series of paperback novels, Tom Delos and the Guardians, about teenagers in gang activities.
His most recent books include The Ladies' Room (125 famous women tell all about men); Christmas with the Famous, nonfiction with best-remembered Christmases of 150 famous people, and A Midnight Clear, a novel about a dog's Christmas, with a reverent contemporary nod to the divine Nativity.
His recent novels, for adults, include The Murder-of-the-Month Club (a humorous murder mystery); Clouds Over Pemberley (a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice), and Tomorrow, a contemporary Catcher in the Rye.
While freelance writing, Oleksy moved from Chicago to Evanston where he became a citizen activist on financial and environmental issues. His leadership of citizen efforts to end Northwestern University football game tailgate drinking on the city’s golf course led to an end to that longtime practice which allowed football fans’ driving in neighborhoods while under the influence of alcohol. He moved to Glenview in 1998 where he has ignored politics.
In recent years, he worked on research and writing for projects of his longtime friend, Wilmette author and publisher Jay Robert Nash, involving movies and history.
Oleksy, a lifelong bachelor, was a great lover of dogs, and owned, one at a time, three black Labrador retrievers, each of which lived to be more than 16 years.
“It’s been an exciting, wonderful life being a freelance writer, although the income was always low and uncertain,” Oleksy said. “It was always interesting and educational, researching a new subject and not specializing in anything.
“It was fun to write for pre-teens and teens, and personally if not financially rewarding. One teenage girl wrote me after reading If I’m Lost, ‘I never liked to read, until I read your book. Now I love to read.’ And a boy wrote me about the same book, ‘I read your book while I was in the hospital, after an operation, and it made me laugh.’
“As I told my dog, Max, driving him to the Winnetka dog beach to go swimming, while passing mansions along Sheridan Road, ‘We are rich. We just don’t have any money.’”