By Daniel I. Dorfman–
CHICAGO (WSCR) There are a lot of happy June sports anniversaries in Chicago. The Blackhawks Stanley Cup Championship last year, the six Bulls titles or the NBA drafts when they acquired Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Derrick Rose. But today is a melancholy one as it was ten years ago exactly when this city lost part of its tapestry when Tim Weigel left us.
Weigel, who had been part of the Chicago sports journalism scene for over 25 years, died after a yearlong battle against brain cancer. A career that started in newspapers moved over to television and featured stops at WMAQ and WLS before joining CBS 2.
Weigel had a booming voice, an infectious laugh that was omnipresent in a newscast and he wore garish jackets. He would light up a press room, but always took his craft seriously. Few people seemed to have as much fun as Weigel on the air and had as many pals off the air as he did.
I can’t claim I was a close, personal friend of Tim’s. I wasn’t. But he was always willing to buy me a drink at the Billy Goat and more importantly, if I ever needed the slightest bit of direction as many young reporters need at some point, he was always willing to make a suggestion. This business is intimidating and when someone offers a lifeline, you are always grateful. Tim did that and for this reporter ten years later, I am still indebted.
After being raised in Gurnee and subsequently moving to Lake Forest which he once described as “Pleasantville,” Weigel went to Yale and became the college roommate of the late film critic Gene Siskel who in a sad twist of fate succumbed to brain cancer just like Weigel did.
Weigel graduated from Yale and soon took a job at the now defunct Chicago Daily News before becoming one of the first print reporters to make the transition to broadcasting. He filed reports for WMAQ Radio, the predecessor of The Score, and by 1975, he was in front of the cameras at WMAQ – TV. Two years later he was at WLS, where except for a two year stint as news anchor in the early 80s, he was the lead sportscaster there until 1994.
One of the distinctive parts of Weigel’s sportscasts was his Weigel Wieners, a weekly feature that showed gaffes in the sports world. They made everyone laugh and it was no accident how they were created.
“When he did get to TV he was a fierce competitor and he thought what can I do to be different and he got the idea for Weigel Wieners,” said his son, Rafer, now a sports anchor himself at WLS. “He was the first sportscaster that I know of that started doing sports bloopers back in the 1970s. He just always wanted to stand out and he did.”
In early 1995, Weigel came over to CBS 2 and soon he was the main sports anchor directing the coverage of Michael Jordan’s return to the Bulls and their subsequent second three championship run. He also got the chance to cover his beloved Northwestern Wildcats going to the Rose Bowl following their 1995 Big Ten Championship.
Among the people at CBS 2 sports at the time was Lissa Druss Christman, who is now with a Chicago-based communications consulting firm. Weigel gave her the nickname “Pallorina,” because he would call the men of the department “pal.”
“When you grow up watching an icon like Tim you think he is a personality inside a television set,” Christman remembered. “But working alongside him he was just an amazing person and he treated everyone the same way with open arms and a laugh and just loved everyone. His passion for work was unparalleled.”
But if it seemed like Weigel was having a blast being on the air and doing his job, it is because he was doing just that.
“He always wore this bright jacket and in one of the Bulls championships I can remember Bill Wennington throwing him in the shower while we were on the air,” said his then CBSS 2 colleague Howard Sudberry. “We got a lot of laughs at the bar that night.”
But there was also an interesting side to Weigel’s personality away from the cameras.
For a man who covered athletes, he loved to play sports himself. He was a constant presence in the 16 inch softball Chicago media leagues of the 1970s.
One of his fellow players and opponents at least on the diamond was Mike Conklin, then of the Chicago Tribune, now a journalist in residence at DePaul University.
“We would always try to outringer each other,” Conklin remembered. “Tim was a good athlete. He graduated into playing with Royko.”
That Royko being Mike Royko, of course. The great newspaper columnist known for having a gruff personality to most, but was close friends with Weigel.
“He was a born networker and he always felt fortunate because he was in a business that was a perfect match for his personality,” Conklin said.
Weigel could also count among his friends broadcast legends Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse but he was also close to people much younger than him such as Northwestern football players Pat Fitzgerald and Darnell Autry.
But he was also drawn to the world outside of athletics and wanted to see people mixing who otherwise would run in different circles.
“He would invite you to play golf with him and your foursome would be (former Chicago Sting coach) Willy Roy, Bobby Lewis a jazz trumpeter and myself,” said photographer Charles Cherney. “He always put a lot of different people together.”
He also had a passion for music and loved to play the piano. “He was always annoyed that he could not play music by sound but he could read any piece of music you could put in front of him,” said his wife, Vicki.
In 1999, Weigel lost two close friends, first Siskel and then Walter Payton. To this day Vicki has a letter hanging in their home Payton sent Weigel shortly after Payton retired following the 1987 season. When the city held a memorial service to honor Payton, Weigel served as host of the ceremony at the request of Walter’s widow, Connie.
It wasn’t too long after Weigel received the troubling news about his own health. In June 2000 after being in a car accident and suddenly finding difficulty reading the TelePrompTer, Weigel sought out medical help and a mass was discovered on his brain. Surgery was scheduled ten days later, but he was even able to find some dark humor given the circumstances.
“I can remember him saying ‘I must be in bad shape’ because he got phone calls from people who he had his differences with through the years and he was pleasantly surprised about that and got a big laugh about that,” Sudberry said.
Following surgery Weigel returned to the air, wearing a beret in a bow to the chemotherapy sessions he was undergoing. He was able to get out socially to some extent including making an appearance at an all class reunion at Lake Forest High School.
But he became sick again, but he did his best to stay at work as much as possible, filing reports up until three weeks before he died.
“The last interview he did was with Connie Payton and they were both talking about cancer and how much they hated the “c” word,” Christman said. “That particular interview his eyesight was failing so that I would read him a line and he would repeat it into a microphone, but that is how badly he wanted to get the story done.”
On June 17, 2001, Weigel was gone and a few days later an overflow crowd gathered at an Evanston church to remember him.
Chicago vocalist Judy Roberts sang Tim and Vicki’s song “Get Here” by Olita Adams amid a service filled with laughter and tears.
Vicki, a former Chicago radio personality, still lives in Evanston with their daughter Teddi, now 17, whom she says resembles her late father.
“The thing I miss most about him were the phone calls. He would call me six times a day,” Vicki said. “He generally did have fun. My daughter sometimes seems inappropriately happy about stuff and that is like Tim. She even eats Cheetos like he does. She is very optimistic, upbeat and happy and that is the way Tim was.”
As for how sports journalism has evolved in the time he has been gone with social media now being such a vital cog, his family thinks Weigel would have seen both positives and negatives.
“In today’s day and age he couldn’t do Weigel Weiners,” Rafer said. “Back then they were done over a week’s worth of bloopers. Now with the Internet, you couldn’t do it because things that were shown on his show would have been on YouTube for two days.”
But Vicki insists he would not have been a curmudgeon about it.
“He was very accepting of everything,” she said. “I think he would have said it is a new way and that is the way it is. Even if he did not embrace Twitter or Facebook, he would have thought it was OK. He would do the work to keep up.”
At the end how should we remember Weigel, gone far too soon at the age of 56?
In the words of Christman, “He was an unbelievable journalist and writer and his legacy is how to have fun while being the best at your profession.”
Do you agree with Daniel? Post your comments below.
Daniel I. Dorfman is a local freelance writer who has written and reported for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe among many other nationally prominent broadcast, online and print media organizations. He is also a researcher for 670 The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DanDorfman To read more of Daniel’s blogs click here.