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Barry Schrader


I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.


If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates to catch up.

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Tom Smith: From Chicago mob antagonist to candy maker

By Barry Schrader.................................May 19, 2009

You would think Tom Smith must be in hiding from the Chicago mob when you try to find his office. Entering the front of his DeKalb candy store, asking for the owner, you are directed past a vat of hot chocolate and wind through corridors to reach his back office, disguised as a cluttered storeroom.

But Smith claims he didn’t change his name when fleeing his old Chicago newspaper job in favor of the good life of a candy maker back in 1982. For several years before coming out to corn country, he was in the hot seat as editor of the Trib, a suburban adjunct to the Chicago Tribune. He shared the story of his harried career as a newsman with an audience at the DeKalb Public Library recently and what a fascinating tale it is.

Tom Smith takes a phone call in his back office

He first talked about working on the copy desk in the downtown Tribune Tower newsroom, a cavernous place right out of the movie “Front Page” and full of characters just like those in the 1940 newspaper film. Smith was there when the JFK assassination story broke on the wire and remembers working that long weekend keeping up with all the breaking developments as they poured in over the wire service machines, including some never-to-be-forgotten photos of the shooting, LBJ being sworn in on the plane, Oswald’s arrest, Ruby shooting Oswald and all that followed.

But there were changes and challenges ahead as Clayton Kirkpatrick (a Waterman native) had taken over the editorship and “brought the paper out of the dark ages,” as Smith put it. He learned about a new project for the newspaper giant, planning to compete in the suburbs with all those little newspaper chains around Chicago by publishing a separate paper to be known as “The Trib.” He soon found himself named editor of that new edition and headed an editorial staff of some 30 reporters, photographers and desk people.

“I had long thought about how the mafia (Chicago mob) would be fertile ground for some great stories and since they lived in big homes in the suburbs, why not give them some exposure,” he commented wryly. Of course, he must have thought about the inherent dangers in messing around with gangster types who never hesitated to stamp out a competitor, cheating dealer or suspected snitch.
Smith found a young reporter named Philip Caputo, a Vietnam vet, who impressed him. So he decided to form an “organized crime detail,” starting with Caputo, and try covering the mobsters who lived in their suburban area. They broke established Tribune policy by contacting the Chicago FBI organized crime squad for some help. The FBI apparently thought it could do them some good to “shine the light of newspaper coverage” on mob leaders in the area they were investigating and cooperated with names and addresses.

Caputo proved up to the job and relished making mob figures squirm when they photographed their homes and ran them in the paper inquiring if people knew what kind of individuals lived in their neighborhoods. Smith had more than one phone call and even a few office visits from mobsters who bluntly expressed their displeasure with the publicity they did not appreciate, but he never got a direct threat. Things were a little different for Caputo though.

In his book, “Means of Escape,” he spent a couple chapters on his life as a newspaper reporter when first getting assigned by Smith to cover the syndicate. Writing in the book, Caputo recalls Smith telling him, “(We have) the power of the press. An instrument. A weapon of change. It can make things happen ... We are going on a good old-fashioned newspaper crusade.”

After they had been hitting mobsters hard in the press, one day Caputo and a young reporter friend were driving his Triumph Spitfire from the DuPage County courthouse to the Trib. His front right tire flew off as they were going about 65 mph. He managed to bring the car to a halt slowly before the axle could dig into the pavement and flip the car. He found the wheel had been tampered with, and both reporters turned a little pale, thinking what could have happened if he had just applied the brakes too quickly. Of course, no one claimed credit for the attempt on his life, but the message was clear. However, it didn’t slow down the Trib team.

Smith was also fortunate to find his own version of “Deep Throat,” an informant who called on the phone and tipped him about a real estate broker with mob connections. They also got advance notice of a planned raid on a mobster’s home and were able to stake out the house with a telephoto lens and catch some of the arrest action.

But Smith grew tired of the long hours and strain of the job and looked for greener pastures.
The cornfields of DeKalb County looked good to him and his wife, so in 1982 they moved out here and opened the DeKalb Confectionary. By 1994, they expanded and opened the Sycamore Confectionary. Now in his mid-70s, Smith has also found an avocation that takes up his spare time – digital photography. He loves filming nature, birds and wildlife, landscapes, even old farm buildings, and displays his work on the walls of his stores, where he sells a few prints. At age 76, he doesn’t appear to be looking forward to a rocking chair as he still enjoys the combination of a candy business and photography pastime.
It sure beats looking over your shoulder every night when you drive home, hoping someone you have covered in a newspaper expose isn’t looking to get even!

By the way, one of Smith’s other journalist protégés at the Trib was Linda Klein Means, whom I featured in a column last November after she wrote a children’s book about a grandma cat on her family farm near Hinckley. Smith and Means will probably get together for some reminiscing when she comes here from Boston later this week to do a book signing at Borders (2 p.m. Saturday) or when she teaches two classes at the same bookstore this week, one on “Journaling” and another on “Writing and Publishing Your Own Book.”

I could probably learn something from her, so had better sign up for a class myself.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115