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.
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Tom Smith: From Chicago mob antagonist to candy maker
By Barry Schrader.................................May
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 didnt 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, Oswalds
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
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
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 didnt 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 mobsters 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 doesnt 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
isnt looking to get even!
By the way, one of Smiths other journalist protégés
at the Trib was Linda Klein Means, whom I featured in a column
last November after she wrote a childrens 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.
The columnist can be reached via email at :
or by snailmail at:
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115