THE LOOP — Paul Zimbrakos ran his newsroom like a boot camp — and hundreds of young journalists were ultimately thankful for it.
Zimbrakos, who died Tuesday at 86 of kidney and liver failure, worked from 1958 to 2000 at City News Bureau of Chicago, a storied newsroom grinding out dozens of daily stories to be picked up by local newspapers, TV and radio stations.
Patrolling over his team with piercing eyes, skeptical eyebrows and a bushy mustache, Zimbrakos gave the marching orders. He sent generations of young reporters to City Hall, the morgue, police stations, courthouses and crime scenes — and then sent them back if his questions weren’t answered.
No detail of a story was too small to warrant an extra door knock. Sometimes it’s the question you didn’t ask that leads to the big scoop.
Wide-eyed cub reporter Bill Kissinger, who worked at City News from 1987-88, said working for Zimbrakos was a brass-knuckled rite-of-passage. The managing editor was someone “you feared but respected,” Kissinger said.
On overnight shifts writing up autopsy reports, Kissinger was taught to be exacting: What way was the body facing when found? What color were the victim’s shoes? Was he shot on a street or an avenue?
By sunrise Zimbrakos was there, “the last line of defense” before Kissinger could go home and sleep.
“You’re weary-eyed and he’s grilling you,” Kissinger said. “You had to get the full story, and if you didn’t, that was unacceptable. He was rough and prickly, but you weren’t going to learn more about journalism from anyone else.”
Lee Bey signed on with City News right out of college in 1988 and remembers Zimbrakos sending him back to a grieving family to get the details. Zimbrakos was a “taskmaster,” and Bey was “22 years old with no excuse.”
“I still triple-check words,” Bey said. “And I hear Paul’s voice and see that mustache.”
Zimbrakos’ highest praise was a slight softening of his eyes and an “atta boy, Lee,” said Bey, who went on to become the architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
“It was so persuasive, but like a fist bump in terms of its subtlety,” Bey said. “You could live off that for the next two weeks.”
At home, Zimbrakos privately gushed about his reporters, daughter Marianthe Zervas said. He was never disappointed when they failed to meet expectations; he just wanted to teach.
Zimbrakos’ young reporters churned through City News in the hundreds and went on to work at legacy publications from the Chicago Tribune to the New York Times. In later years he hosted reunions and coached the City News softball team, Zervas said.
His son, Vasily Zimbrakos, said he once made the mistake of giving his dad his college research paper. It came back “a big red blob,” Zimbrakos said.
“He just wrote questions and wanted answers,” Zimbrakos said. “He wanted to show people that they can figure things out on their own. That they can be stronger people. It wasn’t always about the news.”
Paul Zimbrakos grew up on the West Side, the son of Greek immigrants in a gritty working-class neighborhood. His father was a milkman and the family scraped by.
“It was a tough mold. You had to stand up for yourself and not let people push you around,” Vasily Zimbrakos said. “He always had to be aware of his surroundings and what’s going on. He questioned everything.”
For Zimbrakos, news was meant to be short, factual, informative and nothing else, his son said. Zimbrakos studied journalism at Roosevelt University and was the first person in his family to graduate college.
He climbed the ladder at City News from copy boy to morgue reporter to the police beat, grew a mustache and became an editor, Vasily Zimbrakos said.
Former City News assistant editor Kim Kishbaugh sat across from Zimbrakos for 13 years, many at the bureau’s newspaper-filled offices at 35 E. Wacker Drive. He’d ride his reporters on the phone and tell them to “get it right, get it fast,’” Kishbaugh said.
“He was gruff, but he could be cheery. He treated all his reporters like they were his children. You’d grumble about him like you grumble about your parents,” Kishbaugh said. “He had a way of pushing reporters to be afraid of him in the best of ways. They wanted to get it right, because he was going to let them know if they didn’t.”
Kishbaugh said she wasn’t surprised when Zimbrakos started teaching journalism at Loyola University Chicago when City News finally shut down in recent years after several iterations.
He rarely missed a day of work, needed to be in the know and would say, “The news has no room for sickies,” Kissinger said.
He’d arrive on time, leave on time and demand a full effort from everyone. Try to call in sick? It might take a few tries. Zimbrakos was known to tell people to take an aspirin and call him back.
City News alum John Holden said Zimbrakos was “a father figure to many of us.”
“There was a method to the madness,” Holden said. “It was about fearing Paul so you wouldn’t fear the politician or police officer you’d have to talk to. He was toughening you up to ask tough questions, that’s what journalism is all about.”
Holden was reporting at City Hall the day Mayor Harold Washington died in his office. His first call was to Zimbrakos.
“I ran down four flights of stairs, called Paul and screamed ‘Bulletin!’ I was pretty hyper,” Holden said. “Paul said, ‘Calm down and give us the story.’”
In addition to his son and daughter, Zimbrakos is survived by his son Kostas, four grandchildren, and brother William.
Visitation is 4-9 p.m. Sunday at Colonial Wojciechowski Funeral Home, 8025 W. Golf Road, Niles, Illinois. Funeral is 10 a.m. Monday at St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church, 7373 Caldwell Ave., Niles, Illinois.
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