LINCOLN PARK — Hank DeZutter combined the street-smarts of a Chicago newsman, the whimsy of a jazz-loving poet and a reformer’s distaste of things unfair or unjust.
But while doing and teaching journalism in a career spanning a half-century of social and political change, DeZutter is remembered best by those who knew him. He was, said one, “a remarkably sweet man.”
DeZutter, 80, died July 14 of complications following a brain-injuring fall suffered July 10 in his Lincoln Park apartment, where he lived in retirement with his wife Barbara Belletini Fields.
An ardent city dweller and observer, DeZutter didn’t hide — or push — the fact that he attended Glenbrook North High School, where he captained the golf team and edited the school paper. He pursued literary studies at Williams College but later transferred to the University of Michigan — just in time for the awakening there of anti-war activism. His interests broadened from Shakespeare to I.F. Stone, and he pursued a masters of journalism degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
He worked summers, then full-time after graduation, as a reporter for the Lerner newspaper chain covering the northern suburbs. DeZutter’s coverage of ’60s-style social unrest caught the attention of editors at the Chicago Daily News and soon, as the newspaper’s education writer, he was explaining to readers the methods and motivations of radical groups such as the Weather Underground. At one point, he would later relate to friends, he had to beg radical organizers not to deliver their freshly-drafted manifestos to his North Side apartment.
In 1970 he won a national journalism award for exposing the FBI’s recruitment of students to spy on campus radicals at the University of Illinois. Later that year his follow-up coverage of the fatal shooting of students at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen also earned accolades. Studs Terkel considered him one of the best reporters he’d read covering movements of the time. He and second wife Pamela Little DeZutter were featured in Terkel’s tome “Race” exploring their lives as a bi-racial couple. The two later co-authored stories for the Chicago Reader.
Perhaps doubtful that sit-ins and walk-outs could end the war in Vietnam or racial inequities nearer to home, DeZutter took leave of daily journalism to serve as an aide to Seymour Simon, an independent-minded lawyer who once served as a Chicago alderman, Cook County Board member and, ultimately, Illinois Supreme Court justice.
His witness to both public advocacy and backroom pragmatics helped make DeZutter an especially effective interpreter of current events … and a gifted teacher to the next generation of urban affairs writers and community organizers. “Very few people have done more to battle institutional racism, in journalism and education, than Hank,” said first spouse Janet Jonjack.
In 1968 he helped launch The Chicago Journalism Review in reaction to the heavily pro-police coverage that regular media gave to the violence surrounding the Democratic National Convention. CJR ceased publication in 1975, but just last year it was DeZutter who guided a commemorative edition. The online effort recalled CJR’s damning 1969 critique of mainstream media’s equally one-sided coverage of the deadly pre-dawn police raid on sleeping Black Panther Party leaders.
DeZutter left the Daily News in 1970 and began teaching journalism and essay-writing at Malcolm X College on the Near West Side, with side gigs at Truman College in Uptown and Columbia College in the South Loop. With editor/activist Thom Clark he helped launch the Community Media Workshop, a foundation-funded effort to help community-based organizations get better press … or tell their stories directly to a wider audience. The Community Media Workshop was the predecessor to today’s Public Narrative.
“He loved listening to folks who were making a difference, who didn’t show up in headlines, but then writing their stories in such engaging ways,” longtime collaborator Clark said. “Hank understood the perils of ‘objective’ journalism, or simply telling ‘both’ sides of a story. He practiced and taught a ‘fair & balanced’ approach to reporting that went beyond official sources and led to better stories for the reader.
DeZutter also became a regular contributor to the weekly Chicago Reader, where he specialized in what one of his editors, Michael Miner, remembers as “neighborhood matters that nobody else would write about.” One such, about a Bucktown block where riled-up residents shut down a drug house, touched off a citywide movement. Big media, DeZutter once argued, too often regarded neighborhoods as “places to find ethnic restaurants or occasional festivals.”
His most impactful story for the Reader was about a little-known lawyer from the South Side running for the state senate. DeZutter’s deep-dig 1995 bio traced the rise of a young, Harvard-trained lawyer with a gift for community organizing. It was headlined “What makes Obama Run?” He would later complain to friends that, a full decade after that story ran, he’d spend half his workdays answering phone calls from fact-hungry political reporters stationed all over the world writing about Barack Obama. He and Clark also collaborated on a Reader weekly photo feature “Snap Judgments.”
In 1993, he published a well-received children’s book, “Who Says a Dog Goes Bow-Wow?” In his spare time DeZutter contributed poetry to the Chicago Journal, played jazz and boogie piano, made lots of golf putts and often over-bid his hand at bridge and poker tables with friends.
DeZutter is survived by his wife, Barbara Belletini Fields, former executive director of Esperanza Community Services, a provider of opportunities for children and adults with developmental disabilities; her daughters Jayne Mattson and Ana Boyer Davis; sons Max, Chris and daughter Amanda Kotlyar; plus stepson Agward “Eddie” Turner and five grandchildren. Also sisters Joyce Mooneyham and Wendy Callahan.
A memorial will be held at a later time. Contributions welcome at Gabby Gifford’s Courage to Fight Gun Violence, PO Box 51196, Washington, DC 20091 or here.