He worked the NBC station for 38 years. Hired as a writer in 1968, he soon was covering the Democratic National Convention, one of the biggest political stories of the century.
Dick Kay, a no-nonsense, incisive inquisitor who had one of the longest political reporting careers in Chicago, died early Thursday at 84.
He had been found unresponsive in his favorite recliner at his St. Charles home on Mother’s Day, according to his son Steve Snodgrass, and taken to Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, where he died. The cause of death was an aneurysm, the son said.
Mr. Kay had a stentorian voice that sliced through the noise at crime scenes and news conferences like a bass baritone in an opera. It seemed to command answers from politicians and public relations people who might have preferred to slink away from a mic.
Mr. Kay worked 38 years for WMAQ-Channel 5, covering countless political conventions, indictments, court trials, aldermen, mayors, governors, senators and presidents. He was hired there as a writer in 1968. Within months, he was covering one of the most tumultuous political stories of the century.
“They sent me out on the street, a green kid. The Democratic Convention, in the middle of it! I was stunned,” he once said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.
He began appearing on air two years later, rising to be political editor.
After retiring in 2006, he started hosting “Dick Kay: Back on the Beat” on WCPT-AM.
He grew up in New Dellrose, Tennessee, a self-described “country boy” who was born in a log cabin. He was just 3 when his sharecropper-father died. His mother worked as a seamstress or cook all her life, he said in the Sun-Times interview. At 14, he dropped out of school so he could make money digging ditches, picking cotton and washing dishes.
At 17, he joined the Navy, serving on the USS Magoffin as a radio man, helping the amphibious “ducks” landing craft and also got his high school equivalency diploma. He went on to Bradley University, where he got a bachelor’s degree in speech education and performed in summer stock with the Peoria Players. He worked his way through college delivering mail.
“He was a man that came from nothing, I mean nothing,” Steve Snodgrass said.
His break in broadcasting came with a job downstate at a radio station in Pekin. He moved from there to take a job in Peoria, where he met his future wife Kay on a blind date.
Her name inspired his new surname, thought to be better for a broadcasting career. He’d been Richard Snodgrass at birth but changed it to Dick Kay. His nickname was “Doogie.”
After Peoria, he was the news director at WFRV-TV in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1965, where one of his favorite stories was a 30-minute interview with Richard Nixon, then running for president.
After Green Bay, he landed at Channel 5, where, in addition to being “a student of politics,” he “was a bulldog,”said Jim Stricklin, his longtime photographer there. Stricklin recalled a time Fire Cmsr. Robert J. Quinn angrily confronted Mr. Kay in a City Hall elevator over a story he didn’t like. “Dick never backed down, never,” Strickin said.
Mr. Kay also was a union steward and later Chicago president and a national vice president of what is now SAG-AFTRA — the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He was proud of his work to curb “no-compete” limits that prevent broadcast talents from moving to different stations.
“He was absolutely fearless about going toe-to-toe with management,” said former WMAQ colleague Joan Esposito, who now has a radio show on WCPT-AM. “People who worked with him adored and respected him. . . . He was big and burly and had this gruff sort of manner, but, if something wasn’t going on right in your life, you could just flop down in his office and just vent.”
He loved going out on his sailboat. He played the harmonica and enjoyed country music, especially songs by Hank Williams, Esposito said.
She said that, about once a week, “He and his buddies would go to this cigar store, sit around and talk” while enjoying a good cigar.
Mr. Kay received the Peabody Award — one of broadcast journalism’s highest honors — for a 1984 investigation of the Illinois Legislature called “Political Parasites.” The Peabody judges credited the reports on “ ‘dead-wood’ committees and meaningless commissions that were costing the taxpayers of Illinois millions of dollars” with prompting reforms and saving money.
His work also garnered a National Headliner Award and honors from the Chicago Headline Club. He’d won 11 local Emmy Awards when he was inducted in 2001 into the Silver Circle of the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
After retiring, he worked for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration, promoting the governor’s healthcare plan. As part of that effort, in an opinion piece for the Sun-Times, he wrote: “In my 38 years of reporting for NBC 5 Chicago, I was known as a curmudgeon, but I was also considered objective. . . . Access to health care or the lack of it might be a matter of life and death.”
He loved what he did, but he warned newcomers about the “grind.”
“It’s glamorous until you’re out there on the expressway doing a traffic report in 20 degree below zero with a blizzard,” he said in a 2012 interview with Tom Szydlo, “or until you’re covering a tragedy like an airplane crash.”
In addition to his son Steve, Mr. Kay is survived by sons Eric and Brett and one grandchild.
“What he stood for his whole life, whether it was a union issue or a political issue or a fact-finding mission, he was always fighting for the truth,” Steve Snodgrass said. “And he did it with integrity.”