Q&A with Dave Hoekstra
Longtime Chicago-area journalist and radio host with a nose for a good story
Writing “in the Shadows.” That’s how career journalist and Studs Terkel Award-winner Dave Hoekstra describes his affinity for untold stories that reflect the culture of the communities he covers. Hoekstra is fascinated by overlooked aspects of everyday life, particularly when it comes to music, sports and travel, topics that have repeatedly grabbed his attention during a close-to-30-year beat as feature writer and columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times. His roster of interviewees includes Bob Dylan, James Brown, Billy Joel and Barry White, as well as hundreds of lesser-known but equally interesting people across Chicago, the suburbs and America’s heartland. The host of WGN-720 AM’s Nocturnal Journal with Dave Hoekstra, he is also the author of books, including The Supper Club Book and — just released — The Camper Book, which looks inside the lives of RV enthusiasts and their love of the open road.
Born in Berwyn, Hoekstra moved with his family to Columbus, Ohio, before settling in Naperville as a pre-teen, then Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. In a twist not unlike news stories he enjoys, he recently bought a house in Westchester — and later discovered from his mother’s diaries that his parents had once owned it. “My parents got that house when they were starting,” he says. “I got it while I’m kind of winding down.”
You grew up in Naperville. How do you remember the city in those days?
It was a great place. The school system was fantastic. I remember the old Naper Theater downtown — seeing John Wayne’s “True Grit” there. By the time I was 15, my parents gave me the freedom to go into Chicago on the old Burlington Northern to see Cubs games. I took a train and a bus (with a girlfriend whose parents did not approve) to my first rock concert — The Faces at the Chicago Stadium. Our family moved to our Naperville ranch house in 1967, the year Chicago was hit with “The Big Snow.” People at first weren’t friendly to us. I was always shy and reserved and I think this made me more that way. Cold shoulders were tough for a 12 year old but I think I adapted as I grew older.
How was your time at Naperville Central High School? What kind of student were you?
I was an average student, except in English, history — and volleyball. I still keep in touch with my journalism teacher, Dr. Marilyn Hollman. We have dinner at Hugo’s Frog Bar a couple of times a year. I was editor of the school paper, Smoke Signals, and Dr. Hollman gave me the freedom to explore community issues (like hippies sitting on the downtown bridge) as opposed to just being a rah-rah publication. We won a few awards because of that. I owe so much of my career to her support. The entire English department illustrated how teachers can change people’s lives. And they made going to school fun.
Did you have favorite hang outs in Naperville? Are they still there?
First, Centennial Beach — I grew up within walking distance of it. During junior high I spent just about every day of the summer at the beach. We dove for popsicle sticks until the sun went down. We listened to WLS-AM and WCFL-AM.Second, The Lantern Tavern & Grill. That’s where I had my first legal beer.
Were you always a writer?
Yep, I won a creative writing award at Washington Junior High School and there was no looking back. My parents were a bit skeptical about my career choice because this was during the “All The President’s Men” era when everyone wanted to get into journalism.
Where did you attend college and what did you study?
I had just about a year at College of DuPage where I studied making out with my girlfriend in the smoking lounge. Then I took a creative writing class at University of Chicago. No degree. Not many people know that. When I was hired at the Sun-Times, the editor told me I was hired because I still had my “voice” and it wasn’t shaped by a journalism school.
How did your career unfold from there?
I kicked around the suburbs a lot. I began writing for the Aurora Beacon-News in high school. I got to do a little of everything — sports on weekends, features, police beat, some news. It was a superb training ground and, as a daily, it was where I learned to respect deadline writing. I was there for three or four years, then worked for Pioneer Press in Melrose Park, then became a news reporter at the Barrington Courier-Review. I was a part-time associate producer at WIND radio. Around 1982 I was hired by Suburban Sun-Times (later Chicago Sun-Times).
Tell our readers about your days at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Like so many of my generation in Chicago, I had dreams of becoming Mike Royko. My father brought home all four daily papers. The Daily News was the writer’s paper. I loved Royko in there, I learned his attitude. I learned style from the great Bill Newman. I also liked Paul Galloway in the Sun-Times. Bob Greene resonated with me because of his Columbus roots — and he liked living in hotel rooms. I thought I might become a news writer, but I did mostly feature work — lots of roots music, blues, country when no one was paying attention to Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. And sports — I loved offbeat stuff and minor league baseball. I covered the Bulls in 1991 – 92. Later I did a lot of food and travel writing, both of which birthed my book career.
Any fun newsroom stories to share?
Oh boy. The best days were definitely at 401 N. Wabash. The features department alone was like 30, 35 people — Roger Ebert walking around talking to folks on deadline, I assume to get in a groove to write. Just amazing. Today, I think the features department is two or three full time people. Makes me sad.
What were your favorite topics to cover?
The untold story. Always. It’s a cliché, but everyone has a story. I tell journalism students the Jimmy Breslin story about covering JFK’s burial. To paraphrase, the reporters were all gathered around the grave. Breslin wandered off to interview the grave digger. Some of the best stories emerge from the shadows.
Did you anticipate how the news industry would change?
Along with my bosses, I was slow to see that. I still read print newspapers and magazines! By 2015 — two years after receiving the Studs Terkel Award — I was offered a buyout. I took it. Perhaps the award opened doors to my book writing and my WGN gig, but in 2015 the Sun-Times was no longer interested in the offbeat/everyman style I had cultivated. I came to embrace things like short video documentaries. I won awards with my collaborator Jon Sall (a Naperville resident) for pieces about Carol’s Pub — known as the Uptown Hillbilly Bar — and Out of the Past Records on the far west side.
You now have a radio show, a blog and a string of books. How was the transition to the next phase of your career?
Pretty smooth. One reason I took the buyout was to take care of my parents in Naperville. They passed away within six, seven weeks of each other about a year later. I am so glad I made that decision.
How did you make the move to radio?
I never planned a career in radio, but they invited me to come on WGN when I left the Sun-Times and continue what I had been doing there. It was weird, because I’m not a real talker. I’m kind of shy. I think I’m a good interviewer, but I don’t have “shtick.” I’m always terrified that a guest won’t show up. It’s all live. I harvest interviews and bring all kinds of interesting people into the studio. It’s perfect for me. I get to do something I never thought I’d do. It’s pretty amazing. I take it very seriously. I sketch out the show. I pick out the music — I’m really into that. I get all the questions together. It’s a lot of work.
How does it differ from writing?
It’s so immediate. When I write, I like to paint a picture. It’s hard to do that on the radio. But it’s the same with writing a story. I like to create an arc, before someone goes on the air. You’ve got to remember, the station is heard in 38 states on a clear night. I always tell guests to start from scratch, assume people know nothing and explain the whole thing. That’s how I write a story. I still think writing is my first love.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been working on a documentary, “The Center of Nowhere” about music in the Ozarks — perhaps the most overlooked roots music in America. It’s really an obscure scene down there. We’re trying to show how culture and environment inform music. It’s almost done and we’re working on distribution by the spring.
Which journalists do you most admire?
Joseph Mitchell (New Yorker) and M. W. Newman (Chicago Daily News) for clarity of writing and fine style. And I liked Mike Royko’s attitude.
Who would you most like to interview?
There have been a lot. But Harry Belafonte — he’s so articulate, musically and politically.
What’s the most useful tool of your trade?
A micro-casette recorder.
If not a journalist, what field would you be in?
Three words that best describe you?
Oh, man, that’s hard. Impulsive. I like to think I’m empathetic. And somewhat funny.
Cubs or White Sox?
Cubs. I’ve had season tickets since ‘85.
What’s always worth going downtown for?
A good concert — recently Bill Murray.
City or suburbs?
A little bit of both!
Best place for a quick bite?
I’ve got to say Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn.