Longtime Tribune writer and critic Cliff Terry dies
The word “gentleman” is not ordinarily attached to newspaper writers but it, along with such other descriptions as “witty,” “incisive” and “stylish,” peppered conversations in the wake of the death of Cliff Terry.
Terry died of a heart attack May 6 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, his wife and children by his side. He was 86.
His byline topped thousands of stories over the more than three decades that he wrote for the Tribune. He interviewed the major celebrities of his time, such people as George Halas, Mel Brooks, Harrison Ford, Jack Lemmon, Jerry Reinsdorf, Eugene McCarthy, Studs Terkel, Shirley MacLaine, Woody Hayes, Harry Caray and Roy Rogers.
“I knew Cliff for 50 years,” said former Tribune book editor and writer John Blades. “That seems miraculous in retrospect, as does becoming not just a colleague of Cliff’s but a close friend. For me, he was the real standout, his astute taste and humor marked everything he wrote.”
Terry was born in 1937, the only child of Clifford Sr. and Isabelle Terry. He was raised in Rogers Park before moving to Evanston and attending Evanston Township High School, where he was the sports editor of the school newspaper. He later graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He went to New York City where he began a master’s degree program at Columbia University but dropped out when the aspiring television anchorwoman he was dating broke off their relationship.
Returning to Chicago, he joined the City News Bureau, the fabled training ground (some would call it a boot camp) for young journalists. There, he met a man who would be a lifelong colleague and friend named Robert Goldsborough, who said, “Cliff didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
He and Terry were both hired in the late 1950s by the Tribune, where they would fashion distinguished careers over the coming decades.
Terry was an extraordinarily versatile reporter and writer, focusing on cultural and entertainment beats. “One of our dates was the opening night of the first International Film Festival here,” said his widow, Pat Terry. She was a Tribune staff member when they met. “It was on the walk home that he proposed.”
They married in 1966. “He was a man who stood up for what he believed,” said Pat. “I remember that during the 1968 Democratic Convention, when the four major dailies were criticized for shoddy reporting with inaccurate or biased information, journalists from the papers met at a local tavern to demand retractions. Only three reporters from the Tribune showed up and only Cliff stayed to sign the petition.”
Pat Terry accompanied Cliff to Harvard University in 1969 when he became the first Tribune employee to be awarded the prestigious Nieman Fellowship.
By the time of the fellowship, he had become the paper’s movie critic. He wrote a stream of reviews but refused, to the displeasure of a few bosses, to rate films by a star system.
“He always defended that by saying ‘If we give stars, no one will read the review. And movies are more complicated than that’,” said Pat. “He turned down offers to review movies on television. He just wasn’t a big ego.”
While Terry was away on his Nieman interlude, a young reporter named Gene Siskel lobbied for his movie critic job and got it.
Terry was likely disappointed by that, but when he returned to the paper, he was named associate editor of the Sunday Magazine, a columnist and an entertainment writer.
As Goldsborough recalled, “My closest contact with him at the Tribune was the seven years when I edited the Sunday Magazine. He was an editor’s dream. Those were the days of frequent 80- to 100-page issues of the magazine, and there was a lot of space to fill. Cliff was the guy to do it. He turned out great amounts of copy, but it wasn’t just the lengths of his pieces, it was the quality, the gentle humor, the insights of his profiles.”
As his widow recalled, “And he was always there for the boys (sons Chris and Scott), slipping out of the office to cheer their soccer games, rock band gigs and school activities. He lived up to the promise he made when we married, to equally share the parenting.”
Pat Terry left the newspaper after a few years but continued her journalism career until starting a public relations business. When Cliff retired from the Tribune in the early 1990s after 32 years there, he joined her and also wrote some freelance pieces, corporate speeches and a book.
“Chicago Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to Unique Places” was published in 2001, and a Tribune critic wrote that it offered a “fresh and entertaining take on the places and faces that make Chicago unique. ... Terry possesses an insider’s knowledge of the most interesting nooks and crannies in the city.”
He and Pat also did a lot of traveling, not as mere sightseers but for such endeavors as building homes in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, rural Chile and Honduras, or assisting scientists in excursions to remote parts of Brazil.
Some years ago, with Cliff experiencing an increasing number of ailments, he and Pat moved into The Clare retirement community on the Near North Side.
“We would go out as often as possible,” said Pat. “He was ever curious, wanting to see new things, have new experiences.”
He is survived by his wife and sons, and a grandson, Jason Patrick. Funeral services will be held at 4 p.m. Monday at Church of Our Saviour, 530 W. Fullerton Pkwy.
Many people will speak, but as Blades said, “Too bad the Cliff himself can’t speak at his own memorial because he was unmatched as a storyteller.”
This story has been updated to correct the date of death.