Mike Royko, the increasingly cantankerous voice for this city's little guys and working stiffs, whose newspaper column seemed as much a part of Chicago as the wind, died today at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He was 64.
Mr. Royko had collapsed in his home in suburban Winnetka on April 22 and underwent surgery last week for an aneurysm.
For nearly 30 years, every young journalist who ever set foot in a Chicago newsroom wanted to be like Mr. Royko. He had a tough skin and a generous heart, and his column won almost as many awards -- including a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 -- as a Windy City election has dead voters.
One morning, he might be blasting a bumbling politician, the next, ''the rich, smoke-belching industrial fat cats'' who he said were threatening to turn Chicago's magnificent lake front into a wasteland with pollution, overdevelopment and greed.
In his column of Sept. 23, 1981, Mr. Royko sought to explain President Ronald Reagan's policies of ''hacking away'' at Federal programs for the poor ''while spending more and more on the military.''
''Contrary to popular belief,'' Mr. Royko wrote, ''it's much wiser to take money from the poor than the rich.''
''Reagan's approach,'' he wrote, ''will achieve one of the basic goals of the conservative: Things remain basically the same. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, or even a little poorer.''
He took on such people and subjects five days a week, decade after decade for paper after paper. When he reluctantly cut back to writing four columns a week in 1992, he saw it as a sign of weakness.
''He always doubted himself, but that's what drove him,'' said James Warren, a friend and colleague at The Chicago Tribune, where Mr. Royko wrote his column, syndicated in about 800 papers across the nation, since 1984.
Mr. Royko loved politicians; they made such easy targets, and one helped make him nationally famous: Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was the subject of Mr. Royko's best-selling book ''Boss,'' published in 1971.
Even some of his targets say he was fair.
''He was an equal opportunity shot taker,'' said the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Mr. Royko dubbed Mr. Jackson ''Jesse Jetstream'' because he thought Mr. Jackson moved from crisis to crisis too quickly.
Mr. Jackson recalled one column, written in 1972 when Mr. Jackson was campaigning on the West Coast on behalf of Senator George McGovern's bid for the White House. He was preaching that every vote counted. But on election eve, rather than take a red-eye flight back to Chicago and cast his ballot, Mr. Jackson decided to stay out West.
''It was contradictory to what I had been saying,'' Mr. Jackson recalled, with a chuckle. ''Somehow Royko found out about it, and opened up with both barrels. I didn't like it, but I haven't missed a vote since.''
A recurring character in Mr. Royko's columns was an alter ego named Slats Grobnik. Slats took the working-class perspective in conversation with the columnist about the issue at hand, from how to age gracefully to sending volunteer troops to foreign hot spots (said Slats: ''See, what made the draft so wonderful was that when it was run on the legit -- until the Vietnam War -- it gave everybody the same opportunity.
''To get killed.'').
Directing traffic downtown today, Officer Percy Johnson, 33, described Mr. Royko as ''an icon of Chicago, just like Michael Jordan and Al Capone.''
''Chicago and everyone else is going to miss him,'' the police officer said. ''Mike Royko was for the working man.''
At the Billy Goat Tavern downtown, long associated with Mr. Royko, the owner, Sam Sianis, was distraught today in recalling the columnist. ''All these years people would come in from all over the world and ask where Royko sits.''