Book Article

A Dad's Death, Solved 40 Years Later

Journalist Michael Hainey always suspected there was more to his father's death than even his mother knew. In his new book, ''After Visiting Friends,'' he unravels his family's mystery.

The story he'd been told didn't quite make sense. In April of 1970, when Michael Hainey was 6, his 35-year-old father suffered a fatal heart attack (or was it a cerebral hemorrhage?) on the way to his car after working late. Cops took him to a hospital, then called Hainey's uncle Dick, who passed the sketchy details along to Hainey's devastated family.

Or at least that's what Hainey had always heard. When he was in high school he dug up some old obituaries at the library, and they were full of contradictions and unanswered questions. According to the newspaper accounts, his father — Bob Hainey, the ''night slot'' editor at the Chicago Sun-Times — hadn't been at work after all, but rather was ''visiting friends'' in an area far from his usual haunts. What friends? Why had his dad been there? And what exactly were the circumstances of his shocking, sudden death? The more Hainey thought about it, the less it made sense. ''I couldn't let it go,'' he says. ''When I found out that maybe someone was with him, all I wanted was for someone to tell me the story of his last moments. I just needed to know how it ended.''

Ten years ago, Hainey decided to finally find out. The result is After Visiting Friends, a memoir about his decades-long effort to grapple with his father's death and his far-reaching search for answers. It's part what next? detective story, part moving family portrait, and part wistful ode to the whiskey-sloshed mid-century Chicago newspaper world in which his father thrived. And yes, Hainey does — after countless dead ends and frustrating encounters with secretive figures from his dad's life — uncover the real story.

When Hainey first committed himself to chasing the truth about his father's mysterious final hours, there wasn't much to go on. He began with clues gleaned from those obits and his mother's few fuzzy memories of a terrible time that she had made every attempt to leave behind. He flew around the country on weekends, following loose threads. He tracked down long-forgotten files at the morgue and the hospital where Bob Hainey had been taken after he collapsed. He met up with his dad's seen-it-all colleagues from his days at the Chicago Tribune, guys like Stormy Strong, who, over prelunch tumblers of Scotch at an old newsman hangout bar, said to Hainey, ''What does it matter? He's dead.''

But though answers remained elusive, Hainey kept digging. ''I never thought about abandoning [the search],'' says the author, a journalist who serves as GQ magazine's deputy editor. ''I always thought that someone would turn up or the story would turn. As a reporter you always think, One more phone call. Someone's got to know something here.''

Someone did, and eventually Hainey pieced together the details about his father's death — and his life. That's when things got tricky. Until then, his quest had been personal, a search for the man whose absence had, in some ways, come to define him. But now Hainey had to decide whether to share the potentially devastating secrets he had unearthed with his mother. ''I sat on it for a good year and a half,'' he says. ''I was just sort of frozen. Could I complete this story? Could I tell my mother what I'd discovered? It was pretty intense. It was many sleepless nights, and a lot of getting myself to a place where I could tell her what I knew.''

Hainey's mother, Barbara, was 33 when her husband died, leaving her to raise Michael and his 8-year-old brother, Christopher. She's one of the book's most vivid characters, an eccentric survivor whose complicated, evolving relationship with the author gives After Visiting Friends a lot of its emotional heft. ''In some ways my mother is the strongest person I know,'' says Hainey. ''When my father died, she had to just keep the family together. She assumed this role that was about going forward: Nothing's going to stop us.'' Would the truth, even after all these years, be too much for her to bear? Finally, Hainey sat her down for the long-avoided talk. His lovely account of that fraught conversation — sorry, no spoilers here — closes the book.

When Hainey finished writing After Visiting Friends, he knew he had to share the manuscript with his mom, and once again he was terrified. The idea of her reading this deeply revealing account of their family's toughest times was bad enough. But if she hated it, he probably wouldn't be able to publish the book that had consumed him for years.

One Saturday afternoon he flew to Chicago, dropped off the manuscript, and returned to New York. He had no idea what to expect. ''Tuesday I was at work, and my phone rang and it was her,'' he says. ''I could tell she'd been crying, and I said, 'What's wrong?' She said, 'I just finished the book. I'm just so proud of you. This is such a powerful story. It's the most beautiful gift you could ever have given me.'''

Originally posted Feb 15, 2013 Published in issue #1247 Feb 22, 2013 Order article reprints
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