News Features

William J Leahy

Socialist – Internationalist
Born 16th November 1933
Died 8th January 2009

Bill Leahy

Kurt Jacobsen, friend & comrade writes

Bill Leahy, 75, journalist, teacher and political activist, who died 8th January, was born during the Great Depression in an Irish neighbourhood on Chicago’s northwest side to an Irish father and Italian mother.

He likened his time growing up there to the harsh environs novelist James T Farrell described in his famed gritty trilogy on Studs Lonegan, a fictional local tough on the city’s South Side.

Bill liked to recall running wild with other neighbourhood kids while all their dads were working long hours or away fighting during the Second World War. He reminded would-be romanticizers of the ‘good war’ what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder was nothing new, remembering plenty of sad, cracked-up war veterans who subsisted in basement flats of family dwellings afterward, never really recovering. Bill’s family lores was nothing if not colourful. An older cousin got involved with the Chicago mob – hauling along cold-blooded killer crony Tony Spilotro (who inspired the Joe Pesci character in Martin Scorsese’s movie ‘Casino’) to his parent’s home on a memorable occasion – and consequently died young and messily.

Bill, however, was inspired in his lifelong egalitarian leftwing views by a raconteur grandfather who was a democratic socialist of the Daniel De Leon stripe. He became a marvellous font of knowledge of Chicago’s lowdown politics, both highly critical and vastly amused by its “we don’t want nobody sent” culture. Any foreign visitor who wanted to hear chilling tales of the way ‘clout’ is used in Chicago I simply introduced to Bill.

I recall one evening when a woman reproved him for being so ‘serious’ and his ready retort that the poor thing didn’t appreciate how much fun being serious could be. Bill then knocked about as a freelance journalist and visiting lecturer in various locales. In the early to mid 1970s Bill lived in Dublin, eventually becoming deeply involved with the Workers’ Party to a degree he told me the Special Branch emphatically did not appreciate. They harassed him.

He published short stories and was also a frequent contributor to RTE’s “Sunday Miscellany”, among other outlets. Leaving Dublin under some duress, he taught at the American University in Cairo, having his longest live-in relationship with an Afghani highborn lady, whom friends gathered was the love of his life – if it wasn’t an Irish woman whom he often talked about wistfully.

Billy, despite affairs of some duration, never married. Returning to Chicago in the late 1970s he filed splendid insightful reports over the next decade or so on the Chicago scene for the Irish Times, The International Herald Tribune and other major outlets. He also self-publicised an intermittent cult newsletter entitled ‘Leahy’s Corner’, where he ‘leaked’ what mainstream newspapers did not see fit to print, and which, if there’s any justice, will become a collector’s item.

He managed to settle into a lectureship at Chicago City Colleges, a job he held until retiring in the late 1990s. He truly cared about helping his mostly minority pupils there, whom he viewed as no different than an earlier generation of ‘shanty Irish’ who needed a chance to understand the world, and shake it up. In the early 2000s close friends began to notice he was becoming erratic and forgetful. Bill soon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or a form of dementia close enough, and eventually was taken into care in 2004.

The now familiar horror of the disease is that, so far as anyone could tell, he died long before he physically expired.

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