Making the big time
The life of Godfrey Sperling Jr. showed once again that big dreams can come true.
Champaign-Urbana has had many local boys who made good, and Godfrey Sperling Jr. was one of them.
The Washington, D.C., journalist died Wednesday at 97, having outlived his fame as a reporter but still remembered in the profession as one of the nation's premier political reporters of his day.
Nicknamed "Budge," Sperling grew up in Urbana by way of Cody, Wyo., studied journalism at the University of Illinois, graduating in 1937, and then law at the University of Oklahoma, graduating in 1940. He returned to Urbana, working as a lawyer and dabbling in journalism at The News-Gazette. After a stint in the military during World War II, he joined the Christian Science Monitor and continued writing for the paper until 2005. Along the way, he was the newspaper's bureau chief in Chicago and New York City before moving to Washington, D.C., the town where he made his mark.
Sperling is best known for hosting weekly breakfasts where an aspiring politician or prominent public official was interviewed by political reporters. Their on-the-record repartee sometimes made big news, particularly in 1968 when U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy openly agonized about whether he would or should challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sperling's breakfasts began in 1966, the first guest being Illinois' newly elected U.S. Sen. Charles Percy. Over the years, they featured a who's who of politicians and power brokers — Hubert Humphrey, Henry Kissinger, Walter Reuther, Bill and Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle.
Sperling was a soft-spoken, friendly man who preferred gentle prodding of his interview subjects to aggressive questioning. He was interested in getting to know the people he wrote about, believing that he got a more informed story as a result.
Married for 70 years, Sperling retired as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, was honored by many institutions and organizations (including the UI's College of Media) and left a major mark on his profession.