WASHINGTON – Michael Kilian, an award-winning reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune who wrote 24 books and the “Dick Tracy” comic strip during a long and colorful career, died early Wednesday after a long illness. He was 66.

During nearly 40 years at the Tribune, Kilian wrote more than 6,000 articles on a broad range of subjects that included politics, military affairs, history and show business. He was one of the paper’s most versatile writers, equally at home in covering a Pentagon briefing as he was a White House state dinner.

Kilian was an old-fashioned reporter who got his start at the City News Bureau of Chicago and joined The Tribune when it was a Republican bastion that often called the shots in party matters. Yet he adapted as the newspaper modernized and shed its partisan past and became one of its most prolific writers, covering a remarkable range of events from presidential campaigns to theater openings.

Chicago Tribune managing editor James O’Shea called Kilian “a consummate journalist and author, prolific, professional and courageous. He always lent an ear to someone experiencing the frustrations common to our craft. He was a source of inspiration to many who read his columns, articles and books.”

His books also reflected his wide interests. They included Civil War mysteries and novels about terrorism and presidential intrigue. But he also co-authored nonfiction books about the movers and shakers in Chicago and Washington and a well-received critique about the defense establishment with Chicago Tribune staff member James Coates.

Cartoonist Dick Locher, Kilian’s collaborator on the “Dick Tracy” strip, said his colleague wanted to do everything in journalism. “He’d take a task and run with it,” Locher said. “He loved it. He immersed himself.”

He befriended some politicians, socialites and actresses, and helped encourage the careers of some, according to Tiki Davies, head of the press office at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here.

Kelly McGillis, an actress who performed at the Shakespeare Theatre in the nation’s capital, said Kilian interviewed her on several occasions. “He was supportive and asked really intelligent questions,” she said in an interview. “I think he was a really great soul. He touched my heart in a lot of positive ways.”

Kilian covered presidential campaigns beginning in 1968, and came to Washington in 1977, writing a column for the newspaper that was often laced with satirical humor. “Writing humor is one of the most difficult things any writer can do,” said former Chicago Tribune managing editor F. Richard Ciccone, who also co-authored a book with Kilian. “He used to pull it off quite successfully.” He won the United Press International’s humor writing award in 1971.

Later in his career, he provided coverage of the First Lady, particularly as it related to the arts in Washington.

Told of Kilian’s passing, former First Lady Barbara Bush said in a statement: “George and I were so very sorry to hear the news of Michael’s passing. Our friendship went back to the early days in New Hampshire, and Michael was one of those reporters who made those long, grueling days out on the campaign trail fun.”

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., remembered Kilian fondly when he was a member of the Illinois Legislature and Kilian covered him. “Mike was essentially conservative, and that was rare,” Hyde said. “But Mike was balanced, and had a wry sense of humor.”

His writing flair won him awards, including the Tribune’s Beck/Jones writing award in 1986 for his coverage of the Caroline Kennedy-Edward Schlossberg and Maria Shriver-Arnold Schwarzenegger weddings and Prince Charles’ visit to the United States.

He was a stickler for the socially correct, not only in dress but also in status. He studied the Social Register and was conversant about the Union League Club, and he wrote a series of jazz-age mysteries lionizing the Roaring Twenties.

On a piled-high desk that bespoke of a panoply of passions, there were reports on military and environmental issues and autographed pictures of actresses, along with invitations to big parties and events. One such invitation was for a 1989 garden party for Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday at the British embassy.

At times he would come to work wearing white sailing slacks, a straw hat, and a comfortable shirt with an ascot, reflecting a more formal era, and he would regale listeners with stories about the CIA he had picked up from his companions.

When the remnants of Hurricane Isabel hit the capital two years ago, Kilian showed up for work wearing jodhpurs and rubber boots, announcing to his boss, “Capt. Kilian reporting for duty.”

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1963, he served with occupational forces in Korea and began his journalism career in 1965.

Chicago Tribune reporter Bill Mullen said Kilian often critiqued the work of other reporters, who sometimes resented it, until they realized he was usually right. But Kilian was so bad at poker that other reporters would send a taxi to summon him to late-night games. “He liked to play and he always had money,” Mullen said.

He never finished college, though he attended the New School of Social Research and the University of Maryland. Born in Toledo, Ohio, on July 16, 1939, he was the son of a Chicago television pioneer, Fred Kilian, and radio actress Laura Leslie.

Fred Kilian created such memorable programs as “Super Circus,” “Tin Pan Alley,” “Penthouse Players,” and “The Mary Hartline Show” on the ABC network in the 1940s and 1950s. Laura Kilian died in 1981.

Michael Kilian often worked into the wee hours of the morning writing books after putting in a full-day’s work at the Tribune. But his favorite book, according to his wife, Pamela, was “Major Washington,” published in 1998, about the former president.

He considered himself an authority on the Civil War, the American Revolution, and on Ireland, particularly its troubles in Northern Ireland.

Kilian fell ill with a liver ailment more than a year ago, yet continued to work until recently. He is survived by his wife and two sons, Eric, 27, and Colin, 24, and his stepmother, Sara. He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with a memorial service planned on Nov. 26.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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