Friday, August 4, 2017

August 4, 1917


One hundred years ago today, my father – Marvin Norden Nachman – was born in Chicago, probably at Passavant Hospital. I’ve written little about him before – his military career (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2011/01/my-fathers-army.html) and what turned out to be our last Sox game together (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2010/11/major-gives-us-day-to-remember.html) – but not much else in biographical form. So on the 100th anniversary of his birth, here’s my tribute to a wonderful man who left us way too soon.

Dad, age 3 months

Dad was the son of Isadore and Helen Norden Nachman. His father – called Jim – came to the U.S. around 1900 from Iasi, Romania. Helen was #9 of 9 children of Adolph Norden, who had 7 children with his first wife. The Nordens emigrated from Germany in the late 1880s. His grandparents, Abraham and Chaia Schwartzman Nachman, also left Romania for the United States and are buried in the family’s section of the First Roumanian Congregation at Jewish Waldheim. Chaia was the sister of Sophia Schwartzman Pritzker, the grandmother of Abram Pritzker; great-grandmother of Jay, Robert and Donald; and great-great-grandmother of, among others, Tom, Jennifer, Penny and J.B. That and my Ventra Card get me around the city cheaply and efficiently (no discounts at Hyatt hotels either).

My grandparents and uncle Adolph, c. 1916

His first residence was the Van Dorn Apartments at 6054 S. Michigan Ave., across the street from St. Anselm Catholic Church, best known from its role in James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogies. Isadore worked downtown in a belt and suspender business with his brother-in-law, C.J. (“Jake”) Wolfson. His brother, Adolph, was five years older and had started at Carter Elementary School and the religious school at South Side Hebrew Congregation up the street before the family moved to South Shore during the early 1920s.

Van Dorn Apartments and South Side Hebrew Congregation religious school

Home was a two-flat at 7430 S. Bennett Ave. A relative told me the side streets were still unpaved back then. Adolph and dad attended Bryn Mawr Elementary School on the 7300 block of S. Jeffery Blvd. My cousins Jim, Bob and Cathy would also attend Bryn Mawr, as did Michelle Robinson Obama. The Robinsons lived around the corner on S. Euclid Ave. several years later. Both boys skipped grades and would have attended South Shore High School one-and-a-half blocks away but it wasn’t built yet. Instead, they took the streetcar north to Hyde Park High School. After one year at the University of Michigan, Adolph came home to attend the University of Chicago and the university’s medical school. Dad was offered two choices after graduating high school in 1934: attend the University of Chicago and live at home or the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He chose the latter. My grandfather borrowed on his life-insurance policy to pay the tuition, room and board.

7430 S. Bennett Ave. and Hyde Park High School

As South Siders, Adolph and dad became White Sox fans, something all five children inherited. Adolph saw his first game in 1921 and my father shortly thereafter. They took the Wentworth Avenue streetcar to the ballpark. Adolph bought season tickets after returning home from World War II, and my father had tickets to all the night games – less than 20 – in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He and Adolph attended all three home games of the 1959 World Series (Frank and I saw Game 1). My first Sox game was in 1954 (or maybe 1953) and have seen at least one home game every season except 1970 since, although I saw a game in Boston during that terrible 106-loss season.

Ticket, 1959 World Series

My father pledged Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity as a freshman, majoring in accounting. He would make several lifelong friends there but, unlike many of them, did not marry one of the U of I sorority sisters. His first roommate was Norman Cohn, a senior, who would go on to head a construction company that built Old Orchard Shopping Center (he reminded us countless times “My college roommate built this place” while shopping there) and later became part of JMB Realty. My grandmother thought it was so wonderful that dad has such a nice Jewish roommate when visiting them that first year. She remarked how neat their room was, until she opened a closet door and piles of stuff cascaded out. Only one of his brothers is known to still be with us, Eddie Stein, who is going strong at age 100.

Phi Epsilon Pi, 1937-1938. Dad is 1st row at left;
Eddie Stein is last row in front of the door

Dad achieved several honors, both academically and in extracurricular activities. Despite being an accounting major, he was editor of the 1938 Illio, the university’s yearbook. His colleague at the Daily Illini was Jack Mabley, who had a long career as a Chicago newspaper columnist. He received the Sachem and Ma-Wan-Da awards as a junior and Beta Gamma Sigma, the national honor society for business students. The only other accounting major to achieve similar grades and honors was Thomas A. Murphy, chairman and chief executive officer of General Motors from 1974 to 1980.

The Daily Illini, 1938

Despite his academic honors, my father could not get a job with a Big 8 (now Big 4, all of whom are headquartered in Europe) accounting firm after graduating in 1938. Why? Simply because he was Jewish. I was told by a 1972 U of I accounting graduate with similar honors that certain firms even then were known to be less hospitable to Jewish applicants. Dad joined a Jewish firm (I don’t remember the name) and later became a partner at Katz, Wagner & Co., where his main concentration was auditing. His clients included Pick Hotels and Speedway Wrecking, which would later demolish the first Comiskey Park. He worked for the firm until 1963, minus the three years he was in the Army during World War II.

At work, unknown date

My grandparents lost the two-flat toward the end of the Depression and moved to a high-rise apartment building at 7300 S. South Shore Drive. Grandpa Jim died in 1942 at age 57 while the boys were in the Army, and they returned to a small apartment after the war ended three years later. I think the tight living quarters had something to do with my father marrying Harriet Bloomfield on September 3, 1946, after having gone on a first date back on March 22. Adolph would marry the following year. They had to pay somebody under the table to get an apartment at 7130 S. Cyril Court. Home would later be 6738 S. Merrill Avenue, which was destroyed by fire in 1982.

Just married, September 3, 1946

My father was pretty much out of sight from January 1 to April 15 every year. In fact, my brother and I were born on March 22 (very ironic) and, because my mother didn’t find out she was having twins until three weeks before we were born, Frank and I had to wait to get our own cribs until the tax season ended. Dad would wake us up in the morning just to remind us he was still around. During our first family trips east, we stayed at the Belmont Plaza (now the W New York) in New York City and The Lee House (now demolished) in Washington, D.C., both Pick hotels.

The twins, one week old, 1949

After April 15, dad travelled frequently to do audits at Pick hotels, one of which was the Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. He told us that numerous Ohio State football players were on the hotel’s payroll, but the only time he ever saw them was when they came for free meals. This made the Illini graduate very unhappy when his school was placed on probation for minor offenses, particularly when one of the whistleblowers was a staff member who had been passed over for promotion.

One memorable anecdote relates to the Sahara Inn, a motel near O’Hare airport owned by mobster Manny Skar. The Sahara had declared bankruptcy shortly after its construction in 1962, and Pick Hotels was one of the creditors. A creditors’ meeting was held over a weekend at the Schiller Park establishment, requiring the attendees to stay two nights; however, Illinois Bell had yanked all of the phones in this pre-cell phone era. My father’s parting words to our mother were, “If I’m not back by Sunday, call the police.” Skar would be gunned down in a mob hit in 1965 as he exited the garage in his N. Lake Shore Drive building after dining with Mrs. Skar at a deli on Oak Street. Because take-home purchases were noted in the newspaper reports, our family joke was “Manny Skar died clutching his salami.”

Sahara Inn matchbook

In 1963, Les Weil, a freshman brother when dad was a senior, bought majority interest in American Envelope Co., which also had plants in Baltimore and Washington. He asked my father to join him as chief financial officer and treasurer. Not only would we see him now during the first three-and-a-half months of the year but he also received a company car in order to drive from the north suburbs to the offices at 3100 W. Grand Avenue, just as Frank and I were getting our driver’s licenses. The company at the time was the largest supplier of envelopes to Hallmark Cards and, as a small business, qualified for government contracts, including envelopes for draft boards.

3100 W. Grand Avenue

The company did well during the remainder of the 1960s, and Les and dad somehow found time to visit the Baltimore company in October 1966 when the Orioles played the Dodgers in the World Series. Thanks to the previous owner, who had been instrumental in bringing the O’s from St. Louis, the company had four season tickets right behind the Orioles’ dugout. I worked in the plant during the summer of 1968 (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2014/07/transcendence-in-envelope-factory.html) and will never forget going into the front office before traveling home to see dad balance a half-million bank statement in his head and know where the few missing dollars were. It helped to have a photographic memory.

Ticket, 1966 World Series

My father was a scrupulously honest man, but he did teach me a few lessons about the realities of business life. During his tenure, the company bought the building next store on Grand and needed to build an enclosed walkway between the two buildings. This required a permit, which was granted by the local alderman, in this case, the very powerful and very crooked Thomas Keane from the 31st Ward. They got it, after dad gave a cash payment to one of Keane’s bagmen who came by to pick it up. No cash, no walkway. Keane would be sentenced to five years in prison in 1974 for federal mail-fraud and conspiracy convictions. In another instance, he was an unattributed source in a front-page newspaper story on a shady state deal. When I asked why he didn’t use his name, he told me, “I don’t know who’s behind these people. I don’t want a firebomb at our front door.”

Les and dad decided to sell the company in 1970 after it had moved to larger quarters at 4400 W. Ohio Street. Unfortunately, the sale was completed as a recession set in, and the acquisition disqualified it as a small business, thus ending its government contracts. Dad had an employment contract but felt – as he later found out, rightfully so – the new owners were trying to find cause to fire him and bring in a low-paid bookkeeper. Dad seemed much more edgy after I returned home from college and a summer in California in August 1971 and even fretted about taking off time to meet my soon-to-be in-laws in New York the month before our January 1973 wedding.

4400 W. Ohio Street (the name is still above the door)

My world was shaken to the core at about 2:45 on the afternoon of March 29, 1973, when I received a phone call that my father had been taken to a hospital I’d never heard of at W. Division and N. Cicero avenues. Rather than go into detail here, the following post (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2010/12/sudden-death-in-family.html) chronicles that last traumatic day of his life. Now, 44 years hence, I’ve worn his South Shore Temple confirmation class ring he received in 1932 that rolled out of his personal effects envelope longer than he did.

Confirmation Class 1932 ring

It took me a long time to come to terms with losing dad at age 55. Only a few years ago when I knew he probably would no longer be here did I find some sort of closure. Ironically, Adolph lived to be three months short of 102 and was sharp it until the end. I never begrudged him that because it was a great connection to family. Mom remarried the next year to Irving Nathan, a man very much unlike dad, which was a good thing. He was outgoing and gregarious and took the seven of us (Frank, Martha, Grant, Julia, Janet, Marisa and me) in as his own. They traveled the world, kept old friends and made new ones, and he left her secure to the end of her life at age 89 in 2013.

Dad has been gone so long I really must summon up remembrances of him, even as I describe them here. It doesn’t seem like just yesterday. Every so often I think of something, like the time he and mom visited me in Boston and took Frank and some family friends attending Harvard and MIT to dinner at Durgin Park. The brilliant CPA didn’t know the restaurant was cash only and didn’t have enough to pay the bill. He had to borrow money from us students to settle the tab.

His last photo, with Reuben Shore, March 1973

One last thought: In August 1973, two families threw a party for some of my school friends who were getting married. As we were saying our good-byes to Dorothy Gutstadt, one of the hosts and the wife of another fraternity brothers, she looked at me and started to cry. Her (now ex- ) daughter-in-law said, “Oh, she cries at anything!” Holding back my tears, I looked at both of them and said ‘It’s a long story.” Dorothy is thankfully still with us, and I never fail to remind her of this . . . and how important it will always be to me. Dad knew how to elicit both smiles and tears.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Tale of Two (Empty) Swimming Pools


Within the span of 24 hours on September 9 and 10, I observed two empty swimming pools in the Czech Republic. Each portays the history of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, one symbolizing an almost certain end of the road, the other a rebirth.
The first is in the basement of Petschek Villa, the residence of the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Through a mutual friend, Janet and I visited with Ambassador Andrew Schapiro and his wife, Tamar Newberger, in the late afternoon and evening of September 9. Along with two couples and two guests, Andrew and Tamar took us on a tour of part of the 70-room residence.

The Villa was built in the late 1920s, during the brief flowering of the first republic of Czechoslovakia by Otto Petschek, the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in the country. The Petscheks were a German-speaking Jewish family, and their wealth was attributable in large part to coal mining and banking.

While the mansion was being built, the family lived in the present Deputy Chief of Mission’s residence. The Petschek grandparents continued to live there after the rest of the family moved into their new home during the winter of 1929 - 1930. Otto Petschek became ill and died in 1934.

In 1938, with the growing Nazi threat in Europe and specifically toward Czechoslovakia, the Petschek family (a son and three daughters) sold their holdings and departed for the United States, where members of the family still live. After the Nazis occupied Prague, they seized the house, and it became the residence of General Rudolf Toussaint, the head of the German army occupying Prague. A considerable number of Nazi aides and soldiers were quartered on the property during this seven-year period.

Taking us into the basement and switching on a light in a huge dark room, Andrew revealed an empty swimming pool with an interesting history. NOTE: Because of the family’s wishes, photos of the pool and other rooms in the residence will not be posted here or on social media.

The swimming pool is said to have been used during only one winter. By one account, after one of the Petschek sisters caught pneumonia after swimming and nearly died, her father decreed that the pool should never be used again. Another account holds that a family member dived in and broke a leg, which resulted in the ban. Another explanation for the pools’ disuse (a less dramatic one offered by a family member) was the pool was too expensive to heat, even for an owner of coal mines. Either way, the pool has remained empty for more than eighty years.

Terezin concentration camp

The second is in the Terezin concentration camp, 40 miles north of Prague, which visited the following day. The Nazis took over the fortress built by Hapsburgs between 1780 and 1790 that had been used a prison for army and political prisoners. It served mainly as a transfer camp, although thousands died here from disease, starvation and execution. For a visit by the Red Cross, the Nazis built facilities that were never used by the inmates, including rows of sinks on each side of a long room.

Sinks, Terezin concentration camp

Toward the end of our visit, we were taken to an empty swimming pool, surrounded by a fence. Jews and students were forced to build it for the guards and their families in 1942. The inmates used it once . . . for the propaganda film. It was not particularly large or deep, compared to the pool at the Petschek Villa.
Swimming pool, Terezin concentration camp

Of the vast majority of Czech Jews taken to Terezin, 97,297 died, including 15,000 children. Only 132 children were known to have survived. The elderly and families were brought in large numbers to Terezin. Then, in large groups, they were transported to the east, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, when it was fully operational in late 1942. The elderly were sent immediately to the gas chambers, while younger inmates who still could work were temporarily spared. Terezin families were, in some instances, kept together at Birkenau, in family barracks, until their fate was met.
Terezin Concentration camp

Simply stated, the empty Terezin swimming pool was as depressing a symbol of death one can find for the Holocaust. Ovens, gallows, gas chambers and the like our guttural reminders of the unfortunate capabilities of human beings. The pool rather transcends that, as one imagines the slave laborers literally being worked to death for the benefit of the guards and their families, as they were in bunkers below Auschwitz making parts for B-1 and B-2 rockets. Sadness and anger overwhelm the soul as one looks out at the decaying expanse.

Terezin concentration camp

The pool at the Ambassador’s residence is the opposite, a symbol of the enduring strength of the Jewish people. Ambassador Schapiro’s mother’s family lived in Prague during the war. In fact, the Czemer family (his grandfather worked for Shell Oil) lived in an apartment building close to the Villa. Raya Czemer fled Czechoslovakia at age 5 in 1939 and settled in Chicago, where she attended public schools, college and medical school, becoming a psychiatrist. Andrew had a distinguished career in law, including clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, before being named ambassador in 2014. Ironically, the residence had already been made kosher by the previous ambassador, Norman Eisen. Our tour included the kitchen, where the chef displayed the freshly baked challah that would be served for Shabbat dinner.

The story of rebirth doesn’t simply end with the success of the son of a Holocaust survivor. A month previously, Alex Schapiro celebrated his bar mitzvah at the beautiful Spanish Synagogue, where his grandmother's family had worshipped. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of a modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York City who had been the family’s rabbi at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago, officiated.

Spanish Synagogue, Prague

Two empty swimming pools, one representing death and the cruelty of humankind and one representing life and the will of a people not just to survive but to prosper in many ways. I shall never forget either of them.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fenway Tales: September 1968


I transferred to Boston University from Lehigh University after my freshman year, arriving in September 1968 knowing a few people in the area but none at BU. As a transfer student, I was required to arrive early with the freshmen, partly to take a test that exempted me from the language requirement (I passed). Home was Room 401 in Myles Standish Hall, a former hotel in Kenmore Square that housed Major League Baseball teams in town to play the Red Sox or Braves until it was bought by the university in 1950.  Four students lived in the three-room suite; I was assigned to the former living room with a returning student, while another transfer student and a returning student had the single room.
Myles Standish Hall, 2008
With classes yet to begin and Brent, the LIU transfer still not arriving, I found myself on Sunday, September 8 (my mother’s 45th birthday), with nothing much to do. To kill time on a beautiful afternoon, I walked the few blocks to Fenway Park to see what turned out to be my first, last and only professional soccer game. I’d been to the ballpark to see a Red Sox game on a family trip seven years earlier and, although Fenway hadn’t yet reached icon status, it was an interesting place to see an athletic contest. The Boston Beacons hosted the Baltimore Bays in their final games of the North American Soccer League (NASL) season.

Boston Red Sox program cover and ticket, 1961

In 1967, two professional soccer leagues started in the United States: the United Soccer Association (USA), a collection of entire European and South American teams brought to the U.S. and given local names, and the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) The two leagues merged in December 1967 to form the NASL, which began the season with 17 of the 22 teams that had participated during the 1967 seasons. The teams used mostly on foreign talent. Despite some successes, the NASL also had significant problems. The teams included only 30 North American players. High salaries for foreign players and steep rents for large stadiums, coupled with low attendances, resulted in every team losing money in 1968. Only 5 of the 17 teams returned next season.

The Beacons were a new team, while the Bays had been part of the NPSL. The Boston Shamrock Rovers, owned by Boston Bruins owner Weston Adams, were disbanded after playing one year in the USA in suburban Lynn. The Bays, owned by Baltimore Orioles owner Jerry Hoffburger, played in spacious Memorial Stadium, the home of the Orioles and Colts. They lost the only NPSL championship game to the Oakland Clippers.

Baltimore Bays, 1968, Boston Beacons logo, 1968

After purchasing a general-admission ticket (the going price according to tickets for games in Baltimore and New York appears to have been $3.50 – about $24 today - but may have been less), I settled down into a nearly empty section that would have been opposite the pitcher’s mound on the first-base side. The Beacons defeated the Bays, 1-0, before 2,229 fans. The Bays would make it to the next season; the Beacons did not. The Beacons ended the season at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a 9-17-6 record. Their largest crowd was 7,319 (not including an exhibition versus Pele and Santos, which drew 18,431) on August 6 against the Atlanta Chiefs. The Chicago Mustangs, who played at Comiskey Park, drew the league’s second-worst average attendance of 2,463.

Beacons' lone goal vs. Bays, Sept. 8, 1968

The following Friday, again with no plans for the evening, I returned to Fenway to see the Red Sox take on the Minnesota Twins. Unlike the previous season, when the Red Sox defeated the Twins on the final game of the season and waited for the Tigers to lose to the Angels to win its first American League pennant since 1946, both teams were far behind the league-leading Detroit Tigers. In the final season before MLB split each league into two divisions, the Red Sox finished 4th,  behind 17 games with a 86-76 record, while the Twins ended up in 7th, 24 games back at 79-83.

One of my goals was simply to kill an evening, as the game started at 7:30 p.m. The Red Sox’s starter was Ray Culp, who pitched for the Phillies during their infamous 1964 season and came over from the Cubs during the winter in another disastrous trade for the North Siders. The Red Sox sent Rudy Schlesinger and cash to the Cubs; Schlesinger had one pinch-hit at-bat in 1965 and would never make it to MLB again. Culp won 71 while losing 58 before retiring from the Red Sox after the 1973 season. Dean Chance, winner of the 1964 Cy Young Award with the Angels sporting a 20-9 record, a 1.65 earned-run average and 11 shutouts at age 23, started for Twins. He won 20 games the previous season, his first in Minnesota, but lost the all-important final game of the season.

1968 Topps cards for Sept. 13 game starting pitchers

The Red Sox, on Culp’s 6-hit shutout, defeated the Twins, 3-0. Attendance was 23,171. A two-run home run by Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, his 35th, and an RBI by light-hitting rookie infielder Luis Alvarado (.130 that first season) accounted for the Red Sox’s runs. Harrelson would later become the White Sox long-time play-by-play announcer, while Alvarado would have four undistinguished seasons with the White Sox (4 home runs, 57 RBI and .218 batting average). Alvarado was traded from Boston to Chicago after the 1970 season with Mike Andrews (who left me a pitifully small tip after I waited on his group during my very short stint as a waiter that summer) for future Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio after his second stint with the White Sox.

The most important part of the game was its time: 1 hour and 40 minutes. It may have been the fastest game for the Red Sox or even in MLB in a five-year period, and only 11 minutes longer than the fastest night game in MLB history. So much for killing time; I was back on the street by 9:15. I would attend three more games at Fenway during my college days: a Patriot’s Day game in April 1969 (Yankees 6 Red Sox 4) and White Sox’s games in 1969 and 1970, both started by Tommy John. On June 4, 1969, home runs by non-power hitters Ed Hermann, Gail Hopkins and Bobby Knoop gave the ChiSox a 7-2 victory. The following year, my only season not seeing a White Sox home game since going to the ballpark in 1954, Wilbur Wood and Danny Murphy could not hold a 3-1 lead, and the Red Sox won, 4-3. I regret not seeing the Boston Patriots play in their 1968 and last season at Fenway Park.

While picking up my ticket at will-call (thanks to one of my BU roommates, Nate Greenberg) for the Diamondbacks – Red Sox game in June 2008, the agent asked if I’d ever been to Fenway Park. I replied, “Yes, but not for 38 years.” Two things were noticeably higher: a new deck added above the roof level that had been turned into luxury boxes and ticket prices, paying $90 to sit halfway up the upper deck. And, of course, “Sweet Caroline,” which always has me reaching for the mute button.

Fenway Park, 2008

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Here in Youngstown


I’m not a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan but rather took a liking to his music through searching for Nils Lofgren performances on YouTube. I first came across Lofgren from his days with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and his knockout performance of “Keith Don’t Go” more than 40 years ago. Born two years after me in 1951, also in Chicago, he joined the E Street Band in 1984 and also did some solo work. Some his most notable work with the band is on “Because the Night” and “Ghost of Tom Joad.”



My favorite of all is “Youngstown.” It’s a blistering 5-star, circle-the-bases performance by the band and has been performed in venues around the world. It always gets me thinking about my one trip to Youngstown, Ohio, in what would be my first taste of what I call Post-Industrial America.

At the end of the 1980s, I was a vice president at The Financial Relations Board, Inc. (FRB), the nation’s largest investor-relations firm at the time. I had several excellent clients – Budget Rent-a-Car, Toro, Old Republic International and Giddngs & Lewis, to name a few – but at various times was stuck with new clients for which the only rationale for signing up was to get as much revenue out of them as possible until they cut us loose. These marginal clients were a bane to every account manager’s existence because like the good ones you still had to bill certain hours, do monthly reports and perform other cumbersome tasks.

One day, probably in early 1989, my boss Dennis Waite and I were called into the president’s office and told we had a new client: GF Corporation and its wholly owned subsidiary, GF Business Equipment, Inc., in Youngstown, Ohio. Having done work for United Stationers and ACCO World in the office products segment, I thought it would be a interesting assignment.

However, this was an unusual client for several reasons: It was in eastern Ohio, where the agency had no other clients and might well have gone to the New York office; the company, although listed on the New York Stock Exchange, was in deep financial trouble; and the assignment was to help get the stock price up as quickly as possible to fetch a better sale price.

GF Business Equipment, Inc. stock certificate


Under usual protocol, a full account team would fly out for the new-client orientation meeting, which would be Dennis and me, a member from Market Intelligence (the FRB unit that set up investor meetings across the country) and a media-relations person. However, given that there was probably little or no budget, I was the sole FRB representative sent to meet with management. To save money, it would be a one-day, in-and-out visit to talk with the CEO, CFO and others involved in the company’s investor-contact programs.

GF began life as General Fireproofing Company in 1902. It entered the office-furniture business in 1907, changing its name first to GF Office Furniture and later to GF Business Equipment. GF was once the nation’s largest producer of metal office furniture, employing more than 2,000 people at its plant at Dennick and Wydesteel on Youngstown’s east side. Because of its expertise in metal fabrication, it manufactured aircraft parts during World War II rather than office furniture. According to reports, GF discontinued several product lines during 1970s.

Other than a walk through the plant, I remember very little about the visit. I was met by a woman whose name I’ve long forgotten (I’ll call her Carol for this purpose) and, as you may guess, the relationship was so short-lived that I’ve retained neither a Rolodex nor business card for anyone at GF. There were no sessions with CEO Ronald Anderson and the CFO discussing the business, plans for a turnaround or other actions that would help increase shareholder value, if I met them at all. There was, however, the plant tour.

Very few production lines operated that day down the long stretch of a typical American factory, and the facility was amazingly quiet. As Carol and I walked through the plant, me in a banker’s gray pinstriped suit, starched white shirt, red power tie and black oxfords, I noted the workers eying me warily for an inordinate amount of time. Each sported a look of suspicion, sadness and resignation. After returning to Carol’s office she told me why: They thought I might be somebody checking out the place for possible acquisition. Obviously others had been through before; I hadn’t realized that at age 40 I could look like a captain of industry.

Upon return to the office the following day, I surprisingly received little resistance when informing management this was a lost cause. GF probably paid my travel expenses, and we didn’t do as much as a quarterly earnings release. This trip has obviously left a great impression on me, some 27 years later. It’s one thing to read about companies in distress, quite another to witness it on the inside, first-hand.

In December 1989, GF stated it would close the Youngstown plant during the first quarter of 1990. It had been running losses of $9 million to $10 million annually on shrinking sales. The company declared bankruptcy on April 18, 1990, and its manufacturing facility, trademarks and patents were acquired by Tang Industries, an industrial conglomerate headed by Chicagoan Cyrus Tang. The plant closure put 300 people out of work and resulted in a flurry of lawsuits regarding pension and health-insurance obligations. Remaining production was transferred to Gallatin, Tennessee, and the company name was changed to GF Office Furniture, Ltd. That facility has since closed; a call to the main number states it has been disconnected.

The following is a link to photographs of the shuttered plant on Flickr by Steven B. Heselden, a retired Columbus, Ohio, firefighter, who graciously allowed my usage for this entry.

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/sbh3743/albums/72157626931501604

As late as the 1960 census, Youngstown's population was about 167,000, down only about 3,000 from its high in the 1930 census. By the time of my arrival, it had fallen to approximately 96,000, and today is estimated at about 65,000. Here, then, is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band doing "Youngstown"; watch a short 60+ year-old guy in a top hat with a hip replacement end the song with a dazzling solo. It's about the only thing positive to take from this story.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Englewood Hospitality

Recently on a Facebook post, I noted a security guard at a Bucktown elementary school told me I couldn’t take pictures of the building, despite being far across the street on a public sidewalk and shooting with a wide-angle lens. The school, he politely informed me, doesn’t allow photographs of its students. Despite sending the photo and a link to laws regarding public photography to the principal, she replied basically the school was instructed by the police to call them if anybody was photographing or taping the children (they didn’t for me) and the rule was no photography, public property be damned.

CICS Bucktown
 
I write this because all to frequently I’m admonished for one reason or another on my North Side photowalks. “Why are you taking pictures of my house?” is usually asked with a snarl rather than in an inquisitive manner. Rarely will anybody say hello or even nod an acknowledgment. This is almost exactly the opposite on the South Side.

Initially venturing to the South Side to take photographs of old family residences and former synagogue buildings for my book There Used to Be a Synagogue Here: Former Chicago Temples, I found the neighborhoods of Bronzeville, Grand Boulevard, Oakland/Kenwood and Washington Park very hospitable to a 60ish white guy walking down the street with a camera. People politely inquire about my interest in their neighborhood, volunteer information about the area or simply say hello or nod in passing, something that would surprise somebody like Brian Kilmeade at Fox News. Nothing more than “What are looking at?” yelled from a distance by a young teen – more to impress the two fellows with him – was even remotely threatening.

3600 - 3606 S. Giles Ave.
 
I was treated to a special type of hospitality this week after photographing the former South Side Masonic Temple at W. 64th and S. Green streets, which has made Preservation Chicago’s 2015 list of the city’s seven most endangered buildings. I knew there was a large church in the vicinity, which came into view as I was driving west and south. I parked the car at the corner of W. 65th and S. Peoria streets and began photographing the church – St. Stephens Evangelical Lutheran Church – from several different vantage points. As I was finishing, a gentleman who I’d seen entering the former parish house across the street reemerged and asked me, “Have you met Reverend Raven? Would you like to photograph the inside of the church?” For those of you who have seen my church photography, you know I wouldn’t pass up this chance.

St. Stephens Evangelical Lutheran Church
 
After a few minutes, the Rev. Dr. Henry Raven, St. Stephens’ pastor, emerged and greeted me at the door. Before crossing the street, he informed me that this was the second oldest church building in Englewood – the Chicago Embassy Church is the oldest – and hoped to acquire landmark status for the 1909 structure. It was founded by German immigrants – a plaque on the Peoria Street entrance states, “Ev. Lutherische St. Stephanus Kirche” – and the first black families became members in the late 1950s.

Original plaque from German congregants
 
Rev. Raven took me to a side entrance on the 65th Street side and opened a door and sliding metal grate, which led to the front of the church. Passing the now-obligatory drum set in the corner, I saw a stunning interior with a unique yellow-and-green color scheme. The pulpit is dominated by an ornate wooden dais and large working pipe organ above. Rev. Raven urged me to walk up to the balcony in the rear and the organ loft in the front. The narrow stairways featured stained-glass windows, and the views from both perches were excellent.

St. Stephens Evangelical Lutheran Church
 
As you can see in the photos, the church needs some work, for which Rev. Raven is raising money. He became pastor ten years ago and has increased church membership after some problems caused by the previous leader. Rev. Raven also hopes the landmark designation will help with upkeep. The church has the original blueprints for the building, which should enhance his efforts.

Church balcony
 
We returned to the former parish house and exchanged information. The former parish house now serves as offices and the hall for the Family Feeding Center, a Wednesday and Friday soup kitchen opened in April 2014. The first of its kind in Englewood, the soup kitchen supported by Shepard’s HOPE feeds 200 people each day. The Action Coalition of Englewood is also headquartered here. Prior to departing, I gave Rev. Raven a small donation for his hospitality and promised to send my best photographs for use by the church.

Pipe organ
 
This is the third church into which I’ve been invited while taking exterior photographs. The first, the Independence Boulevard Seventh-Day Adventist church (the former Congregation Anshe Sholom) in Lawndale, came about when a maintenance man spotted me through a window shooting the side doors, which feature Hebrew letters inscribed above glass crosses in the doors. The other, the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church (the former Isaiah Temple), would be visited later during Open House Chicago 2012. While also photographing South Side churches during the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago, I’ve met several very nice people who take great pride in showcasing their buildings to visitors.

Corpus Christi Church, 4920 S. King Dr.

Thank you again, Rev. Henry Raven, for extending yourself to provide me with a unique photography opportunity. Here's to a better 106th year for the church, landmark status in the future and better times for Englewood. It's wonderful how going outside one's comfort zone can result in such rewarding experiences.
 
St. Stephens Evangelical Lutheran Chuch


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

I Must Be in the First Row: Janis Joplin's Final Concert


Nobody knew it, but the thousands that attended Janis Joplin’s concert in Harvard Stadium in Boston 45 years ago tonight witnessed her final performance. I hadn’t planned on going and, even if it weren’t her last concert, it certainly was memorable.

Janis Joplin, Aug. 12, 1970
Photograph: Peter Warrack
 
On a hot August evening, my friend Calvin, who I knew from volunteering at The Storefront Learning Center in the South End, had traveled up from Roxbury to my un-air-conditioned apartment on Ashford Court in Allston. Our apartment lease ran through the end of August, so I stayed in Boston and was joined by two Harvard friends who were working in the city that summer. We knew there was a Janis Joplin concert that night at Harvard Stadium, so we decided to check it out. The stadium was a mile-and-one-half away.

As has been reported, the concert was supposed to be limited to 10,000 persons. However, because the band’s equipment had been stolen, the concert’s beginning was delayed for a number of hours while replacements were located. We encountered a mob scene upon arrival. I’ve read reports that people scaled the stadium walls to enter; in any case, Calvin and I simply walked in an open gate.

Here’s where it got interesting. Of the estimated 40,000 people who eventually made it into the stadium, we ended up in the first row, right in front of the stage. So how did we get there, without any type of pass or VIP IDs, without once being stopped?

Calvin was a 6’3” black man with a neat Afro and wire glasses. He was probably one of the most dynamic persons I’ve ever met, very self-assured but not intimidating. Calvin simply walked through the crowd with authority, seemingly parting the sea of white kids, as he headed toward the stage. Perhaps a few people said something to him, which he simply ignored. Whenever anybody asked me where I was going, I kept walking and replied, “I’m with him.” I think there were two dynamics working: one, fear of a confident black man making his way through a crowd and, two, persons feeling it would be racist to stop him just because he was black.

Calvin, undated photo 

I’ve read various accounts of the quality of the concert, only 8 songs long, and some recordings exist. My recollection was she was far from top form, given one can assume what she may have ingested during those hours of extra down time. Calvin, an excellent judge of people, figured she was wasted on some combination of substances and beverages. According to noted photojournalist Gwendolyn Stewart who was also in the front row, Joplin was cowering in her trailer as the crowds swelled. She was never in danger, as the stage was raised high off the ground, safe from a rushing horde that never materialized. I do remember the sexually oriented banter between Janis and attendees; it was pretty mundane and good theater. She would die of a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970.
 
Unfortunately, my good friend Calvin passed away much too early 30 years ago. Those were different times, seemingly long ago but still in many ways fresh as yesterday.
 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

“Draft or Lite?”: Waiting for Kenneth Sherwin

As Opening Day 2015 approaches, with fans more optimistic about the Sox and Cubs than in recent memory, I was tempted to repost my 2011 recollections about Opening Days (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2011/04/third-new-years-day.html) but this year’s game will be something different.

The aforementioned post notes that returning to the ballpark means reacquainting oneself with people after a fall and winter’s absence. I mentioned my beer vendor Kenneth. Sadly, Kenneth Sherwin – or Kenny as many called him – will not be at Opening Day at either Chicago park, for he passed away suddenly in Miami Beach at age 61 on December 29. It shocked and saddened everybody who knew him.

Kenneth Sherwin, June 26, 2009
 
I started buying beers from Kenneth around 2006 after attending games regularly in my cousin’s seats in Section 126 on the first-base side. This was generally Kenneth’s territory. During the 2008 season, the Sox won every regular-season game for which I purchased those beers – probably 14 in succession – to the point that I chased Kenneth down by the right-field corner to buy a beer during Game 4 of the American League Division Series vs. Tampa Bay. Alas, that didn’t work, as the Sox were eliminated with a 6-4 loss. In the meantime, we would see each other around town; he lived three blocks from my mother’s apartment and played tennis at Midtown Athletic Club.

Kenneth was a character, to be sure, which most of us found out in more detail after his passing. The youngest of five children, he grew up on the North Side before attending the University of Miami. He decided against a career in law – his father was an attorney as are two brothers – and variously worked as a trader and as a high-end men’s clothing salesman. Kenneth became a vendor in 1981 and worked both ballparks, Chicago Stadium and United Center for the Bulls and Blackhawks, Soldier Field for the Bears and various concert venues. He was also a throwback to the days when many of the vendors were Jewish.

Kenneth with cousins Jim, Cathy and Bob, June 26, 2009
 
If I were attending a Sox game with friends, the response at the concession stand to “Do you want a beer?” was always “We’ll get them at our seats from my beer guy.” Depending how early we had arrived, we either saw Kenneth cutting across rows before the first pitch or going up and down the aisles. Even after all of the years, he’d usually ask “Draft or Lite?” He was good for a quip, asking our daughter, “Is he behaving himself?” or remarking when Janet was along, “I see you brought your girlfriend tonight.” His only complaints were about the weather – too cold – or the effect of small crowds on his bottom line.

Last season through my friend Rob Taman, I attended six games at Wrigley Field. Upon spotting me, Kenneth invariably asked, “What are you doing here?” Between the two stadiums, I must have seen him 20 times last season. In fact, as I headed to his funeral service, I told Janet, “How many people do I see 20 times a year?”

A cold night at Wrigley Field, May 24, 2011
 
In relating to his brother Bob what turned out to be our last conversation, he told me that Kenneth always spoke his mind. In fact, it’s why he no longer worked at the United Center. Some time back, Kenneth was servicing one of the suites and received a very small tip. He handed it back to the man and said, “Here, you must need this more than me.” The guy complained, and he was eventually fired. Kenneth manned a beer stand at the Bears games rather than vending in the seats; he pointed out that those vendors were non-union and thus didn’t follow the protocols of the other venues, including entering an aisle that a fellow vendor is servicing.

With winters now open, Kenneth bought a condominium in South Beach, four blocks from the ocean, so he could continue his tennis and cycling pursuits year-around. He was a regular at the annual tennis tournament at Key Biscayne, where he followed his favorites both on and off the court. It’s not surprising his Florida residence featured a framed jacket autographed by Roger Federer. It was his love of tennis and cycling and ability to haul beer cases some 150 times a year that made his sudden passing so much more baffling.
 
Opening Day will follow the usual routine: arrive early and roam the park taking photographs, order a brat by the stand at Section 126, take a seat (either 3 or 4) in Row 9 and wait for my beer guy. But like Godot and Lefty, Kenneth will not arrive. Back to our last conversation. After my friend Rick, a Cubs fan and good tipper, ordered our second round, Kenneth said so all could hear, “Bring this guy to the park more often.” I plan to this season; I only wish Kenneth would be there to accept the tips.