Monday, July 14, 2014

Transcendence in an Envelope Factory

After I saw the open door last Thursday, I knew I ‘d eventually enter. The odor, the noise and the heat not only took me back to a summer 46 years ago but also provided a transcendent experience beyond a walk through an envelope-production plant.

 Side door, Cenveo (formerly Garden City/American envelope companies)

The envelope phenomenon actually pre-dates my birth to 1937, when two South Siders, Marvin Nachman and Leslie Weil, became Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity brothers at the University of Illinois. They would remain friends, living on the South Side after World War II and starting families. John Weil was two years older than my brother and me and Craig Weil was born six months after us. Both families moved to the same North Shore suburb, and Frank and I attended junior high school and high school with Craig.

 Phi Epsilon Pi, 1937-1938
My father is 1st on left, 1st row, Les Weil is 1st on left, 3rd row

After working in the coal industry, Les joined American Envelope Company in the early 1950s, building it into one of the leading companies in the industry. He held patents on several innovative products, including the foil-lined envelope. At one time, American was the largest supplier of envelopes to Hallmark, an account Les handled directly. After buying out his partner in 1963, he needed a top-level executive to run the financial end of the business. He chose my father, who became the chief financial officer after a career in public accounting.

 American Envelope Co., 3100 W. Grand (2009)

The business prospered under their leadership, including acquired companies in Baltimore and Washington. The Baltimore company was purchased from a gentleman involved in the move of the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore in 1954, and it retained season tickets in the first row behind the Orioles dugout. Les and dad found October 1966 to be an ideal time to check out the company’s operations and, by the way, watch the Orioles complete a four-game sweep of the Dodgers. Both games took less than two hours.

 World Series ticket, game 3, 1966

Having studied diligently during the second semester of my college freshman year after pulling a dismal 2.1 the first semester, I neglected to look for a summer job. Returning home without one in May 1968, I went to work at American Envelope. My jobs were varied: clearing cutting tables (putting the die-cut envelopes on pallets and moving them to machines for final production), assembling cartons (using an electric paper-tape dispenser), running the string-and-button envelope assembly machine (a project requested by the plant manager to show my father how unprofitable these jobs were (, operating a lift truck and driving special-delivery jobs. I was a particularly skilled deliveryman, striving to complete my trips as quickly as possible in the bald-tired station wagon with a misaligned steering wheel. Ed Signature, the head of the shipping department, requested I stay on the rest of the summer; later dad told me the regular drivers usually stopped for a beer or two on the way back.

 The plant at 3100 W. Grand Avenue was not air-conditioned, and the fires atop the machines keeping the envelope glue liquid didn’t help matters. It was hot, stuffy and noisy from the constant din of the machines. The odor was a combination of oil, glue and sweat. My allergies kicked in again, after stopping shots before taking off for college. The shots resumed that summer, which resulted in my meeting a beautiful young woman with long red hair while waiting in the university clinic for shots in March 1971. We’ve been married 41 years.

 I still remember the cast of characters: Cecil Thurston, the janitor who had worked there for years; John Ruggerio, the operator of the P-2 press; Louis Turk, the waste-paper baler; and Frank Bukowski, an assembly man. As a prank, John Weil had all of the walls of Cecil’s broom closet removed, leaving only the door. Sure enough, after arriving early the next morning, Cecil pulled out his key chain and unlocked the door. The P-2 was a small, antiquated press at the front of the plant, but John ran it so efficiently that the company elected to retire the machine the day John retired. Turk, as everybody called him, had a son, James, a pitcher signed by the Cardinals who quit after one season in 1965 because of the terrible racism encountered in the Florida Rookie League. Turk was shot to death a few years later. Frank was a quiet man who assembled cartons, a job I performed for a short time. We both reached for a hand truck to move our pallets at the same time, but he grabbed it away, muttering, “I want ta woik too.” One morning I found him lying on his back on the floor and figured he was resting and beating the heat. I didn’t want to disturb him but soon found he had suffered an epileptic seizure. Luckily, he was o.k.

 The Weil brothers both worked for American, but after John expressed the wish to move on after college, Les sold the company to a small conglomerate in 1970. Problems started soon thereafter. American had moved that year to a larger facility in an industrial park at 4400 W. Ohio Street. An 11-month recession, loss of government contracts because American lost its small-business classification and the acquisition of a competitor, Mills Envelope, adversely affected operations. My father, who was working under a contract, found the new owners were seeking to fire him for cause and hire a low-salaried bookkeeper. The stress, I believe, led to his fatal heart attack at his desk in the office on March 29, 1973. John, who had rejoined American, rode in the ambulance with him and was the one to break the news to me. Les handled almost all of the arrangements, as well as ensured my mother would receive a death benefit the company claimed was not due.

 American Envelope Company, 4400 W. Ohio Street
The sign is still there, 2013

In 1978, CC Industries, a conglomerate owned by the Crown family, bought what was now Mills-American Envelope. My mother had been stuck with illiquid stock in the pervious owner, so the acquisition was “found money.” John moved on to other endeavors, including coincidently working for Marty Lewis in New York, Janet’s cousin’s father-in-law. CC Industries brought him back to be the company’s president and CEO in 1982, after which he proceeded to build it into the nation’s largest independent envelope company, consisting of 13 companies in 12 states, with 50 sales offices. One of the companies was Garden City Envelope in Chicago, and the combined Chicago operations moved into Garden City’s plant at 3001 N. Rockwell Avenue. in 1989.

 The roll-up craze hit the envelope industry in the 1990s, as larger players gobbled up smaller ones in hopes of achieving higher profits through operating efficiencies. CC Industries put American Envelope up for sale and two buyers emerged: Mail-Well Inc. – its major division was a former Georgia-Pacific subsidiary – and McCown De Leeuw & Co., private-equity firm that would have kept John as CEO. Mail-Well won the bidding in 1994, and John headed to Phoenix for a job with McCown De Leeuw. Mail-Well shortly thereafter had its IPO, listing on the New York Stock Exchange. I tried to persuade management to hire our agency for its investor-relations consulting but they used a local Denver firm. John sadly passed away at age 57 after a brave battle against cancer in January 2005. Les died one month later and his wife, Carlyne, a month after that, leaving Craig to call me and say, “Freddie, I’m an orphan!”

 I’d passed the Cenveo (as Mail-Well is now named) plant several times over the years while driving on N. Elston Avenue. Having not shot photographs in the Avondale neighborhood, I set out last Thursday figuring to shoot the building at the end of my photo walk. The plant stretches a city block east along W. Wellington Ave. from N. Rockwell Ave. Halfway down the block, I noticed an open door leading to the plant. Because the sun was still in the east, I walked further down to take the photos, all the time hearing the clattering of production machines. At the end of the block, I spotted the waste-paper bales, ready for shipment. After walking back and hesitating slightly, I walked through the door.

 Cenveo (formerly Garden City/American envelope companies
3001 N. Rockwell Ave.

A woman and man stood at one of the machines as I peered in. I waved and approached, figuring my best introduction was, “My father and John Weil’s father were partners in the old American Envelope.” The man, who had started there in the Garden City days and worked under John, took me to the front office to get permission to walk through the plant. He introduced me to Chip Schmidt, the plant manager, who had begun at American in 1985 and knew the entire Weil family. In fact, he used to drive Les’s car to Florida, after which Les would insist he stay down for a few days and play golf. We talked about Les – what a mensch he was – and John’s great leadership abilities and sense of humor. 

During my wandering, I noticed the business obviously had changed over the years, as it appeared all of the paper was fed on large rolls, not sheets. I didn’t see cutting tables or fires burning atop converting machines. One couldn’t, however, miss the noise at decibel levels making it almost impossible to converse. The floors looked the same, concrete with worn varnish, and the heat seemed almost as oppressive as it was when I hauled pallets of die-cut envelopes 46 years ago. The waste-paper baler was idle, with no latter-day Turk in sight but his spirit was there. So were those of Thurston, Ruggerio and Bukowski.

The flashbacks, as noted, were not confined only to my summer in the plant. They were to my father informing us he was leaving his CPA firm to work with Les, thus allowing us to see him from January 1 to April 15; the phone call from the plant manager that my father had been rushed to a hospital I’d never heard of; John handing over an envelope containing my father’s personal effects, out of which his religious-school confirmation ring rolled out across the table; and John coming back to build American Envelope into an industry leader, then losing the company and, valiantly, his life. Even as a photography enthusiast, I don’t regret skipping shooting inside the plant. The images in my mind will always be more vivid than any I could capture with the E-5.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Requiem for Doc Nach: Three Years Later

Three years ago, humanity lost one of great ones, my cousin Dr. Jim Nachman, who died suddenly during a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. “Doc Nach,” as he was affectionately known, was one of the world’s foremost pediatric oncologists. Jim is directly and indirectly responsible for saving the lives of thousands of children through his work and research. Here’s what I wrote about him after we received the tragic news.

I’ve obviously spent some time during these ensuing 36 months thinking about Jim, for we spent many hours together, mostly at White Sox games. One of his qualities – I would call it “interesting” – was his penchant for saying the first thing that came to his mind. For example, while visiting us at the hospital the day Marisa was born – he was moonlighting at Prentice – he asked who she was named for, completing forgetting about his uncle who had died suddenly at age 55 five years earlier. Others were rather amusing.

Jim, Uncle Adolph and I, 1988
Jim through miles and upgrades always flew first class. Sometime in the mid-1980s, he boarded an American Airlines flight to find a large black man taking up a seat and a half. Easing his way into the seat next to him, Jim said, “You must be somebody.” “Yes,” the man replied, “I’m Charles Barkley.” They chatted amiably during the flight.

During a summer afternoon in 2005, Jim was riding the L to Wrigley Field (yes, Jim would take in an occasional Cubs game, usually in the first row behind the plate) when he spotted a young Asian boy with a nanny. Jim said to her, “He looks like White Sox relief pitcher Shingo Takatsu,” a seemingly racial stereotype. “He should,” the woman replied, “it's his son.”

Shingo Takatsu, 2013
Perhaps the greatest tribute paid to Jim was penned by Mary Potts, the mother of a patient who didn’t make it. I reread the entry from time to time to remember how much he gave and how much we’ve lost.

I’ll think of you, Doc, at the Sox game tonight and tomorrow night, when Janet and I return to Section 126, Row 9, Seats 3 and 4. Such good times; I still can’t believe they’re over.
The view from Section 126, Opening Day 2014

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Last Ten Days in March

Fewer than 3 percent of the dates in one year make up most of the significant days in my life. Some are happy, while the others are sad. They are the last ten days in March.

March 22. My birth date, back in 1949. In those days, obstetrics weren’t nearly as advanced, and my mother didn’t know she’d be having twins until three weeks before our arrival. She guessed something was up, because boy were we heavy. Because it was the income tax season, my father – a CPA – didn’t have time to buy and assemble another crib before April 15, so Frank and I shared one for a short time.

The twins, March 1949
March 26. This is the latest addition to the period. My mother passed away last year, three weeks after being admitted to Northwestern Memorial with a stroke, six months short of her 90th birthday. While there, tests found pervasive malignancies, and she returned to home hospice care after a five-day stay. Her funeral on March 30 was one day shy of being 40 years to the day of my father’s death.

Mom, engagement photo 1946
We are still getting used to her being gone, especially when we want to clear up a mystery – for example, what was the story with you living on the North Side after you were born? – or give her the latest gossip or news. Even when she began to slow down, we somehow thought she’d live forever.

Mom, Marisa and Grant 1982
March 29. A mid-afternoon phone call at work in 1973, advising me my father had been rushed to a hospital I’d never heard of, began the worst day of my life. After driving 45 minutes through near-freezing rain, I arrived at St. Anne’s Hospital to find my father had died at age 55. My painful account is once again noted.

Dad 1937
March 31. The final date is a happy and most fortuitous one. I have my hay fever and allergy shots to thank for meeting the love of my life shortly before graduation in 1971. If I had gone a day earlier or later, who knows where I’d be now? Here’s a more cheery report.

The engaged couple 1972
So I celebrate birth, love and death all in the span of less than three weeks. From 1973 until 2004, I worried my end could come at any time. After making it to 55, I figured every day from here on in was a blessing . . . and it is. Somehow “65” – as odd as it seems to think it, say it and write it – is quite o.k. I’m back to full health, roaming the neighborhoods taking photographs and running the basketball court missing shots. We celebrate a birthday this weekend and observe yahrzeits next weekend, then it’s back to normal . . . until two birthdays and an anniversary during 18 days in January.

Friday, January 17, 2014

There's Always a First Time

During 2013, I found myself often saying, “There’s always a first time.” For me, this included:

  • Publishing a book.
  • Conducting a funeral service.
  • Traveling to Asia.
  • Undergoing invasive surgery.
  • Spending multiple nights in the hospital.
  • Finding my cyst was cancerous.
After four years of talking about getting a book of my photographs of former Chicago synagogues published, I took some good advice and published it myself on There Used to be a Synagogue Here: Former Chicago Temples debuted in January, containing 100 photographs from more than 500 I’d taken across the city. Circumstances have hindered my promotion efforts, but a page-long article in the JUF News and a sold-out presentation at the Standard Club have helped sell the book and garner many compliments.

My mother passed away on March 26, less than six months from her 90th birthday, after living a very good life. Mom stated several times she didn’t want a rabbi at her funeral service but never put it in writing. I’d thought about going against her wishes but changed my mind in large part because of my rediscovery of the Union Prayer Book, copyright 1924, by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. It was given to my father on June 12, 1932, in honor of his confirmation from South Shore Temple. The book contains a chapter, “Evening Service at the House of Mourning.” And although the funeral wasn’t in the evening and not at a house, I thought it appropriate to use selected passages. Even the cemetery manager complimented me on the service.

The past year wasn’t without its highlights. Janet and I visited Greece, Crete, Israel, Cyprus, Rhodes and Turkey – all for the first time – as part of a Mediterranean cruise. Our three days in Israel were most memorable; we only wish we had more than a half-day in Istanbul but we will go back to both places.
Now to the serious stuff. In late 2010, I was diagnosed with a kidney stone. The single stone was so large it hardly moved, sparing me from most of the pain associated with this condition, and it was mostly dissolved through lipsotripsy. In the course of x-rays, MRIs and the like, my urologist, Dr. William Lin, discovered a cyst on the right kidney. Its Bosniak system rating was 2, meaning a 0%-5% chance of it becoming cancerous. Thereafter I went to Dr. Lin every six months to have some type of imaging done to monitor the cyst. Nothing changed until last November.

By chance, a CT scan with tracer fluid had been ordered for my last visit, a better means for diagnosis than an MRI. The cyst had changed size – shrunk a bit – and composition. The tracer fluid indicated blood flow in and out, and Dr. Lin changed the Bosniak rating to 2F, 25%-30% chance of malignancy. The radiologists recommended waiting another six months, thinking the cyst could simply collapse. Dr. Lin and his partner, Dr. Daniel Dalton, said they’d never seen that happen and recommended surgery, which would remove about a quarter of the kidney with the cyst to ensure there was no spread if it in fact had turned cancerous. The decision was up to me; I told them to proceed with the surgery so it can be over and done and my convalescence would occur during the winter.

The original plan called for laproscopic surgery, using Intuitive Surgical’s daVinci system. One of my better investments was buying ISRG stock at $89, so I looked forward to seeing how it worked. Unfortunately, factors demanded surgery the old-fashioned way, necessitating a 3-5 day hospital stay. The requirement to stay on a low-dose aspirin regimen due to a 2004 angioplasty complicated the procedure because of the increase risk of bleeding.

The surgery, performed by Dr. Dalton at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, took a few hours on December 26, leaving me with an 8-inch surgical scar held together by 20 staples. A quarter of the kidney was indeed removed, and Dr. Dalton said the cyst “didn’t look good,” estimating an 80% chance it was cancerous but adding it looked to be encapsulated. The pathology report, handed to us as we were leaving NMH on December 31, reported a “multilocular cystic renal cell carcinoma,” grade 1 on the Fuhrman scale. There was no spread into the kidney, other organs or lymph nodes. If left unattended, we were told it might grow slowly over time with a minimal risk of spreading. It was still a good thing to have it out, especially when I was “young” enough and strong enough to cope with this type of surgery.

Having only spent one overnight visit to a hospital, this five-night stay was a revelation. I came back from the operating and recovery rooms with a catheter, oxygen, devices that massaged my lower legs to avoid blood clots, IV drips for nourishment and generic morphine (the same type used in the messy Ohio execution a month later), a bulb for blood draining and a sore throat from having a breathing tube inserted during surgery. This type of surgery messes up your entire body, most notably your digestive, plumbing and waste-disposal systems. Blood draws and blood pressure, pulse and temperature measurements were never-ending, including at 3:15 a.m. daily. By the second day, I could get up and begin walking again. Solid food – Jell-O, yogurt and other soft stuff – came on day 3. I may have been able to go home a day earlier but the doctor kept me in to ensure there was no internal bleeding. The nurses, without exception but for the one who didn’t secure the bedside panel, causing me to almost fall out of bed after it collapsed at 3:30 a.m., were excellent.

So 2013 is gone and I’m on the mend, which brings me to two related subjects: preventative medicine and health insurance.

After Janet retired in 2009 and our COBRA coverage ended, I found a preexisting condition precluded obtaining private insurance. My choices were a state risk pool, which offered inferior coverage at a fairly high price, or Janet’s policy from the retired teachers’ association, the same PPO as before but much higher premiums. From annual premiums totaling about $4,500, the new total was close to $18,000. Medicare was still four years away.

Going without insurance was never an alternative, of course, but the investment in this costly medical insurance was well worth it. It covered an arthroscopic knee surgery in 2012 by Dr. Mark Bowen, one of the best in the business, which kept me on the basketball court and provided for the biannual urology visits to monitor the cysts. The insurance paid for itself.

I will conclude with my extreme displeasure about the ongoing debate about health insurance. I believe most the bills are in, except for the three follow-up visits with Dr. Dalton. Including my one-hour pre-op visit but excluding the previous CT scan or doctor visits, the tab comes to approximately $70,000. Insurance reimbursements are not in yet for the hospital stay, which totaled almost $59,000, but for the remaining portion my out-of-pocket is $282.10. I could have paid the full amount if I’d elected to go without insurance but what about those without insurance without $70,000 to spend? Who pays for them?

The Affordable Care Act is designed to provide the small minority of Americans without insurance or severely substandard coverage with the peace of mind the rest of us enjoy. Interestingly, a high number of ACA enrollees are those who aren’t old enough for Medicare who have either lost their jobs and/or are self-employed. Congressional Budget Office studies show the new mandate will neither bankrupt the industry nor lead to “rationing,” which in fact is already done. The persons opposing the ACA will give any number of reasons for doing so but they will never tell you the truth: they are scared to death it will work.

One last anecdote on the subject, for those who “don’t want the government running healthcare.” My late cousin, Dr. Jim Nachman, was one of the foremost pediatric oncologists in the world. On occasion, insurance companies sent reimbursement checks directly to him, for which Jim would simply turn them over to the University of Chicago Hospitals. One day, however, he received a check for approximately $500,000. Now what did I do, he thought, to merit this type of reimbursement? He found it was for a patient who had undergone a stem-cell transplant that required multiple blood transfusions. Somebody keyed each transfusion in as a transplant; the true figure was about $15,000 but the company approved it anyway. Jim then demanded to speak with the president of this major NYSE insurance company. After thanking him profusely for his call, the executive asked if there was anything he could do for Jim. “Why yes,” he replied, “You can make a contribution to my pediatric cancer research fund.” By the way, that fund lives on, continuing Jim’s great work of saving children’s lives.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Farewell, Uncle Adolph

I won’t be publishing a 102nd birthday tribute to my uncle Adolph, for he passed away on October 21. He was pretty good until the end, spending less than two weeks in home hospice care.

My uncle and I, Jan. 4, 2013
We received an email about his deteriorating condition while waiting to be picked up in Haifa harbor by our guide for our trip to Jerusalem. My cousins had delayed informing us about the hospice decision but decided we could only return after the cruise was completed in Istanbul on October 18. I prayed for him at the Wailing Wall – but forgot to leave a prayer note in the Wall – making the experience even more transcendent. After almost 24 hours of travel to return home on Friday and a busy Saturday, we arranged to see Adolph on Sunday. Before heading to the North Shore, we visited KAM Isaiah Israel as part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago. It was not open last year. Ironically, I saw the memorial plaques for his grandparents (my great-grandparents), which had been placed there after the synagogue opened in 1924. His aunt and uncle were members.

Memorial Plaques, KAM Isaiah Israel
The final visit was a difficult one. The hospice setting reminded me of my mother’s, only seven months ago. Adolph was obviously near the end, unlike when we saw him shortly before our departure when he was still getting around the house on his own. We enjoyed one light moment. My cousin Cathy asked him what he thought of the White Sox signing free-agent Jose Abreu. After a few seconds, he shook his head. Adolph was never big on free-agent signings. I gave him my usual farewell in circumstances like this: “When you see my father, tell him everything turned out all right.” He passed away ten hours later, perhaps in part waiting for our return, for he knew we were away.

Upon his instructions, only the rabbi spoke at the funeral. Given the opportunity, I would have presented at least one new anecdote.

In July 1979, Janet and Marisa traveled to the east coast to visit family. I was less than a month into a new job and thus had no vacation time. Adolph asked me to join him for a Tuesday night Sox game vs. the Royals. The Sox were on their way to an 87-loss season, so not much was expected that evening as we settled down in the usual Box 38, Row H (formerly Box 45, Tier 6). Early in the game, Sox 3rd baseman Jim Morrison booted a high infield chopper. My uncle let out a double expletive – the first an adjective for the subject – followed by mutual dead silence. I’d never heard him express himself like that before, and I’m sure he was embarrassed to do so in my presence. Later, I realized this was the first time (and only one) only he and I attended a ballgame together. At least one adult would also be around. I chalked it up to yet another passage into adult life, even though I was 30 and a husband and father at the time.

View from Box 38, Row H (formerly Box 45, Tier 6)
The theme of my 101st birthday tribute was “Keep on Goin’!” a reference to his encounter with his aunt’s hospital roommate in 1974. Adolph indeed stayed active through the years. While in his 90s, he traveled to the Amazon, Danube and Hawaii and participated in a program honoring the rebuilding of the synagogue in Manila after World War II. Adolph attended his last White Sox game in 2011, sitting in the Scout Seats. I’d heard he’d liked the experience, so I called him up to get his take. The White Sox had lost to the Red Sox, 10-2, so his first response was, “It wasn’t a bad game; it was a terrible game.”

Last visit to the ballpark, July 30, 2011
As noted in that same entry, last December Adolph asked me to find out if Ian Kadish, a pitcher in the Arizona Fall League, is Jewish. He often asked me for similar-type research projects. After a very quick search, I answered that he is. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Melissa Kadish, Ian’s mother, informing me that yes, Ian is Jewish, and she looks forward to the time my uncle can see Ian pitching in the Major Leagues. Ian had a good year at the Class A Lansing Lugnuts in the Blue Jays organization, so he may yet make it to the big leagues. If he does, Mrs. Kadish, I can assure you that Adolph will be watching.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Boston Bruins: 40+ Years in the Making

Finally, since moving to the Western Conference for the 1970 – 1971 season, the Chicago Blackhawks are in the Stanley Cup finals with Original Six counterpart Boston Bruins. This holds more than passing interest for this fan, who saw his first Hawks – Bruins game in 1960, but would have been more fun if it had happened at least six years earlier.

Bruins vs. Black Hawks, 1960  
Our father began taking us to Chicago Stadium in the 1950s. We saw one of the great Montreal Canadiens teams on New Year’s Day in 1959 and the Boston Bruins on February 27, 1960; the ticket in the first balcony was $2.00, about $15.50 in today’s money. Exactly 34 years to the day, I attended my last game at the Stadium, a 4-0 win for the Bruins for which viewers in Boston got a quick glimpse of me at the first stoppage of play.

Black Hawks program cover, 1958 - 1959

Attending college in Boston meant Hawks-Bruins game at the Boston Garden and watching Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito vs. Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Derek Sanderson. Unlike the Celtics, for whom you could even get playoff tickets without difficulty, the Bruins were a higher priced, more sought-after ticket. One year I bought obstructed view seats, which in effect were standing-room. For a January 1971 appearance, I set out with $10 in my pocket, vowing to come back with half of it. Nobody was selling for less than $10, and I’d given up hope when just before game time, I heard some kid shouting, “Who wants to get in for $5? Who wants to get in for $5?” Skeptical at first, I asked him how. “Go outside, up the stairs and give the guy on the landing $5,” he said. I bounded up the stairs, handed a man in a suede coat half of my money and walked through a turnstile manned by a uniformed usher (no ticket provided) into the Garden. The usher was talking to a uniformed Boston policeman. The Bruins would win that night, 6-2, but the Hawks would go on to break our hearts, blowing a lead and the Cup to the Canadiens in game 7 at the Stadium.

The family in Boston Garden, 1992 

One of my college roommates, Nate Greenberg, was already covering sports for the Boston Herald Traveler while carrying a full course load. He would eventually lose his full-time job at the newspaper after it was acquired by the Hearst Corporation and merged with the Record American. Through skill and a stroke of good timing, he became the Bruins’ first full-time public-relations director in 1973. I’d lost touch with Nate until late 1983, when we reconnected for a most interesting game. On December 18, the Black Hawks (as they were known then) retired Bobby Hull’s number, despite residual mutual ill will over his defection to the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA in 1972. As we walked through the concourse, Nate spotted Hawks executive Bob Pulford, not the most popular guy, approaching. “I’m going to yank Pulford’s chain,” he told me. “Hey, Pully,” Nate said, “Why are you retiring this guy’s number after all of the trouble he gave you?” In typical Pulford fashion – he didn’t like Hull from his playing days with Toronto – he muttered something unintelligible while looking at the floor and not breaking stride. 

The night #9 was retired: Dec. 18, 1983

Over the years, Nate arranged tickets for Bruins games not only in Chicago but also in Florida (first ever appearance), Detroit, Philadelphia and Denver. Until the old guard retired, the Florida Panthers, out of friendship with Nate, comped our tickets every year, regardless of the opponent, except one. For the Hawks, it was the other way around; they finally comped the tickets for their second appearance one season after Nate told them I’d taken out a second mortgage to pay for the ($75) tickets for the previous game. On three separate occasions, Nate arranged for tickets directly behind the Bruins bench, where we watched coaches Steve Kasper, Pat Burns and Robbie Ftorek work up close and personal.

Seats behind the Bruins bench, 2003
During Nate’s tenure, I watched games in the press box in the last season in the old Garden – 1995 – and his last season with the team in 2007. Both were memorable events.

Boston Bruins media pass, March 22, 2007

Because of a lockout, my plans for seeing the final Blackhawks game at the Garden gave way to attending a Saturday game vs. the Cup champion New York Rangers. The press boxes in the old Garden were crow’s nests hanging from this second balcony, which provided a great view of the ice. After the game, while Nate tended to Bruins business, I loitered outside the Rangers locker room, where I saw Mark Messier emerge and shower attention on a young Rangers fan confined to a wheelchair. The Rangers captain signed numerous collector cards, posed for pictures with the boy and then commandeered an onlooker to photograph the mother with him and her son.

Nate had a serious inkling that 2006 – 2007 would be his last season with the team. With that in mind and the Hawks not playing in Boston, March 22 – a weekday and my birthday – was the best time for another press-box visit. The new Garden made sure the paying customers got the best seats, so the press box was located in a level that ringed the top of the arena, for which you could walk around the entire distance except for a glassed-in area containing electronic equipment. I rode the elevator up with Guy LeFleur and Bob Gainey – the Canadiens were the opponent that night – and settled into seat #2 (Nate’s of course was #1). The gentleman in seat #3 was former Stanley Cup goaltender and coach Gerry Cheevers, who chatted amiably until departing after one period. It turned out this was his first appearance in the Garden that season, having been let go as a scout months before. Cheevers departed after the 1st period. And, for the first and I’m sure only time, my name and birthday greetings graced a scoreboard. 
TD Garden, March 22, 2007

After 34 years with the Bruins, Nate indeed "retired." I'll leave it at that. We will never see a Stanley Cup final together - we almost did when Detroit won the Western Conference but the Bruins were eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals some years back - but at least the dream match-up finally came to pass. Unless a ticket drops out of nowhere, I will be watching Game 5 (and perhaps Game 7) just like Nate: in the best seat in the house, a lounge chair in front of the HD TV. It will surely beat watching the Hawks blow the Cup in 1971 in a beat-up chair in front of a black-and-white console TV in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Monday, April 22, 2013

College Intern Breaks News of Mass-Murderer’s Arrest

A mass-murderer on the loose terrorized Chicago 47 years ago this summer. His name and photograph were splashed across the local media as the citywide manhunt fanned out across Chicago. The city breathed easier when the news of his arrest was reported on an early Sunday morning. The reporter who broke the story, Philip Justin Smith, was interning at United Press International (UPI) while on summer break from college. He went on to become the best pubic-relations practitioner I’ve ever worked with and a dearly loved friend.

During the summer of 1966, I was serving my first stint as an office boy at the since-shuttered law firm of Altheimer, Gray, Naiburg, Strassburger & Lawton. Exiting the firm’s offices at 1 N. LaSalle Street to make a delivery in the mid-morning of July 14, I was struck by the headline on the early edition of the Chicago Daily News: “Lone Man Kills 8 Nurses.” The women, several of whom were natives of the Philippines, were murdered in a townhouse on E. 100th Street on the city’s southeast side. One nurse, Corazon Amurao, had escaped death by hiding under a bed. The murderer apparently lost track of the number of women, and Amurao managed to see a telling feature on the man’s arm: a tattoo that read “Born to Raise Hell.”

Through fingerprints and other evidence, the police identified the killer as Richard Speck, an itinerant merchant seaman who worked freighters through the National Maritime Union (MNU) hiring hall, just steps away from the murder scene. Back then, suspects often weren’t granted the courtesy of being innocent before proven guilty, and Superintendent of Police O.W. Wilson announced at a news conference that Speck was the murderer. An APB featuring Speck’s NMU ID photo was splashed across television and the city’s four daily newspapers. Chicago lived in fear that the savage would strike again.

That summer, Phil Smith was going into his senior year at Holy Cross College. He came from a line of newspapermen (as they were known in the day). His father, John Justin Smith, wrote for the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times from 1937 to 1983, except for a stint at the local CBS affiliate from 1963 to 1967. Phil said his father hated working in television, but with a wife and nine children to support, the money was too good to pass up. His great uncle, Henry Justin Smith, was managing editor of the Chicago Daily News, where he thought very little of a young staff member, Henry Luce.

Phil was working at UPI that summer, intending on a career in journalism. Because July 17 was a Sunday, and the Tribune and Sun-Times had already completed their massive Sunday editions when Phil reported for work on the overnight shift (and the Daily News and American wouldn’t print again until Monday’s editions), the lad was the only person working in the Chicago bureau. Some time after midnight, he received a call from what he told me was an “informant:” “Speck’s in Cook County Hospital,” the caller said. Phil quickly called County, as it’s known in the vernacular, and to his surprise, a police sergeant answered. “I hear Speck’s been admitted,” Phil said. “Yeah, he’s here and in surgery,” the conversation roughly proceeded, then followed by “Who is this?” Phil promptly hung up and called the bureau chief at home with the news of his scoop. He was told to run with it, and the story hit the wire ten minutes before the Associated Press (AP) followed with its account. For his work, Phil was rewarded by cabbing over to County to work with his boss on the developing story.
In brief, Speck had attempted suicide by slitting his wrists at the Star Hotel, a Skid Row SRO on W. Madison Street, just down the street from the old Chicago and Northwestern train station. He was rushed to Cook County Hospital as a John Doe. A young resident surgeon, while washing the blood off Speck’s arm, spotted the Born to Raise Hell tattoo, and the murderer was identified and arrested.

Another noteworthy event for Phil that summer was his 21st birthday. He sometimes drank with UPI’s veterans after working the overnight shift and was never carded. Completing his shift at 8 a.m. on his birthday, he asked his colleagues to join him at the Billy Goat but found no takers. Phil decided to celebrate for himself and was promptly carded. After eyeballing the driver’s license, the bartender handed it back and said, “Couldn’t you have waited a little longer?”

Phil Smith began his public-relations career at U-Haul through fellow Holy Cross alum Joe Shoen, the son of the company’s founder Sam Shoen. Phil and his wife moved to Phoenix, U-Haul’s headquarters, where their elder daughter, Sarah, was born. From there he returned to the Chicago area and headed public relations at American Hospital Supply, which was acquired by Baxter in 1985. He directed public relations at Baxter during one of the most contentious periods for the company.

Baxter in the early 1990s had been rumored to be cooperating with the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. Management assured Phil that was not true, but the company eventually pleaded guilty to aiding the boycott, a violation of federal law, and paid a $6.5 million fine in March 1993. Phil told me he was livid; after some thought he met with CEO Vernon Loucks and told him “this is what you are going to do” to win back support of the Jewish community. It was not a suggestion. The program was so successful that Loucks was awarded “Industrialist of the Year” by The American-Israel Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Chicago a mere three years later. Phil would resign from the company after, as he told me, “I had to report to a woman in human relations who was not only clueless but clueless that she was clueless.”

I met Phil in 1998, after my partner and I hired Sarah for our fledgling public-relations agency. Phil was a sole practioner, and one of his clients was Dade Behring, Inc., where several ex-American Hospital Supply veterans had landed. He and I worked on the announcements of the controversial recapitalization of the company led by Bain Capital, which paid millions in dividends to Bain and its investors and left Dade with a crushing debt load. We also developed a crisis plan that luckily wasn’t needed when a software malfunction threatened the entire supply to a European country’s blood bank network.

Two years later I left my company to be on my own, and it was then that I witnessed the genius of Phil Smith. He was one of two persons (the other a Harvard-educated lawyer) I’ve known with the greatest ability to take the many and varied opinions from a group of people and synthesize the discussion into the most salient points for use going forward. He was also an excellent writer; some would say he was a perfectionist but working with him I found that untrue. What he would say is, “Don’t show it to me anymore because I’ll only tinker with it.” With that, I knew the work was as close to perfect as possible. For one assignment, we were asked to do a last-minute rescue of an annual report for a major New York Stock Exchange health-services company (when the annual report was a most important document). The investor-relations director told Phil his price was rather high, to which he replied, “It’s because we will get it right the first time.” And deliver it to the CEO’s satisfaction we did.

During this time, Phil was diagnosed with colon cancer. He battled it bravely, and for some time it looked like it was licked. However, the disease had spread, and Phil told me, “The grandkids won’t be buying me a tie for Christmas.” We arranged to meet at his home on September 12, 2001.  As we walked into town for coffee and muffins, I almost asked, for everybody, “Did you ever think you’d live to see something like [9/11] happen?” I think he would have understood. Phil passed away one week later.

Despite (or maybe because of) his Catholic upbringing and education, Phil was not a particularly religious man. He consented to a memorial service, which was more than standing-room-only; many attendees had to listen in the hallway. More than a few people were surprised that we’d known each other for only a few years.
A lone college student breaking a major story on a wire service has been replaced by Tweets and social-media posts. Phil called himself a curmudgeon, so I've wondered what he'd make of this new media order. He was best at what he did, so I'm sure he would have found a niche. You can put that on the wire.