Thursday, March 19, 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 taking 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 building 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, February 11, 2015

Hotels in the Family

Our family has enjoyed a few relationships to the hotel industry, one direct and two peripheral. They produced some interesting anecdotes.

My father’s biggest client when he was a partner at the public-accounting firm of Katz, Wagner & Company was Pick Hotels. As a side note, despite his probably having the second highest GPA of all accounting majors in the Class of 1938 at the University of Illinois – Thomas A. Murphy, who would become chairman and CEO of General Motors, likely had a higher one – he could not be hired by a then Big 8 firm because they didn’t employ Jews. Pick Hotels’ 45 properties included the Congress in Chicago, Lee House in Washington, D.C., Fort Shelby in Detroit, Mark Twain in St. Louis, Nicollet in Minneapolis, Fort Hayes in Columbus and Belmont Plaza in New York City.

The Lee House, Washington, D.C.

 Dad’s auditing work frequently took him to Columbus, so much so that the firm wanted him to start an office there (he declined). While working at the Fort Hayes (not named for the Ohio State football coach) in the 1950s, he often found OSU football players on the hotel’s payroll but only saw them dining on free meals. It galled this U of I grad when his alma mater was sanctioned for penny-ante cash payment for transportation home while Woody Hayes sanctimoniously boasted about his clean program.

Hotel Fort Hayes, Columbus, Ohio
On occasion my mother accompanied dad on his business trips. Once, while in Detroit with her friend Dort Finder, they found a mysterious doorway in the back of their Fort Shelby hotel room. It lead to a passageway to a former speakeasy, no doubt using liquor zipped across the river from Windsor. In October 1947, a year after their marriage, they traveled to Washington, D.C. (note: tourist today don’t dress like in the photo below) and New York City, where they watched the Illinois-Army game at Yankee Stadium. Mom didn’t remember anything about the trip, other than he was surely in D.C. to audit the since-demolished Lee House.

 Dad and Mom, Washington D.C., Oct. 1947

Mom and dad were particularly happy after the Picks acquired the Belmont Plaza at 49th St. and Lexington Ave. For our first trip in 1961, we were put up in the two-bedroom Ming Dynasty Suite, which had just been vacated by Gypsy Rose Lee. Our next trip was in 1965, after which dad had left Katz Wagner for private industry. The room at the Belmont Plaza, with outdated thick Venetian blinds, was the type mom said, “You rent to jump out the window of.” Either the price was right or it was comped. It’s now the swanky W New York; when walking by last July, I was tempted to ask about the Ming Dynasty Suite.
The Belmont Plaza, New York City

One of dad’s first cousins, Rosalie Wolfson, married a hotel magnate, Nathan Goldstein. With Arnold Kirkeby (his mansion was the Clampetts’ home in “The Beverly Hillbillies”), they owned such prestigious properties as the Blackstone and Drake in Chicago; Sherry-Netherland, Hampshire House and Gotham in New York City; Warwick in New York and Philadelphia, Kenilworth in Bal Harbour, Florida; Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills; and Nacional de Cuba in Havana. My parents were married in the Blackstone in September 1946, and our rehearsal dinner was held at the Warwick in New York in 1973. Family stays also included the Lee House, Gotham (now the Peninsula) and Warwick. Goldstein also owned The Regency in New York, the originator of the “power breakfast” in the 1970s. I had my version of the power lunch with Rosalie in 1988 (

Husband and Wife, The Blackstone Hotel, Sept. 3, 1946
On our first trip to Florida in 1957, we visited the Goldsteins at the Kenilworth, which Nate’s company was in the midst of purchasing from Arthur Godfrey. At that time, the hotel had a No Jews policy, which no doubt had something to do with my parents’ consternation with my brother and me (age 8) tossing stuff off the balcony. In our defense, we had never been on a balcony before.

The Kenilworth, Bal Harbour, Florida
The Goldstein relationship led to the last meeting with another family in the business, some 55 years ago. Rosalie was in Chicago visiting family, and my mother joined a group for lunch at the Drake. Abe Pritzker of Hyatt Hotels recognized Rosalie and stopped by the table to say hello. Sorry, we don’t receive any family discounts at the hotels.

I am related to Pritzkers going back three and four generations (they married quicker and thus there’s an additional generation between mine and Thomas-Penny-Jim/Jennifer-J.B’s). My great-grandmother Chaia Schwartzman, wife of Abraham Nachman, and Sophia Schwartzman, wife of Jacob Pritzker, were sisters. Upon the birth of my brother and me, my parents received either a telegram or letter (the story varies on who tells it) from Abe Pritzker stating that he’d gone back 100 years and found we and his grandchildren were the only sets of twins. I don’t know for sure who the others were (that’s another story). Unfortunately, in the zeal of housekeeping, my mother tossed out the correspondence.

Jacob and Sophia Pritzker
My uncle Adoph had an interesting anecdote about the founding of Hyatt Hotels. When on the cruise of the Amazon in his early 90s (no, not the 1990s), he met a woman whose late husband was in the hotel business and knew Nate Goldstein. She told Adolph about an interersting assignment. Jay Pritzker had a contract out to purchase the Hyatt Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport in 1957, which would be the first property in the chain. According to her, the owner, Hyatt Robert von Dehn, was an alcoholic and wouldn’t return the contract. Because the man knew von Dehn, his one and only task was to get the signature on the contract and return it to Chicago. He did, and the rest, of course, is history.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Naked Boys Swimming (Again)

NOTE: This entry was posted initially on January 5, 2011. Because I could not post it to other sites without the comments (all of which I've deleted) showing up as the introduction, I am re-posting with minor edits. Please note this has been my most popular post - almost 23,000 views - with twice as many hits as the second-place entry.

What seemed perfectly normal to one generation often becomes head-shaking at the very least and scarcely believable to later generations. One such practice was naked swimming in physical-education classes. I had the “privilege” to swim au naturale in both high school and college. It seemed quite normal to me back then.

Swimming was an important part of physical education at New Trier East High School during the mid-1960s. Coach Dave Robertson was an Olympic coach, and the team (a girl’s team didn’t exist yet) won numerous state championships. I learned additional swimming strokes as well as the practice of drown-proofing, which luckily I’ve never had to use. Swimming was part of a rotation schedule for phys. ed., which meant you would swim five days a week for a month.

I was in the last class at New Trier East that graduated intact before New Trier West became a four-year school, which meant we had approximately 600 boys in all. The school claimed it made the boys (not the girls) swim naked for hygiene reasons, which makes sense if you buy the premise that boys are inherently, shall we say, more unhealthy than girls. I think it had more to do with not having to purchase 600 pairs of swimming trunks and launder them daily.

New Trier High School swimming pool

The routine was simple. First, a shower – coach Robertson always gave a lecture before the first class of the year on how to reach those nooks and crannies – and then on to the pool deck to take attendance. Like regular phys. ed. classes, you stood on your assigned number on the floor (deck), and a visible number was noted as an absence. The pool was locked down tight so nobody could wander in and see 60 boys of all shapes, sizes but usually only one color standing butt naked at attention. The unwritten rule was eyes forward, although for me it didn’t make much difference because of my severe myopia. 

For swimming, the early periods were preferred over the afternoon ones. By the 11th period, one never knew what might float by and, no, I’m not going to relate that anecdote (somebody actually ‘fessed up to it). Swimming laps took up most of the class, which ended with free swim. To graduate, each student was required to swim 50 yards. A boy in the class ahead of me finally did it at his final phys. ed. class, after which he reportedly said, “Great. I’ll swim 50 yards, then I’ll drown.”

I’d guess that almost all of my colleagues naked swimming days ended after graduation, but mine continued on a more limited scale as a freshman at Lehigh University, which was all-male at the time. Physical education was required, and classes were either two or three days a week. Swimming was only one of those days, which caused one of the most bizarre occurrences in my life. First though, to Lehigh’s swimming requirement: only 25 yards, one length of the pool. On the very first day, the instructor told us that anybody who can’t swim or didn’t think he could swim the length of the pool should step aside for the remedial class. “Don’t be embarrassed,” he said. “Every year, we have to go in and fish somebody out who thought he could do it.” Sure enough, after jumping in and swimming a vigorous crawl stroke to the end, I looked back through my foggy eyes to see a classmate about 20 yards down his lane being pulled out.

Lehigh University swimming pool

A combination of logistics and forgetfulness resulted in the bizarre occurrence. The locker room was one floor below the Grace Hall pool, which meant we had to walk upstairs naked to reach the pool. Why nobody donned a towel I’ll never know. Our instructor was assistant football coach Wally King, a nice guy who would join our basketball games in his wing-tip shoes if we needed another player. One day (and it may have been more), King forgot it was the swimming day. I reached the pool area to find a number of naked classmates shivering outside the locked pool door. Hoping against hope that King would show up, we stood there, trying to make conversation while looking any way but down, for a good five minutes. Finally realizing that waiting for King, like Godot and Lefty, was futile, we headed back downstairs. He was genuinely embarrassed (maybe not as much as us) and apologetic after hearing the news.

I returned to Lehigh to speak before a student group in 2000 and walked around the campus the day before. A student was standing at the entrance to the pool, which was in use for general swim. I was going to relate the story of the naked boys standing right there but figured he’d think I was nuts. You, my readers, were not so fortunate.

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.