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.

Friday, March 29, 2013

40 Years Together – 40 Years (And Now 3 Days) Gone

I planned on writing this entry between January 20 and March 29 for some time. The relatively narrow timeframe saw two of the most important events in my life. Now, another one is on the record.

The joyous occasion was January 20, 1973. Janet and I were married at Temple Israel on E. 75th Street in New York City. The following blog entry, which I also reposted, details how a cold and allergies conspired to bring us together. 

Barely two months later and a week after my birthday, on the day we were supposed to have dinner at my parents’ apartment, I received a call from my father’s office that he’d been rushed to a hospital near his office. My blog entry about that day has also been reposted and is here again, sparing me another recitation.

The two dates are forever linked and, although this would mark the 40th year commemorating both happiness and sorrow, it figured to be routine. Then March 5 dawned.

It began simply around 8 a.m., with my mother’s daily call to my brother, Frank, in Denver. All seemed normal, as he related that a condominium conversion would result in her grandson, Grant, finding a new residence. She mentioned this to Janet, who told her our sister-in-law Rita’s father had passed away at age 99. Her speech was rather garbled, which we attributed to some heavy-duty medication she has been taking for chronic back pain. Shortly thereafter, her caregiver Ann, who had been with her since a two-day hospital stint in early February, called to say mom seemed confused because she thought her 101-year-old brother-in-law, Adolph, had died. We then went for a 9:30 meeting but just before it began, Ann called and said she needed to call 911 because my mother had become disoriented and her speech was completely garbled.

All signs pointed to a stroke that affects the ability to speak and process speech. Her motor skills were unaffected but those hadn’t been good recently. Mom had finally consented to seeing specialists for her chronic pain. The diagnosis was a compressed vertebra, although she felt pain on her side as well as her back. The day before entering the hospital, a neurologist prescribed a new medication, which she took that night and the following morning. The original CT scan showed no signs of a stroke, and one theory was the new medication could have caused this terrible reaction. When normal speech did not return within 48 hours, stroke was again the suspected culprit. A Thursday evening scan confirmed it.

During her stay at Northwestern Memorial, the staff ran a battery of tests. The attending physician sat us down on Thursday afternoon to inform us that what was supposed to be a routine scan of the lungs found pervasive malignancies for which no treatment was warranted for an 89-year-old woman. I found this akin to being hit over the head with a 2-by-4, then getting kicked in the gut. The doctors gave us a time frame of weeks, maybe a few months. She came home to hospice care, getting the very best help from Ann, her assistants and the hospice staff. After rallying somewhat, she showed a rather sudden decline and passed away peacefully on March 26. She didn’t want a rabbi at the service, so I led the graveside service two days later, using passages from the Union Prayer Book, copyright 1923, that my father received for his religious school confirmation in 1932.

My mother lived a long and wonderful life, with a few bumps in the road along the way. She was never big on medical care in the first place – claiming she was basically Christian Scientist – and eschewed anything more than routine physicals in her later years. She practiced “ostrich medicine”: she hated scans and MRIs, deciding that if something were found she was too old to treat, so why bother looking? On the other hand, she didn’t take her reduced mobility during the last year too well, for she loved to get around and had seen the world.
The response from family and friends has been overwhelming, Mom had a strong personality, and she didn't hide her feelings. Her oldest friend, Joy, who lives in Los Angeles, called me when she heard about mom's health setbacks. They met at age 6 at O'Keeffe School and listened to "Little Orphan Annie" on the radio together. I started to apologize to Joy for my mother being short with her over recent months, atrributing it to her aches and pains. She interrupted me with a laugh: "She's been short with me her whole life!" Somehow, from a friend of 83+ years, it sounded like a compliment.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dr. John Elisberg: A Non-Conformist and Good Guy

Just because I’m writing about somebody I saw once in almost forty years doesn’t mean I’ve run out of topics. John Elisberg was a true individual, and I’m fortunate to have made his acquaintance again two years ago.

I knew John since age 11, when he started at Camp Nebagamon in 1960 with my brother Frank and me. One year later, we met on the basketball court for the first time, as we South School 6th graders defeated John’s North School team, and the year after that we began six years in junior high school and high school. And somewhere along the line, we started religious school together.

John was a true non-conformist. He convinced some of his friends – including me – to ride our bikes to high school as freshman when that was decidedly uncool. Cycling became a lifelong love, although his idea to ride to Cobden in southern Illinois, whose high-school team, the Appleknockers, had almost pulled a Hoosiers-like upset in the state basketball tournament, was quickly nixed. His smooth jump shot pretty much meant I would be the loser in our driveway 1-on-1 matches. John’s position in baseball was – what else? – catcher, where he played for two years in high school, and he was a regular member of our Saturday summer softball games in Watts Park. He also had a great dry and wry sense of humor. Our grandmothers were friends, and his grandmother used to ask my grandmother about “The Twins.” John would call us The Twins, but always with the sappy grandmotherly inflection thrown in.

Central School varsity and jv basketball teams, 1962-1963
John is 3rd from right, 2nd row. Phil Toubus (aka Paul Thomas) is at his left
Frank is 4th from left, back row. I'm 4th from right, back row. Steve Glick is to my left

Everybody has a favorite Elisberg story, so here goes.

John and most of our friends weren’t the most interested students in the confirmation class of 1965 at Congregation Solel. We didn’t have speaking parts at the Sunday June ceremony, so we were relegated to the end of the line (done by height) to file in wearing our long white robes. We found ourselves standing by a tray of desserts, most notably tiny chocolate-covered éclairs. As we looked at John, his face belied he was going to take one. Sure enough, he did. The warm sun streaming through a window made the chocolate runny, and it quickly coated John’s fingers. Just as he popped it into his mouth, the line started to move. A look of confusion crossed his face; what was he going to do? For a split second, he looked down at his flowing white robe. No, he’s not going to do it, we thought. With all eyes upon him, he resumed walking and licking his fingers at the same time. I think he hesitated on purpose, just to yank our chains.
Frank and I in confirmation robes, 1965
At camp, John was known for his canoe-trip expertise. He double-packed on portages or carried a heavy aluminum canoe, loving the experience. Among others who shared this talent were Reed Maidenberg and John Seesel – still my dear friends – who were with John on a two-week trip when it rained almost every day. John became a counselor and, try as we may, we coaxed maybe one letter in three summers from him about camp goings-on.

After our respective college graduations (John attended Wisconsin), we reunited when he enrolled at Northwestern Medical School. Some found it ironic that he followed his father’s footsteps to become a doctor, for John passed out watching a film of an eye surgery in 8th-grade science class, which had been brought in by Dr. David Schoch’s son, John. Janet and I married in January 1973 in New York City, and John traveled east that weekend to attend the wedding. His evening attire included a tweed sport jacket, corduroy pants and hiking boots. Between my married life and John’s education demands, we didn’t see much of each other thereafter, and he returned to Wisconsin for his internship, residency and a family practice in the Appleton area.
John (next to Janet) at our wedding, Jan. 20, 1973

As noted earlier, John wasn’t much of a communicator. In the days before cheap or free long-distance calling, email and other forms of electronic media, staying in touch took some effort, the “Reach-Out-And-Touch-Someone” canard notwithstanding. We knew John lived in northeastern Wisconsin, and some more than others tried writing but to no avail. He never attended a junior-high or high-school reunion, but he did send Frank written regrets that he wouldn’t be attending the big 75th anniversary camp reunion in 2003. All we knew was what we found on the Internet, which wasn’t much besides his office and home address and that he’d divorced and remarried.

In January 2011, his mother’s death notice appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Services were in The Glen, where his parents had moved after selling John’s childhood residence. I knew if I didn’t attend the funeral, I’d never have contact with him again. Realistically, there was never a question to go. Too much water under the bridge, as I always say.

Janet and I were his only contemporaries on that snowy weekday. John looked pretty much the same, sharing baldness with his father and younger brother Bob, a prolific Huffington Post commentator who appeared in a Naked Gun film with Leslie Nielsen and O.J. during his screenwriting days. We chatted for a bit before the service, as the bygone years pretty much evaporated on the spot, bringing me back to our bike-riding, hoops-shooting, summer-camping days. John had closed the family practice and was now teaching at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. After its conclusion, he told me something shocking: this fitness fanatic, who never smoked a cigarette in his life, had been diagnosed a year earlier with lung cancer. It was now pretty much in remission but by no means cured.

After returning home, my Google search found two rather surprising facts. The first was that he had been given only a few months to live when the cancer was diagnosed, and here he was, actively pursing life and enjoying activities with his grandchildren. The second was John was now a Mormon, having converted after his marriage to Harvada. Like me, John was hardly religious as a youngster – neither of us had a bar mitzvah – so a conversion wasn’t all that strange. He did, however, become a very devout church member, typified somewhat by his sadness that his three teams – Wisconsin, Northwestern and Brigham Young – had all lost the same day in the NCAA and NIT basketball tournaments two months later. And I know that because we kept in regular touch after that January meeting.

 I believe technology advances in the 21st century only played a small part in John’s seemingly newly found communicativeness. Any correspondence was always returned within 24 hours, with his cares and concerns for my minor medical maladies in the face of his greater challenges. I’d asked if it was o.k. to give out his information to his old friends, which he gladly assented. Most of them heard from John too. And to my surprise, he even remembered my birthday.

Through the emails and Harvada’s blog, I kept up on John’s changing condition. Often they included detailed information on treatments and dosages, as well as his general well-being. Still, I wasn’t mentally prepared for Harvada’s early January entry: it basically said, the end was near. I waited a day, then called his home. “Is this the Elisberg residence?” I asked and told it was. Virtually holding my breath, I asked, “Is John in?” “This is John,” the voice said. We talked for 30 minutes. His voice was strong and upbeat, despite his being in home hospice care. John could no longer walk, and his only expressed consternation was that he had to have two people lift him out of bed into his wheelchair. He knew about our 50th –year junior-high reunion in August and expressed wishes to attend, despite his lack of mobility. He also asked if I knew where I could get a copy of our yearbook; I told him I thought somebody had scanned a complete edition and I’d check into it.

Word came via email that John passed away peacefully on January 28, with many of his family members comforting him at the end. So many emotions rushed through: sadness about his passing, happiness that we got to speak, regret that we hadn’t kept up over all of the years and relief that he no longer had to suffer. He left me with what I told him during our last conversation, barely keeping it together: Your courage is an inspiration to me, for it reminds me about what’s really important in life. For John, it was his family, friends, faith and a profession of healing. For the last one, you may read the comments on the death notice in his former hometown newspaper, the Appleton Post-Crescent:  Here’s Bob’s take on his brother in the Huff Post:

One of our mutual friends and his Freshman B squad basketball and freshman and sophomore baseball teammate, Steve Glick, found the news more difficult to take than he’d imagined. I knew why, and it wasn’t just our fleeting sense of our own mortality. The week before I’d seen the intense play, The Motherf***er with the Hat, and remembered an exchange starting with the “I thought you were my friend?" question. The reply: “Anybody you meet before the age of, say, 25? That’s your friend. Anyone after that? That’s just an associate. Someone to pass the time. Someone who meets maybe one or two specific needs. But friend? . . . Friends are at the playground.”
John was with us on the playground, basketball court, softball fields and baseball diamonds, bicycle paths, Northern lakes and wedding ceremonies. I announced his passing to his junior-high classmates via the group email list set up for our 50-year reunion. Most of the many replies had a single common thread: John was a “good guy.” He was and very much more, and I’m really going to miss his birthday email next month.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Save The First Roumanian Congregation

Agudas Achim
Ahavas Achim
Anshe Antipole
Anshe Emeth Nusach Sfard
Anshe Galitzia
Anshe Kalvaria
Anshe Knesses Israel
Anshe Lebowitz
Anshe Lubavitch
Anshe Luknik
Anshe Motele
Anshe Odessa
Anshe Pavolitz
Anshe Pinsk
Anshe Shavel and Yanova
Anshe Ticktin
Anshe Vilno
Anshe Zitomer
Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Kehilath Hasfardim
Beth Hamedrosh U’Bnai Jacob
Beth Jacob Anshe Kroz
Bikur Cholim
B’nai Abraham
B’nai Itzchok
B’nai Reuven
Mishna U’Gemora
Mikro Kodosh
Ohel Jacob Anshe Kovno
Poali Zedeck
Shaarei Shomaim
Shomrei Hadas

There is one name missing from this list: First Roumanian Congregation. It’s missing because of all the above, it is the last surviving synagogue building in the Maxwell Street area. The pre-fire building (1 of only 112 remaining) is facing demolition, and Preservation Chicago put it on “The Chicago Seven,” its list of the most endangered structures in the city.

 Constructed at 497 (now 1352 S.) Union Street in 1869, the building’s various ownerships reflect the changing demographics of the city. Its architect was Augustus Bauer, whose firm also designed St. Patrick’s Church and the Tree Studios. A German-speaking high school, part of the neighboring German United Evangelical Zion church, was the first tenant. Beginning in 1875, a branch of the Foster School, a public school, leased the building.

Former First Roumanian Congregation/Gethsamane Missionary Baptist Church
With the influx of Eastern European Jews on the eve of the 20th century, the First Roumanian Congregation purchased the building in 1897. Several founders were from the city of Isai, which through pogroms and later the Holocaust saw its Jewish population virtually eliminated. With a growing congregation and the movement of families to Lawndale – which eventually had the third largest Jewish population in the world behind Warsaw and New York City – the first Roumanian built a large, ornate synagogue at 3622 W. Douglas Boulevard in 1925.

Former First Roumanian Congregation, 3622 W. Douglas Blvd.
Chicago’s African-American population, confined to certain parts of the city, moved into the Maxwell Street area during the 1920s. The next tenant gave the name for which it is now popularly known: Gethsamane. On May 27, 1935, the Gethsamane Missionary Baptist Church, organized in 1922, made S. Union Street its new home. The congregation erected a new façade on the front of the building in 1944, obliterating Bauer’s design. The construction of the adjacent Dan Ryan Expressway (you can see the building when driving in either direction), urban renewal and expansion by the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) led to a dwindling membership, and the church closed in 2005. Purchased by an investor, the South Union Arts Center was the final tenant, closing in 2008.

The Gethsamane Church has sported a large “For Sale” sign for at least three years. The broker describes it as land for sale, 26,000 square feet that can be divided into 11,000 square feet. The listing price is $3.5 million. This has not stopped plans by UIC to construct the John Paul II Newman Center Student Residence, at first a 17-story, 500-bed dormitory since scaled down to 5½-floor (what’s half a floor?), 250-bed facility.
Given the poor job done in preserving any semblance of character in the old Maxwell Street area, one would think the powers that be would want to save the Gethsamane. I find the arguments against preservation rather lame – merchants will benefit from additional money spent by the students, it’s not architecturally significant or financially viable, its vacancy is dangerous, etc. – when compared to the loss of the last vestige for which Maxwell Street is best known. Like it or not, this was (and for some still is) “Jewtown.”  There were more than 30 Jewish congregations and only one is left. And my great-grandparents worshipped there after arriving in Chicago at the turn of the century, and my family is buried in the First Roumanian Congregation Cemetery in Waldheim. I know it’s personal, but I think preservation is more important than how many bags of Skittles the students will buy or how many pizzas they’ll order.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

There Used to Be a Synagogue Here: Former Chicago Temples

The above title is similar to two posts in October 2010, detailing my efforts to photograph all (or nearly all) of the remaining former synagogues in Chicago. It’s taken from the song “There Used to Be a Ballpark,” recorded by Frank Sinatra. Old baseball parks are another one of my interests (see 

“I’m going to get these photos published in a book,” I kept saying, month after month, year after year without making more than cursory efforts to find a publisher. Although books have contained photos of former synagogues, none is dedicated to a compilation of what these buildings look like today.

My book – There Used to Be a Synagogue Here: Former Chicago Temples – was published this month. Here’s how it was done.

Former Isaiah Temple (see note at the end)

While driving on the South Side, I passed what remained of the former KAM, the oldest Jewish congregation in Chicago, at E. 33rd St. and S. Indiana Ave. A disastrous fire to the Pilgrim Baptist Church, designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, had left only the front and two side walls standing. I stopped the car and shot the front, sides and back of the building and talked to some church members who were meeting across the street.

My project initially centered on the temples for which our families had worshipped on the South Side. Further research, however, found a much larger web of family connections and the intense desire to discover more about the synagogues of bygone days. I used three main sources for finding the subjects: Chicago’s Forgotten Synagogues by Robert A. Packer (Arcadia Publishing, 2007), American Jewish Committee lists from the early 1920s and the Synagogue Collection from, an online list of 279 institutions from The Newberry Library.

Armed with a myriad of addresses – from Rogers Park to Hegewisch, Maxwell Street to Austin – I now needed to streamline my efforts. The Street View option on Google Maps made the task of determining which buildings still exist much simpler. By entering an address in the search bar and dragging the Street View icon to that location, I could observe one of three situations: a vacant lot (very prevalent), a building that obviously was not or never had been a house of worship or – if lucky – a structure that most definitely looked like a former synagogue.

 My photographic journey took me to many parts of the city. Luckily, I had no trouble shooting in the places like Lawndale, Englewood and Bronzeville, where the people were uniformly friendly (some invited me inside) and interested in why the white guy was taking pictures of Baptist churches. Eventually, I compiled more than 300 photographs, which I posted on Flickr (  Comments on the photos included translations (I don’t know Hebrew), suggestions for places I’d missed and an occasional correction.

After purchasing a new camera in November 2012, I decided to restart the project in earnest. I made a list of buildings to re-shoot and vowed to contact publishers. One month later, at a lunch gathering of the ChiFlickr Chicago Meetup Club, an informal group of photographers who made their initial contacts on Flickr, I voiced my desire to get serious about a publisher. I also said I didn’t really want to self-publish the book. “Why not?” asked Kevin Eatinger, a professional photographer, art director and graphic designer, pointing out he’d done several (and I add excellent) books of his work. He suggested Blurb, his publisher of choice; one doesn’t pay anything until a book is sent in for printing and publication.

Returning from lunch, I went right to Blurb ( and perused the site. The tutorial made it look fairly simple, so I plunged right in. My experience in book and magazine publishing helped greatly on designing the book, for I had to pick out each page layout individually, fit copy into sometimes tight spaces and ensure headers and captions were stylistically consistent. Less than one month later, the books (hardcover and softcover) were in my hands.

Because I controlled all aspects of production, I made the book historical with a personal perspective. My parents grew up on the South Side but one set of grandparents was from the West Side, which provided an impetus to cover all parts of the city. Research found countless interesting facts, many complied for the two blog posts and a later one on the formation of KAM Isaiah Israel ( but the most interesting came from my uncle Adolph.

My father had one brother, Adolph, who turned 101 on January 4. I knew the family originally lived at E. 61st St. and S. Michigan Ave. but did not know they worshipped two blocks up the street at South Side Hebrew Congregation. Its huge sanctuary on the corner burned to the ground in the 1920s and only the religious school on E. 59th St. remains. Adolph told me he attended Hebrew school there before moving to South Shore; my father was too young then. I did not include his claim that the rabbi didn’t like him because he was a better student than his son!

So here's my pitch: the books is sold on Blurb ( and the keyword "synagogue" will get you there) or you can contact me if you live in the area. Please let your friends know about this unique offering, and thank you for your consideration.

NOTE: I'd like to publish a photo of the book but Blogger can't seem to get its act together and restore the link for uploading photos from one's computer. The former Isaiah Temple, pictured above, is the cover photo; I was able to use it because it appeared in a previous blog post.

Friday, January 4, 2013

"Keep on Goin'"!: Uncle Adolph is 101

This happily is another View from Brule Lake tribute to my uncle Adolph’s birthday. He turned 101 today. My tribute to #100 was penned one year ago. Here’s a few more anecdotes, but I’m saving some for the birthday #102 entry in 2014.

Adolph and Rabbi Steven Mason at last year's
birthday celebration at the temple (spot the typo on the cake)
Last October I received an email from Floyd Sullivan, an author writing a book about Comiskey Park for a series on baseball stadiums of bygone days. He saw my photos of the ballpark’s 1991 demolition on Flickr and wanted to use a few in the book. Because the proceeds are going to Chicago White Sox Charities, I agreed in exchange for a copy of the book. I also told him that because it will contain interviews with former White Sox players, executives and fans, he should interview Adolph. His reply was “this is too crazy”; he’d already heard about him and met my cousin Cathy at a Sox game.

 Floyd conducted the very interesting interview at Adolph’s house. As previously reported, Adolph saw his first Sox game in 1921. He did not, he noted, know anything about baseball before then and thus had no recollection of the Black Sox, whose nine members were banned beginning that season. The ballpark wasn’t double-decked around to the outfield until the mid-1920s, and he sat in the bleachers before then. Some of the highlights of his long (mostly suffering) career as a Sox fan included seeing Urban Shocker pitch complete-game victories versus the Sox in both halves of a doubleheader (1924) and Minnie Minoso and Mickey Mantle hit their first Major League home runs in the same game (1951). The book is scheduled for publication in the middle of this year.

Adolph made a request as I was leaving. “Please look up Ian Kadish on the Salt River team in the Arizona Fall League,” he asked. “I want to know if he’s Jewish.” Some ten years ago, Adolph journeyed to Arizona to the Sox’s spring training site. Upon his return, my brother Frank inquired about the outlook for the coming season. He replied, “I didn’t watch much of the team. I was more interested in the minor-league prospects.” That, Frank noted, is the definition of an “optimist.” At 101, he still reads Baseball America and other publications to keep abreast of what’s going on in Charlotte, Birmingham, Winston Salem, Kannapolis, Great Falls, Bristol and Salt River. And Ian Kadish is Jewish.

Finally, a story from a different age. My aunt Rosalind, one of the world’s greatest raconteurs (she passed away in September 2001; boy do we miss these tales!), told of a visit to Michael Reese Hospital, where Adolph’s aunt Lucy, was in the last throes of her 92-year life in 1974. She was in a double room, and the roommate was borderline delirious. “Oh Lord, I’ll be there soon! Sweet Jesus, have mercy on me!” she cried. Now this was in the days before pagers and cell phones, so Adolph, a pediatrician, needed to call his answering service. Having difficulty with the phone, he asked Lucy, “How do you get an outside line?” The next thing they heard was from the roommate: “God almighty, I’m in your hands! Dial 9 and keep on goin’!”
All I can add is: Adolph, celebrate #101 and keep on goin'!