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.