Friday, October 29, 2010

Important Lessons on Thinking and Writing

 I’ve always been fascinated with newspapers.  As a youngster, I collected titles cut from the (usually) tops of daily newspapers across the country.  These included the long-shuttered New York Mirror, Journal-American, World Telegram and Herald Tribune; Boston Traveler; Philadelphia Bulletin; Washington Star and Times-Herald; Miami News; and Los Angeles Examiner.  My brother and I waited at the front door for our father to arrive home from work so we could grab the Daily News and split it up.

My newspaper work ended 43 years ago after covering freshman football for the Brown and White at Lehigh University.  During my publishing and public relations careers, I’ve worked for former journalists and dealt with reporters in several capacities.  The continued demise of the daily newspaper is tragic for several reasons, one of which is what could be the end of the profession’s dynamics.  I learned plenty working with reporters writing articles for my publications and for former reporters who taught me how to think like a journalist.  Today’s professionals are not receiving this type of training and it’s only going to get worse. 

Some 35 years ago, I was on the editorial staff of the Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago History Museum), which mainly consisted of writing and editing its quarterly magazine, Chicago History.  The Society had an Editorial Board, and Herman Kogan, at the time cultural news editor at the Daily News, was its most active member.  His son, Rick, writes for the Chicago Tribune.  We excerpted a portion of Yesterday’s Chicago, the first father-son collaboration, in the magazine.  The author description read that they “co-authored” the book.  A few days after the article was published, Herman, a scrupulous editor, called up and hollered at me.  “You can’t ‘co-author’ anything,” he bellowed.  “You are ‘the co-author of’!”  To this day, I never use the verb form of “co-” but this is another losing usage battle, ranking with “hopefully” and “neither/nor” vs. “either/or.”  Herman called the next day and apologized profusely for his tirade; noise from the building renovation had driven him crazy.

The greatest character I met in my career was A.A. Dornfeld . . . but he was known only as “Dornie.”  He worked at the fabled City News Bureau from 1926 to 1970, mostly as night editor because he didn’t like the people on the day shift.  He trained a number of well-known journalists, including Mike Royko, and one who became famous in another discipline, Claus Oldenburg.  Dornie was loved, feared and respected by all who knew him.  The instruction to reporters, widely but wrongly attributed to him, was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”  He would show up at the museum to discuss his articles in a flannel shirt, suspenders, wood-chip flecked pants and work boots, fresh from his retirement business, firewood.  Dornie rather distained me until I helped him push his car out of the snow during a freak April Fool’s Day blizzard.

City News (or City Press, as the old-timers called it) was the basis for Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page.  I was surprised that Chicago History hadn’t done an article on its storied history, but Dornie felt he couldn’t get a handle on all the information to distill it into a 5,000-word piece.  My editor and I got after him and the result was “The City News Bureau” in the Summer 1976 issue.  This led to the publication of his book Behind The Front Page (renamed Hello Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!): The Story of the City News Bureau of Chicago.  Dornie wrote in his copy to me: “I understand that you were, through three removes, the ultimate springboard for this book.  Don’t be downhearted though – you may live it down.”

Two gentlemen – both sadly departed – taught me valuable writing and editing lessons.  Dennis Waite, a former assistant business editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, imparted the ways of daily deadline discipline with direct and honest criticism (see “A Tribute to Dennis Waite” entry).  Together at The Financial Relations Board, then the largest investor-relations agency in the U.S., we cranked out news releases, company summaries, investor presentations and annual reports that won accolades from several audiences.  Teaching me to think smart was just as important as his instruction on writing.

Philip Justin Smith was the son and grandson of great Chicago newspapermen.  Phil, who broke the story on Richard Speck’s arrest while a 20-year-old college intern at United Press International, had the greatest knack for making sense out of large amounts of information and distilling it down quickly to a few salient points.  Phil, a self-styled curmudgeon despite only being in his 50s, prohibited fuzzy thinking.  He was not a perfectionist, only because at some point he would say, “Don’t show it to me again.  I’ll only tinker with it.”  Like Dennis, he never held back, for which I am grateful.  I saw him for the last time on September 12, 2001, and even as we walked into town for coffee, we knew the end was near.  He passed away at age 56 one week later.  Phil was another multi-dimensional personality, a fearless professional and the best at what he did.

Perhaps the cutback in newspaper staffs will create new teachers who aren’t afraid to show students and young professionals that access to a keyboard doesn’t make you a writer.  I had young staff members for which English seemed a second language.  They could use the tough love of a Kogan, Dornie, Waite and Smith.  If you like my writing, you have them to thank.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hank Thompson: The Third Man

Few people remember the original “Hammerin” Hank,” who played in two World Series with the New York Giants during the 1950s. Hank Thompson – not to be confused with Bobby Thomson – accomplished many firsts, as well as a significant third.

Henry Curtis Thompson had a notable life in many ways. He was born December 8, 1925, in Oklahoma City and joined the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League in 1943. His career was interrupted by service in World War II, where he won two combat medals as a machine gunner at the Battle of the Bulge, and resumed in 1946. Hank also played three winters in the integrated Cuban League, with and against well-known Major and Negro League and Latin players, as well as Murray Franklin, a fraternity brother of my father who had a brief pre-war career with the Tigers. Thompson would play for the Monarchs through 1948, except for a brief stint that earned him “third man” status.


Hank Thompson

Jackie Robinson, as everybody knows, was the first to break MLB’s “color barrier” in 1947, and Larry Doby was the first African-American player in the American League. The third: Hank Thompson. Futile on the field and playing before empty houses, the St. Louis Browns signed two black players in July 1947, Thompson and Willard Brown, who would later enter the Hall of Fame for his Negro League accomplishments. Thompson eventually added the first of his many “firsts” to his long-forgotten third. When Brown started his first game two days later, they were the first two blacks in one game. Less than a month later, facing the Cleveland Indians, Thompson and Doby were the first blacks playing on opposing teams. The Browns gave up on Thompson and Brown in less than two months, releasing them in late September. A second baseman, Thompson played in 27 games, with no home runs, 5 RBI and a .256 batting average. (A sidebar: Brown was the first black player to homer in the American League, an inside-the-park number using a bat discarded by teammate Jeff Heath. After Brown returned to the dugout, Heath splintered the bat to pieces. Subsequently, I found that Heath broke the bat over superstition, not racism.)

St. Louis Browns, 1947

The 5’9”, 174-pound Thompson had a strong arm and good speed, which caught the attention of the New York Giants. His call-up to the Giants with Monte Irvin in 1949 resulted in more firsts: first African-American to play in the American and National Leagues, the first with the Giants and the only player to integrate two teams. Facing the Dodgers Don Newcombe in 1951, he was the first black batter to face a black pitcher. Finally, in a bit of irony, Thompson would join Irvin and Willie Mays to form the first all-black outfield, when he moved from third base to right field, replacing the injured Don Mueller, in Game 1 of the 1951 World Series at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees would not employ their first black player until Elston Howard in 1955.

Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson
Yankee Stadium, October 1951

Thompson played a major role in the Giants 4-0 sweep of the heavily favored Cleveland Indians in 1954, their last World Series victory. Moving back to third base, he hit .364, scored a team-high 6 runs and walked 7 times, still a Major League record for a four-game series. He also caught the final out of game 4. The ravages of alcohol and leg problems shortened his career, and he appeared in only 83 games in 1956, his final big-league season.

1956 Topps card

Sadly, Hank Thompson is known more for his off-field travails. As a youngster, he served time in reform school for theft and shot a man to death in a Houston bar in 1948; it was ruled justifiable homicide. Money problems caused him to pawn his World Series ring. Additional brushes with the law led to probation, but an armed-robbery conviction in 1963 sent him to prison for 10 years, for which he served 4 years before being paroled. He tried to get back into baseball but was unsuccessful. Thompson died after a brain seizure at age 43 in Fresno, California, on September 30, 1969.

Look for the Fox broadcasters to drone on about Mays, Bobby Thomson, Dusty Rhodes, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Barry Bonds, If the World Series goes long enough, perhaps they will find time to tell the tales of Hammerin' Hank Thompson. If not, you heard them here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

World Series Excitement on Chicago's South Side

While the Super Bowl has seemingly supplanted the World Series as America’s leading sporting event, the Fall Classic, with its rich 100+ year history, remains my favorite. The upcoming renewal pitting two interesting and fan-friendly teams will give thousands of fans their first taste of World Series excitement. Even as a Chicagoan, I’ve had my share.

My retort to Cubs fans is always, “How many World Series have you attended in Chicago?” For me, it’s two, Game 1 of both the 1959 and 2005 World Series . . . two ballparks, two victories but only one eventual champion. These are the White Sox’s only World Series appearances since the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Some background first. My grandfather’s family came to Chicago from Romania at the turn of the twentieth century and settled at 61st Street and Michigan Avenue. My grandmother’s family had emigrated from Germany during the 1880s. Their two sons, Adolph (who will be 99 in January) and Marvin, became White Sox fans at early ages. Uncle Adolph attended his first Sox game in 1921, which he says pitted Urban “Red” Faber vs. the Philadelphia Athletics and Eddie Rommel. My father was 4 at the time, so I doubt he went along, as they took the Wentworth Avenue streetcar to reach Comiskey Park. The boys would be in their 40s before seeing a World Series game on the South Side.

My father, circa 1920

My brother and I were 10 in 1959 and missed some of the pennant race excitement while attending summer camp. Because Adolph was a season-ticket holder, we saw a few games, including Joe Stanka’s only Major League victory, helped by an 11-run inning against the Tigers. Our family had moved to the North Shore four years earlier and, thus, did not hear the air-raid sirens set off by Fire Commissioner Quinn when the Sox clinched their first pennant in 40 years. A North Side colleague told me they thought the end of the world was imminent.

With no Internet, Ticketmaster, eBay, StubHub or other such services, one needed to know someone, in our case, ticket manager Tommy Maloney. Adolph got tickets for my father, brother and me for Game 1 in the right-field lower deck. My father said to wait for the opportune moment to quietly ask Mrs. Ray, my 5th-grade teacher, if I could take the next day off, so as not to make the other students jealous. I sat nervously for a few hours, then walked up to her desk and trying to whisper, blurted out, “Can I miss school tomorrow to go to the World Series?” My embarrassment was compounded by the laughter from both Mrs. Ray and my schoolmates. She said of course I could go.

Game 1 ticket stub, 1959

The route to the ballpark on October 1 included one of my two current preferred routes, Canal Street. The Dan Ryan had not yet been built. Long-suffering Bridgeport residents had clotheslines strung across Canal with dangling white socks and signs proclaiming, “Go Go Sox!” Entering at 35th and Shields, we saw Warren Giles, the president of the National League. I’m sure there were other dignitaries we didn’t recognize.

The Sox put 11 runs on the board in the first 4 innings on the way to an 11-0 win over the Dodgers. Ted Kluszewski (“Big Klu”) hit two home runs, both into the right-field stands but not close to us. A ball in batting practice almost hit me, having lost it in the sun only to hear it smack into the wall in front of me. My father would attend Games 2 and 6 in his brother’s box, both losses, as the Dodgers won the World Championship.

Program cover, 1959

The wait for the next one ended up even longer for me, 46 years. Through great luck, I split half a season-ticket plan six rows behind the Sox dugout and attended 19 regular-season games. Through various sources, I saw both Division Series victories vs. the Red Sox and the only post-season loss vs. the Angels. Before that game, I was interviewed by the Kansas City Star for a fan profile. Waving the above 1959 ticket stub got the reporter’s attention.

I did not get a ticket for Game 1 on October 22 until the night before. My cousin Jim had an extra, in the back of the lower deck behind the plate. My brother didn’t want to miss the excitement of a World Series on the South Side, so he was flying in from Denver the next morning and figured to be watching the game with me on television. I woke up early the next morning and called ticket brokers, looking to make a deal for my one ticket for two tickets in the upper deck – no can do. Tickets were still being sold on eBay, the cheapest being $1,000 for a $125 seat in the far reaches of the upper deck. There was one auction and, although originally it indicated I’d lost, a minute later the seller came back that I’d won a ticket two-thirds of the way up the right-field upper deck for $600. After sitting down for lunch at Gibson’s after his arrival, I told Frank, “I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The bad news is you’re sitting in the upper deck and I’m sitting in the lower deck. The good news is we’re both going to the World Series.” As they say . . . priceless. We would also come to realize that our father was surely more excited than we had been to attend a World Series game.

Game 1 ticket, 2005

The view from Frank's World Series seat, 2008

The baseball world changed quite a bit during those 46 years. The Series is played at night; ticket stubs are scanned, not torn; there are no National League or American League presidents; and the home-team announcers (Bob Elson the exception in 1959) have been supplanted by network announcers, now the Fox team of Joe Buck and the blithering idiot, Tim McCarver. The Sox Game 1 starter, Jose Contreras, was one the few Cuban-born players in either league, ironic since Castro had come to power 46 years previously. Although I missed sitting with Frank, being with Jim added a sense of continuity over all of those years (my uncle couldn’t make it, mostly because of the constant standing up and sitting down now fashionable in big games). The Sox won, 5-3, and we watched Game 2 at our house. The happy ending: the first World Series victory since 1917, the year my father was born, and an unused ticket for Game 6.

With Cousin Jim, Game 1, 2005

It's a shame both teams can't win the 2010 World Series. The Giants haven't won since 1954, when Frank and I stayed home ill from school and saw Willie Mays' amazing catch in Game 1 on our tiny black-and-white console television. The Rangers are making their first appearence ever, and I won't begrudge them for putting the final nails in the coffin of the Sox's 1967 pennant run when they were the Washington Sentators. I ususally root for the American League team; this year I'm just hoping for great baseball.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Surviving the Firing Squad



My friend Susan Diamond wrote about job firings on her “Prayables” blog (http://prayables.com) and received several varied responses.  It got me thinking about my two terminations.  They were actually diametrically opposed but stinging nonetheless.

After ten years in the publishing business, I wanted to make a change.  Public relations was a logical area, where I thought an agency could use my experience as a writer and editor.  The going was tough.  “What makes you think you could do this work?” asked the head of a large agency, as if it were rocket science.  I ended up taking a job with certainly the worst PR agency in the city: low pay, no benefits (but we were referred for health insurance to the wife of a judge who would later go to prison), lousy clients, outdated office equipment and a Neanderthal style of management.  Still, I was learning the business . . . until four days before Christmas.

As a new employee of three months, I couldn’t accompany Janet and Marisa for our annual Florida trip to see the family.  After being allowed time off to take them to the airport on Friday, I was called in early Monday morning and told that due to account losses (not my clients), I would be let go at the end of the year.  They kept on a newer employee because she was making probably one-third less than me.  My severance: I got to work the next two weeks before my New Year’s “gift.”

Needless to say, I was tres pissed.  Regardless of how they phrased it, I felt like an idiot; three months on the job and I’m done.  On the plus side, I received on-the-job training, and the firing provided inspiration to do well and succeed.  Note to Mr. Agency Head: I had the Jay Mariotti taped messages on the Cubs playoff results robo-called to your home at 4:30 a.m., among other childish pranks.

The second firing 16 years later took place as a senior person at “One of the Best Companies to Work For.”  My first year with the agency was great; our account group, which had long been the weakest part of the agency, grew significantly and competed well versus the city’s largest agencies.  Early in the second year, however, the group leader who hired me left and was replaced by someone best characterized as A Small Man in More Ways Than One.  That they tried to fire me for cause pretty much summed up their way of doing business.  I had fair warning from an inside source and, due to their mishandling the situation, it ended up simply as the elimination of my practice area.  They gave me the usual boilerplate explanation and the “have your lawyer review it” spiel, to which I replied, “My brother is with the largest labor-law firm in the country, and you can bet he’s going to take a good look at this” and walked out.  Nothing gets a company’s attention faster than free legal advice.

There’s a saying “If you make everybody believe you wake up at the crack of dawn, you can sleep ‘til noon every day.”  This company figured it could treat terminated employees like crap because of its wonderful reputation.  Perhaps if one person had said, “We’re sorry this didn’t work out and won’t cause any great hardship” – after all, Marisa was in college then – or had sent out an e-mail before my last day so I wouldn’t have to explain myself on my way out, I might not have adamantly persued every last nickel of severance.

Thankfully, shortly thereafter I started an agency with my former boss over a weekend with two laptops and borrowed office space.  My self-confidence was still intact.  Within two years, we had 50 employees and became the tenth largest public relations agency in the city.  This firing, too, was a good thing.  I may not have “pursued my dreams,” as Susan writes, but I came out just fine.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There Used to be a Synagogue Here: West Side

As stated in my South Side post, my interest in photographing former Chicago synagogues stemmed mainly from tracing the family history on the South Side. Although my mother’s parents both lived on the West Side (Garfield Park and Medical Center areas) during the first two decades of the twentieth century, I don’t know where they worshipped. After some research, I believe my mother's grandparents, the Sachs family, attended B'nai Jehoshua at S. Ashland and W. 20th. My grandparents (below) lived in Hyde Park following their marriage in 1922.


My grandparents, early 1920s

Finding the former synagogues on the West Side, a thriving area of Jewish life until the 1950s, presented an interesting challenge. Compiling a lengthy list from a 1919-1920 American Jewish Committee directory and the Chicago Ancestors collection at The Newberry Library, I knew driving to each one was out of the question, since most certainly no longer existed. In addition, one should spend a minimum amount of time walking the streets of North Lawndale, where many of the synagogues were located. The Maxwell Street district most likely contained no more buildings, thanks to urban renewal.

The solution: Google Street Views. Plugging in an address would find either an image of an empty lot, a building that obviously could not have been a house of worship or a church or similar structure that most likely was a former synagogue. The CityNews Chicago Web site was also helpful. I prepared itineraries for several areas – one could not hit all of the possible sites in one day – and headed off to parts of the city I’d never seen.

In the early 1900s, the Lawndale area had the world’s third largest Jewish population, behind only Warsaw and New York City, and more than seventy synagogues. Only one – Temple Judea – was Reform. A mix of large and small shuls not found on the South or North Sides was scattered across the area. Anshe Knesses Israel Congregation on W. Douglas Boulevard was the largest in the city, seating 3,500 worshippers. After the congregation merged and moved to South Shore, the Shepard’s Baptist Church acquired the building. It’s closed and sadly facing demolition. The former Hebrew Theological College, a large structure with Greek columns virtually across the boulevard, is being held up by wooden shoring and also faces the wrecker’s ball.

The former Anshe Knesses Israel Congregation, W. Douglas Boulevard

Other large congregations included Congregation Anshe Sholom on S. Independence Boulevard, which still has the orignal stained-glass windows; Kehilath Jacob, where Benny Goodman played the clarinet, on Douglas Boulevard; and Knessess Israel Nusach Sfard (K.I.N.S), also on Independence. One of the most beautiful is the former First Roumanian Congregation, which moved to Douglas Boulevard from what is now the last remaining former synagogue in the Maxwell Street area (see my family’s connection in “There Used to be a Synagogue Here: South Side” post).

The former First Roumanian Congregation, W. Douglas Boulevard, and
the former Congregation Anshe Sholom, S. Independence Boulevard

The real treasures are found on the side streets – Christiana, Drake, Homan, Millard and Ridgeway – and sometimes took two trips to find. Many of these tiny shuls are now vacant lots, as is much of North Lawndale. The remaining ones, now churches, give one pause to think of the Torahs and tallit-clad worshippers that once filled these buildings. Remaining Hebrew inscriptions and Stars of David intensify those feelings. They had names harking back to the homeland, including Bikur Cholim Anshe Rosh Poland, Anshe Russia/Polie Zedeck, Mikro Kodesh Anshe Lida and Pinsk, and Anshe Pavalatch.


The former Anshe Pavalatch, S. Christiana Avenue, and the former
Congregation Atereth Israel Anshe Ticktin, S. Millard Avenue

West Side residents were notably interested on what I was doing in their neighborhood – one asked pointedly, “Why are you taking pictures of the church?" – and unanimously friendly. Given large numbers of people congregating on the streets during the day, though, I don’t recommend wandering around there alone.


Side door, the former Anshe Motele, S. Ridgeway Avenue

For my entire collection of photographs, please see the “Former Chicago Synagogues” sets on http://www.flickr.com/brulelaker.

NOTE: The Hebrew Theological College was razed shortly after this entry was written. Anshe Knesses Israel is slated for demolition in early 2012,

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

There Used to be a Synagogue Here: South Side

My interest in photographing former Chicago synagogues dates back two years, stimulated by a chance drive-by and a book. Although it wasn’t on my scheduled sites, I stopped at 33rd and Indiana streets to photograph the fire-ravaged ruins of what was once KAM, the first Jewish congregation in the city. At about the same time, I’d purchased Chicago’s Forgotten Synagogues by Robert Packer after some Internet research.


The former KAM, S. Indiana Avenue

My project began simply out of an interest in the temples for which our family had worshipped, including South Shore Temple, South Side Hebrew Congregation and Isaiah Israel before its merger with KAM. Rabbi Morton Berman, who led the pre-merger Isaiah Israel, was married to my mother’s cousin. Further research, however, found a much larger web of family connections and the intense desire to discover more about the synagogues of bygone days.


As immigrants from Romania at the beginning of the twentieth century, my father’s family joined the First Roumanian Congregation. Although they lived on the South Side, they trekked up to S. Union Avenue in the Maxwell Street district to worship. Coincidentally, the now-vacant building and former church is the lone remaining former synagogue in the area. His family is buried in the First Roumanian section of Jewish Waldheim. The congregation moved to a huge new sanctuary on W. Douglas Boulevard (to be covered in “There Used to be a Synagogue Here: West Side”) in the mid-1920s.




The former First Roumanian Congregation, S. Union Avenue


The family joined South Side Hebrew Congregation, then located two blocks north of their residence on S. Michigan Avenue, after its construction in 1915. The sanctuary burned down in the 1920s, and the lot remains vacant. The religious school next door, where my 98-year-old uncle Adolph attended, still stands as the Jubilee Temple on E. 59th Street. After a move to South Shore, the family joined South Shore Temple on S. Jeffery Boulevard, now the Old Landmark Church of God Holiness in Christ.


The former South Side Hebrew Congregation Hebrew school, E. 59th Street


My mother’s family also had varied temple memberships. My grandfather worshipped at South Side Hebrew Congregation, which relocated to S. Chappel Avenue. Now a Baptist church, it is across the street from Bryn Mawr School, the alma mater of my father, uncle, cousin and Michelle Obama. My mother attended a few religious schools, finally being confirmed from Chicago Sinai Congregation on South Parkway (now King Drive). It is now Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church.


The former Chicago Sinai Congregation, S. King Drive


KAM is better known today as the synagogue across the street from the Obamas’ house. Most people leave off “Isaiah Israel” as well. Through a series of mergers, four congregations – KAM, Isaiah Temple, Temple Israel and Congregation B'nai Sholom (the second Jewish congregation in the city) – became today’s KAM Isaiah Israel. I’ve photographed five former homes of these congregations, including the former Isaiah Temple designed by Dankmar Adler. The present synagogue, designed by Alfred Alschuler, was completed in 1924 as Isaiah Temple, shortly before it merged with B’nai Sholom Temple Israel. KAM moved from its S. Drexel Boulevard location (now Operation PUSH headquarters) in 1971.




The former Isaiah Temple, S. Vincennes Avenue

Family connections propelled my initial photography trips to the South Side, but finding a transcendent feeling while viewing these former Jewish houses of worship expanded my horizon and sent me to the West Side. I’ll cover this in my next post. To see all of the photos, check out the "Former Chicago Synagogue" sets at http://www.flickr.com/photos/brulelaker.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Twin's Life

Age 5

Before the advent of fertility drugs and treatments, twins – especially identical twins – were a rare occurrence. As a twin, we were often asked, “What is it like to be a twin?” Frank had the best answer: “I don’t know what it’s like not to be one.” So here are a few anecdotes from a twin’s life (psychological insights not included).

For some perspective, we were the only identical twins in our grammar school and junior high. Twins were more common in high school, but then there were 1,200 students in our graduating class. Our parents wisely did not dress us alike, although our mother made matters easier by purchasing the same style but in different colors. We each had distinguishing marks: mine, scar on my forehead, from dropping a piggy bank while lying in a crib; Frank, a mole on an earlobe.

Even with superficial differentiations, we were as identical as can be. We did not, however, go out of our way to stage twin “stunts.” They happened on their own. Shortly after moving to the suburbs, we 6-year-olds were chasing each other through the kitchen, out the attached garage, around the back of the house and into the kitchen again. A workman doing renovation work said to my mother, “Lady, I’ve never seen a kid run so fast.” A substitute teacher kicked me out my 6th grade class five minutes before the end of a school day and told me to wait in the hall.  Instead, I walked home. The sub came out into the hall, saw I’d left and went into the other classroom to inform the teacher. As she explained her dilemma, she spotted Frank and said, “There he is!” The class, I’m told, burst out laughing.

A favorite event occurred during our freshman year in college. After Thanksgiving weekend in New York, we headed back to school in Pennsylvania and Connecticut via buses from the Port Authority terminal. While walking to the gate, a guy stopped me and said, “Where are you going? The bus leaves from Gate 39!” Sensing the situation right away, I replied, “Listen, buddy, I don’t care what you say. I’m catching a bus to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, from Gate 21.” and strode past him. I wish I could have seen the look on his face when he reached Gate 39. I’ve bumped into Frank’s college classmates at O’Hare (said he knew it was me) and in front of “The Night Watch” in the Rijksmuseum (he didn’t)  He had one of mine stare at him on a CTA bus before introducing himself.

Perhaps the greatest forgotten promotion by Bill Veeck involved twins. In honor of the first Comiskey Park visit of the Minnesota Twins – the team had moved from Washington, where they were the Senators, to Minneapolis-St. Paul – the White Sox designated May 15, 1961, as “Twins Night.” All twins were allowed in free  Despite this being a school night, my parents took us and two friends to the game  Entry was through a single gate in the left-field grandstand.  We arrived there only to find the gate hadn’t opened. This created an amazing spectacle – a veritable Noah’s Ark. There were two of everything: young ones, old ones, identical ones, fraternal ones, short ones, tall ones, fat ones, thin ones and even two men in full baseball uniforms (in the days when adults didn’t wear a jersey, much less an entire uniform). Unfortunately, minicams hadn’t been invented, and periodic Internet searches have found no record of this promotion. Paid attendance was only 9,123; I don’t know how many twins got in free.

Because the years have been relatively good to both of us, we still have these moments. After rising from our seats on the subway as it reached the Sox-35th station for the first game of 2005 World Series, a couple behind us said, “You’re twins, aren’t you?” Even last year, as the family waited for the valet to bring up the car after dining out, one of my basketball-playing colleagues walked by and started talking to Frank. I turned around and said, “Don, let me introduce you to my brother.”

I’m worried about one thing: the first funeral. There might be an attendee who doesn’t know about us and thus will think he or she is witnessing a resurrection.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Closure: A Most Meaningless Word

One summer during college, my friend John held up a copy of Zap No. 4, which had just been ruled obscene in a San Francisco court.  “For a word to exist, it has to have meaning, otherwise it would have no reason to exist,” he said.  “Take the word ‘obscene,’” he continued.  “Now this is obscene, because it goes beyond the standards of decency in any culture.”

My father died suddenly at age 55.  For years after he died, I drank heavily on his birthday to dull the pain and anger of his passing at a way too young age.  I’ve come to handle it better over these more than 37 years, but I haven’t found what is termed “closure.”  In fact, other than for what is done when a road needs to be blocked off, I don’t know what it means when pertaining to human emotions.  In fact, I think it’s the most overused and basically meaningless word in the English language.

I missed not having somebody to confide in about adulthood, fatherhood, the trials and trivialities of family life and how to cope with the needs and uncertainties that lie ahead.  I missed not having him see his first grandchild, (who is named after him), attend the last game at Comiskey Park and, if healthy enough, another World Series on the South Side.  I’m honestly angry that so many horrible people live to old age and he didn’t.  I was angry that I had to drive 45 minutes to some hospital on the West Side I’d never heard of, not knowing whether he was still alive, and that I had to lie to Janet, barely two months after our marriage, that he was still alive because I didn’t want her to be in a cab alone from Lincoln Park to Division and Cicero having to cope with the new reality.

Why don’t I believe in “closure”?  I had tears in my eyes after the last out on September 30, 1990, and I literally cried in the theater in 2005 hearing Billy Crystal relate how his father died suddenly of a heart attack and the next day a policeman brought an envelope to the house with the personal belongings, much as John Weil, who had passed away also way too soon earlier in the year, had given me the envelope with his wallet, glasses and ring at the hospital.  I had tears in my eyes again at 10:45 p.m., after they finally got me out of the recovery room and into a hospital room following an angioplasty in 2004, a week before my 55th birthday, because I was picturing my father in the emergency room and realizing how lucky I hadn’t suffered the same fate.

So what, then, does “closure” mean?  I hate when commentators talk about families of murder victims or war casualties finding closure.  Perhaps believing in closure is like Peter Pan believing in fairies.  I, for one, don’t think it exists, surely not for the most traumatic and important things in life.  That’s one man’s opinion; I may be wrong.


U.S. Army, 1943, following graduation from OCS.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Sound of Metal Spikes on Concrete

Some encounters are almost too strange to believe. This one happened, I swear.

After a wedding in Connecticut, Janet and I stayed at her parents’ apartment in Brooklyn. On September 1, 1972, we drove to the Bronx to see the White Sox play the Yankees. Both teams were out of the pennant race and had called up several players from their AAA affiliates. For the Yankees, this included the aptly named Charlie Spikes, Rusty Torres and Frank Tepidino, who joined one of the great unsung baseball names, Celerino Sanchez. 

We settled down in box seats far down the left-field line, after which the usher yelled at me for not tipping him for wiping off our seats. The game, my second at Yankee Stadium, was uneventful. Mel Stottlemyre would shut out the Sox, 4-0, scattering four hits.
 
Yankee Stadium, before the 1970s renovation
 
Knowing we had a long ride back to Brooklyn, I stopped in the men’s room in the left-field concourse after the 7th inning. It was quite small: two urinals, two sinks and a stall or two. It was empty. Shortly after commencing the intent of my visit, I heard the door open and the unmistakable sound of metal spikes on concrete. Peering over my right shoulder, I saw a White Sox player, obviously in full uniform, assume the stance at the urinal next to me. I leaned back far enough to see his number – 55 – and determined it was relief pitcher (no pun intended) Jim Geddes, a recent call up. Trying to think of something smart or witty, I found neither, only “I came all the way from Chicago to see the game. I hoped you could win.” If he answered at all, I don’t remember what it was. He zipped up, and I watched the red #55 on the back of the baby-blue uniform exit into the concourse to the clack-clack-clack sound of metal spikes on concrete.

The john in the Sox bullpen obviously wasn’t working. Yankee Stadium would be closed for renovation in 1974 and 1975, and I think the Yankees, then owned by CBS and slated for sale, weren’t in a hurry to spend on repairs. Another explanation is the Yankees liked it that opposing pitchers had to mix it up with local fans.

Geddes pitched in only 11 games during 2 seasons, with a 0-0 record. Coincidentally, he was born one day after me. Several years later, the Sox were showing old videos on the scoreboard during a rain delay. One was from spring training in the early 1970s, and there was a segment about Geddes and his control problems after hitting a batter. I was just about to blurt out, “I peed next to that guy,” but realizing I was among strangers, kept it to myself.


Jim Geddes, 1973 Topps Baseball Card

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Tribute to Dennis Waite


Just before writing this post, I realized my life basically turned around after I met Dennis Waite.  Until then, I had a less than stelllar professional career and my frame of mind was not good, to say the least.  A colleague recommended me to Dennis to fill a vacancy at The Financial Relations Board (FRB), the nation’s largest investor-relations agency at the time.  Dennis directed one of six account groups in the headquarters Chicago office and had just acquired a prestigious client, Budget Rent-a-Car, following its IPO.

Dennis enjoyed a varied and interesting career.  After a hitch in the U.S. Air Force, where he served in the Intelligence unit, he joined the Chicago Sun-Times, rising to assistant business editor.  He also appeared on WTTW-TV’s early try at a nightly news program in the mid-1970s, “The Public News Center,” hosted by John Callaway.  He then became a journalism professor at Michigan State University before moving to FRB in the early 1980s.

Surviving a series of tests and interviews, I joined the Waite Division, as it was known, in July 1987.  Responsibilities included advising clients on investor-relations policy; writing news releases, investor presentations and annual reports; and media relations.  Dennis made it clear from Day 1 that I could assume as much responsibility as desired – his concept of RHP (rank has its privileges) did not pertain to client work – and he would only rein me in if my work didn’t measure up.  Dennis could pound a table good but never raised his voice to me.  I won awards for the Budget account, and my career took off from there.

For the six years I worked with Dennis until moving to another division that needed some senior-level help, I learned something new from him every day . . . and most of it had nothing to do with work.  For me, he was The Most Interesting Man in the World, long before the silly beer commercial.  Sure, he taught me the ropes of investor relations, account supervision, people management and the intangibles that led to my successful career.  But his interests went far beyond work: science, tae kwon-do, cooking, religion, poker.  Lunches were usually not to catch up on account work but to discuss any number of topics.  He was a dedicated husband to Chris and father to Kip, a good friend to Janet and Marisa.

We kept in touch on and off with Dennis and Chris after I’d left FRB fourteen years ago.  He always grappled with various health issues, so I wasn’t surprised when informed he’d passed away a few months ago.  We hadn’t spoken in some time, and Janet kept asking me over the years to call him.  I don’t know why I didn’t but that doesn’t matter now.  It taught me yet another lesson of life: make the effort if it’s truly important.  It was, I didn’t and I regret it.  Dennis requested no death notices, services or memorials of any type, which pretty much sums up the man, for he left his record in the hearts of those who knew him.  Yes, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.


Dennis Waite (right) with my daughter and me, near Bloomingdale, Michigan, mid-1990s

Sunday, October 10, 2010

We Serve and Collect

With the Blackhawks and Bulls starting their seasons at the United Center, I remembered a little-known money-making scheme from some forty years ago. Back then, the teams played at Chicago Stadium at 1800 W. Madison Street.

Although the neighborhood was far more dangerous than today, abundant parking surrounded the stadium. Therefore, I found it strange when a family friend taking us to a Hawks game in the early 1970s pulled his Lincoln Continental into a bus stop right next to the arena. Getting out of the car, I noticed he’d forgotten to lock the front door, so I pushed down the button. “Don’t lock the door,” he said politely. “I’ll explain when we get inside.”

After settling into our seats in the first row of the second balcony, directly under the American flag, he told my father, brother and me, “Did you see all of the cars parked along Madison Street? All of them left their front doors open and a $5 bill in the visor. After the game starts, the beat commander opens the door, takes out the money and locks the door.” He explained that he had the same arrangement going at Wrigley Field when the Bears had played there up until the previous season.

Na├»ve to such things, my father asked him how he did it. “As I drove up to the park, I asked each cop directing traffic ‘Who’s in charge here?’ I eventually found the guy and made the deal.”

My father shouldn’t have been surprised. When his company acquired the adjacent building on W. Grand Avenue in the mid-1960s, it needed a passageway between the two structures, for which a building permit was required. As CFO, he had to pay the local alderman, the powerful Thomas Keane, to get the permit. Keane sent one of his bagmen to collect the cash payment. My father wasn’t happy but you couldn’t move pallets of envelopes between buildings without the connector. Keane would later be convicted on 17 counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy in U.S. District Court.

These petty income enhancement schemes weren’t, of course, exclusive to Chicago. As college senior in 1971, I was desperate to see the Blackhawks of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito take on the Bruins of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Derek Sanderson at the Boston Garden. With $10 in my pocket, I was dismayed to find no tickets cheaper than $20.  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 up the stairs [outside of the arena] 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 door (with no ticket) with a turnstile manned by a uniformed usher into the Garden. The usher was talking to a uniformed Boston policeman. My guess is the cop took $3, the usher and ticket taker $1 each and the kid got to see a game for free.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Where Baseball, Photography and Blogging Intersect

The Blagosphere is rife with stories of strange connections. One of my first ones involved attending two events, 42 years apart.

Paid Flickr subscribers receive daily “view counts” of their photographs, which list the sites from which the hits are made. Most come from Flickr, with others mainly from Google and Yahoo image searches. In late 2008, I found hits from a blog, “The Languorous Dilettante,” containing links to photos I’d taken at the last game in Comiskey Park and during its destruction the following year in the post, “Section 39 in the Bronx.”

This article described how a 12-year-old lad attended a White Sox-Yankees game with his father on a cold April 19, 1967, in Comiskey Park. Although the boy lived in the south suburbs, from that day on, he wrote, he became a Yankees fan. It seemed logical, therefore, for the 53-year-old man to travel from Washington, D.C. to New York City to see the final White Sox-Yankees game at Yankee Stadium, just four games before The Stadium would close.

Although the box score states the attendance for the 1967 game was 3,040, I can tell you there weren’t more than 350 people in the park. My father had checked into the hospital the night before for routine varicose vein surgery and my mother went into the city that morning to be with him. Ditching school (it was a Wednesday), my friend Andy and I drove to Comiskey Park, where we purchased general-admission tickets and proceeded to sit right next to the Sox dugout. It was about 40 degrees that day, but the sun kept us relatively warm. I quickly got over my fear that my father would see us on TV in the sparse crowd.

It was quiet, to say the least. We could hear third-base umpire Frank Umont singing the National Anthem, the infield chatter and Sox third-baseman Don Buford yelling back at the hecklers in front of us. Long about the third inning, the sun went behind the grandstand, which taught me a Comiskey Park lesson: right field is the sun field. We moved to the lower deck, where virtually all of the fans had migrated.

The Yankees won, 3-0, as Whitey Ford scattered seven hits in what would be his second-to-last victory. Tommy John gave up one earned run and took the loss.  Mickey Mantle, by then a first-baseman, went 0-5. I would see him play one more time, the following year at my first visit to Yankee Stadium.

My last visit to Yankee Stadium (I can’t bring myself to call the present incarnation by the same name) was September 18, 2008, the final game there between the White Sox and Yankees. The Sox lost that one too, although my thoughts turned to college football, not baseball, as I made my final exit: my parents, married one year, were among 70,000 fans attending the Army-Illinois game there on October 7, 1947. It ended in a 0-0 tie.

Although the blog did not contain an author link and Stephen Thompson is a fairly common name, I found an e-mail address that seemed to be the guy. I wrote, “If you are the author of ‘The Languorous Dilettante,’ I’m willing to bet everything I own that you and I are the only two persons alive who attended White Sox-Yankees games on April 19, 1967, and September 18, 2008.” It was indeed him.  Steven pointed out that back in those days, if you told the teacher you were going to miss school to spend the day with your father, consent was always given. He doesn’t remember whether he told her they would be attending a baseball game.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Taking the Plunge

I've always been a little late to each dance, hence another blog is born. Please forgive me if you've "heard this before," as I recount tales from my youth, odd encounters, little-known corruption schemes and opinions on issues large and small.

The name is taken from one of the largest lakes in northeastern Minnesota, which I paddled across despite strong headwinds in June 1964. Because I was never a movie star needing a stage name, I adopted "Brule Laker" as my nom du photog for the Flickr Web site. In fact, I haven't been back to the lake since, which doesn't prevent me from claiming to see things from there. So here's my first shameless bit of self-promotion: check out my photographs on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/brulelaker/). I'm particularly proud of my vast collection of former synagogue buildings in Chicago. I hope to have a book published featuring a representative sample . . . that is, if I don't spend too much time on this blog.

Thank you for your forbearance. Blogging will begin shortly.