Friday, August 4, 2017

August 4, 1917


One hundred years ago today, my father – Marvin Norden Nachman – was born in Chicago, probably at Passavant Hospital. I’ve written little about him before – his military career (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2011/01/my-fathers-army.html) and what turned out to be our last Sox game together (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2010/11/major-gives-us-day-to-remember.html) – but not much else in biographical form. So on the 100th anniversary of his birth, here’s my tribute to a wonderful man who left us way too soon.

Dad, age 3 months

Dad was the son of Isadore and Helen Norden Nachman. His father – called Jim – came to the U.S. around 1900 from Iasi, Romania. Helen was #9 of 9 children of Adolph Norden, who had 7 children with his first wife. The Nordens emigrated from Germany in the late 1880s. His grandparents, Abraham and Chaia Schwartzman Nachman, also left Romania for the United States and are buried in the family’s section of the First Roumanian Congregation at Jewish Waldheim. Chaia was the sister of Sophia Schwartzman Pritzker, the grandmother of Abram Pritzker; great-grandmother of Jay, Robert and Donald; and great-great-grandmother of, among others, Tom, Jennifer, Penny and J.B. That and my Ventra Card get me around the city cheaply and efficiently (no discounts at Hyatt hotels either).

My grandparents and uncle Adolph, c. 1916

His first residence was the Van Dorn Apartments at 6054 S. Michigan Ave., across the street from St. Anselm Catholic Church, best known from its role in James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogies. Isadore worked downtown in a belt and suspender business with his brother-in-law, C.J. (“Jake”) Wolfson. His brother, Adolph, was five years older and had started at Carter Elementary School and the religious school at South Side Hebrew Congregation up the street before the family moved to South Shore during the early 1920s.

Van Dorn Apartments and South Side Hebrew Congregation religious school

Home was a two-flat at 7430 S. Bennett Ave. A relative told me the side streets were still unpaved back then. Adolph and dad attended Bryn Mawr Elementary School on the 7300 block of S. Jeffery Blvd. My cousins Jim, Bob and Cathy would also attend Bryn Mawr, as did Michelle Robinson Obama. The Robinsons lived around the corner on S. Euclid Ave. several years later. Both boys skipped grades and would have attended South Shore High School one-and-a-half blocks away but it wasn’t built yet. Instead, they took the streetcar north to Hyde Park High School. After one year at the University of Michigan, Adolph came home to attend the University of Chicago and the university’s medical school. Dad was offered two choices after graduating high school in 1934: attend the University of Chicago and live at home or the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He chose the latter. My grandfather borrowed on his life-insurance policy to pay the tuition, room and board.

7430 S. Bennett Ave. and Hyde Park High School

As South Siders, Adolph and dad became White Sox fans, something all five children inherited. Adolph saw his first game in 1921 and my father shortly thereafter. They took the Wentworth Avenue streetcar to the ballpark. Adolph bought season tickets after returning home from World War II, and my father had tickets to all the night games – less than 20 – in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He and Adolph attended all three home games of the 1959 World Series (Frank and I saw Game 1). My first Sox game was in 1954 (or maybe 1953) and have seen at least one home game every season except 1970 since, although I saw a game in Boston during that terrible 106-loss season.

Ticket, 1959 World Series

My father pledged Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity as a freshman, majoring in accounting. He would make several lifelong friends there but, unlike many of them, did not marry one of the U of I sorority sisters. His first roommate was Norman Cohn, a senior, who would go on to head a construction company that built Old Orchard Shopping Center (he reminded us countless times “My college roommate built this place” while shopping there) and later became part of JMB Realty. My grandmother thought it was so wonderful that dad has such a nice Jewish roommate when visiting them that first year. She remarked how neat their room was, until she opened a closet door and piles of stuff cascaded out. Only one of his brothers is known to still be with us, Eddie Stein, who is going strong at age 100.

Phi Epsilon Pi, 1937-1938. Dad is 1st row at left;
Eddie Stein is last row in front of the door

Dad achieved several honors, both academically and in extracurricular activities. Despite being an accounting major, he was editor of the 1938 Illio, the university’s yearbook. His colleague at the Daily Illini was Jack Mabley, who had a long career as a Chicago newspaper columnist. He received the Sachem and Ma-Wan-Da awards as a junior and Beta Gamma Sigma, the national honor society for business students. The only other accounting major to achieve similar grades and honors was Thomas A. Murphy, chairman and chief executive officer of General Motors from 1974 to 1980.

The Daily Illini, 1938

Despite his academic honors, my father could not get a job with a Big 8 (now Big 4, all of whom are headquartered in Europe) accounting firm after graduating in 1938. Why? Simply because he was Jewish. I was told by a 1972 U of I accounting graduate with similar honors that certain firms even then were known to be less hospitable to Jewish applicants. Dad joined a Jewish firm (I don’t remember the name) and later became a partner at Katz, Wagner & Co., where his main concentration was auditing. His clients included Pick Hotels and Speedway Wrecking, which would later demolish the first Comiskey Park. He worked for the firm until 1963, minus the three years he was in the Army during World War II.

At work, unknown date

My grandparents lost the two-flat toward the end of the Depression and moved to a high-rise apartment building at 7300 S. South Shore Drive. Grandpa Jim died in 1942 at age 57 while the boys were in the Army, and they returned to a small apartment after the war ended three years later. I think the tight living quarters had something to do with my father marrying Harriet Bloomfield on September 3, 1946, after having gone on a first date back on March 22. Adolph would marry the following year. They had to pay somebody under the table to get an apartment at 7130 S. Cyril Court. Home would later be 6738 S. Merrill Avenue, which was destroyed by fire in 1982.

Just married, September 3, 1946

My father was pretty much out of sight from January 1 to April 15 every year. In fact, my brother and I were born on March 22 (very ironic) and, because my mother didn’t find out she was having twins until three weeks before we were born, Frank and I had to wait to get our own cribs until the tax season ended. Dad would wake us up in the morning just to remind us he was still around. During our first family trips east, we stayed at the Belmont Plaza (now the W New York) in New York City and The Lee House (now demolished) in Washington, D.C., both Pick hotels.

The twins, one week old, 1949

After April 15, dad travelled frequently to do audits at Pick hotels, one of which was the Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. He told us that numerous Ohio State football players were on the hotel’s payroll, but the only time he ever saw them was when they came for free meals. This made the Illini graduate very unhappy when his school was placed on probation for minor offenses, particularly when one of the whistleblowers was a staff member who had been passed over for promotion.

One memorable anecdote relates to the Sahara Inn, a motel near O’Hare airport owned by mobster Manny Skar. The Sahara had declared bankruptcy shortly after its construction in 1962, and Pick Hotels was one of the creditors. A creditors’ meeting was held over a weekend at the Schiller Park establishment, requiring the attendees to stay two nights; however, Illinois Bell had yanked all of the phones in this pre-cell phone era. My father’s parting words to our mother were, “If I’m not back by Sunday, call the police.” Skar would be gunned down in a mob hit in 1965 as he exited the garage in his N. Lake Shore Drive building after dining with Mrs. Skar at a deli on Oak Street. Because take-home purchases were noted in the newspaper reports, our family joke was “Manny Skar died clutching his salami.”

Sahara Inn matchbook

In 1963, Les Weil, a freshman brother when dad was a senior, bought majority interest in American Envelope Co., which also had plants in Baltimore and Washington. He asked my father to join him as chief financial officer and treasurer. Not only would we see him now during the first three-and-a-half months of the year but he also received a company car in order to drive from the north suburbs to the offices at 3100 W. Grand Avenue, just as Frank and I were getting our driver’s licenses. The company at the time was the largest supplier of envelopes to Hallmark Cards and, as a small business, qualified for government contracts, including envelopes for draft boards.

3100 W. Grand Avenue

The company did well during the remainder of the 1960s, and Les and dad somehow found time to visit the Baltimore company in October 1966 when the Orioles played the Dodgers in the World Series. Thanks to the previous owner, who had been instrumental in bringing the O’s from St. Louis, the company had four season tickets right behind the Orioles’ dugout. I worked in the plant during the summer of 1968 (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2014/07/transcendence-in-envelope-factory.html) and will never forget going into the front office before traveling home to see dad balance a half-million bank statement in his head and know where the few missing dollars were. It helped to have a photographic memory.

Ticket, 1966 World Series

My father was a scrupulously honest man, but he did teach me a few lessons about the realities of business life. During his tenure, the company bought the building next store on Grand and needed to build an enclosed walkway between the two buildings. This required a permit, which was granted by the local alderman, in this case, the very powerful and very crooked Thomas Keane from the 31st Ward. They got it, after dad gave a cash payment to one of Keane’s bagmen who came by to pick it up. No cash, no walkway. Keane would be sentenced to five years in prison in 1974 for federal mail-fraud and conspiracy convictions. In another instance, he was an unattributed source in a front-page newspaper story on a shady state deal. When I asked why he didn’t use his name, he told me, “I don’t know who’s behind these people. I don’t want a firebomb at our front door.”

Les and dad decided to sell the company in 1970 after it had moved to larger quarters at 4400 W. Ohio Street. Unfortunately, the sale was completed as a recession set in, and the acquisition disqualified it as a small business, thus ending its government contracts. Dad had an employment contract but felt – as he later found out, rightfully so – the new owners were trying to find cause to fire him and bring in a low-paid bookkeeper. Dad seemed much more edgy after I returned home from college and a summer in California in August 1971 and even fretted about taking off time to meet my soon-to-be in-laws in New York the month before our January 1973 wedding.

4400 W. Ohio Street (the name is still above the door)

My world was shaken to the core at about 2:45 on the afternoon of March 29, 1973, when I received a phone call that my father had been taken to a hospital I’d never heard of at W. Division and N. Cicero avenues. Rather than go into detail here, the following post (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2010/12/sudden-death-in-family.html) chronicles that last traumatic day of his life. Now, 44 years hence, I’ve worn his South Shore Temple confirmation class ring he received in 1932 that rolled out of his personal effects envelope longer than he did.

Confirmation Class 1932 ring

It took me a long time to come to terms with losing dad at age 55. Only a few years ago when I knew he probably would no longer be here did I find some sort of closure. Ironically, Adolph lived to be three months short of 102 and was sharp it until the end. I never begrudged him that because it was a great connection to family. Mom remarried the next year to Irving Nathan, a man very much unlike dad, which was a good thing. He was outgoing and gregarious and took the seven of us (Frank, Martha, Grant, Julia, Janet, Marisa and me) in as his own. They traveled the world, kept old friends and made new ones, and he left her secure to the end of her life at age 89 in 2013.

Dad has been gone so long I really must summon up remembrances of him, even as I describe them here. It doesn’t seem like just yesterday. Every so often I think of something, like the time he and mom visited me in Boston and took Frank and some family friends attending Harvard and MIT to dinner at Durgin Park. The brilliant CPA didn’t know the restaurant was cash only and didn’t have enough to pay the bill. He had to borrow money from us students to settle the tab.

His last photo, with Reuben Shore, March 1973

One last thought: In August 1973, two families threw a party for some of my school friends who were getting married. As we were saying our good-byes to Dorothy Gutstadt, one of the hosts and the wife of another fraternity brothers, she looked at me and started to cry. Her (now ex- ) daughter-in-law said, “Oh, she cries at anything!” Holding back my tears, I looked at both of them and said ‘It’s a long story.” Dorothy is thankfully still with us, and I never fail to remind her of this . . . and how important it will always be to me. Dad knew how to elicit both smiles and tears.

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