Sunday, July 19, 2015

Happy 90th birthday, Ed McElroy

Sharon Fountain, left, and John L. Smith, right talk with Ed McElroy at the Chicago Crusader. 

     Readers of "You Were Never in Chicago" will remember the chapter called "Driving With Ed McElroy." What they probably don't realize is that Ed is responsible for the book's existence: it was that chapter, originally an article in the Chicago issue of Granta, that prompted the University of Chicago Press to ask me to write a book about this fascinating city.
     And that is just one way that I'm in Ed's debt, for generally taking me under his wing and showing me the ropes in the city. I could not let Ed McElroy's birthday pass unheralded. He turns 90 Monday, and the big party at the Beverly Country Club is today. This is a longer version of a story that ran last Monday in the Sun-Times. 

     Ed McElroy is making his rounds.
     Natty in a pinstripe suit, the shirt and tied picked out for him by Rita Marie, his wife of 60 years, he parks his black Cadillac in a no-parking zone on Halsted Street and strides into the  office of the Bridgeport News, briefing me on the way: the editor's husband is a Chicago fireman, the owners and I share a religion.
     "The guy who owns the paper is one of yours," he tells me. "His father was a friend of mine. Really Jewish too."
     If that seems a slightly startlingly remark in this day and age, well Ed is not quite of this day and age. He's 90, or will be on July 20, a living, working slice of the Chicago way that somehow has magically escaped the claw of time, a shoe leather and handshake man in an impersonal electronic world.
Ed McElroy talks with Janice Racinowski at the Bridgeport New.
Ed McElroy visits the Bridgeport News
     "How many years you and I go back?" Ed asks editor Janice Racinowski, sitting in the otherwise empty office.
     "Well, let's see..." Racinowski replies. "I'm going to be 58 next year. I started when I was 15 going on 16. So, 43 years."
     There is a lot of that with Ed. He knows you, he knew your father, he sometimes knew your grandfather. I'm slightly surprised, almost incredulous, when I meet older Chicagoans who don't know Ed.
     I should admit up front that I am not writing about Ed the way I would write about any random Chicagoan. Ed's my friend, so whether hailing him on his birthday is self-indulgence or news, well, I'll let you decide. But favors to Ed have a way of rebounding well for all concerned. Last month I went down into the Thornton Quarry because Ed asked me to—I only vaguely knew the quarry was there. The story led the Sun-Times web site for most of the day, the public rapt to learn about the huge hole they've been driving by forever.
     So was I helping Ed, or was Ed helping me? Or a little of both, the truest definition of the Chicago way.
     Ed McElroy was a radio reporter for WJJD in the 1950s and 1960s, and as such has chatting up everyone from Martin Luther King to Jackie Kennedy. He has represented judicial candidates, police organizations. He visits dozens of small newspapers and brings them good news, literally.
     "We leave the bad news to the bigger papers," says Racinowski. "This is all just neighborhood news, meetings, stuff we feel people would be interested in, for their benefit."
     Some of that material comes from Ed, photographs of awards dinners, of the honor ceremonies. He drops them by, picking up stacks of paper to show his clients, always pausing to chat.
     "He's one of the nicest gentlemen you'll ever meet," says Racinowski. "Fantastic stories. I love listening to the older stories. "
     Like the story about his wedding.
     He married in 1955, two weeks after Richard J. Daley was elected. Ed had worked on Daley's unsuccessful 1948 campaign for mayor. But the outgoing mayor was his mother's friend, so some delicate negotiating was in order.
     "My mother came from 31st street, and so did Martin Kennelly," says Ed. "For eight years he was mayor, my mother knew him quite well. So Dad Daley gets elected, he's going to be an usher at my wedding. Then my mother said 'Edward, Mayor Kennelly has to be at your wedding.' I said, 'You know ma....' 'Edward, the mayor has to be at your wedding.' 'Okay mother, he'll be there.' So we worked it out. Kennelly came to the church and Dad Daley came to the reception.."
     By then he was announcing six-day bicycle races, female baseball leagues, and part of that was drumming up publicity.
     "I used to announce stock car races. An editor said, 'Ed, if you could get a picture I could run it.' People liked that I came around. then I got into more the public relations side."
     On the public relations side, Ed makes himself useful. He's driven several future presidents around Chicago.
     John F. Kennedy to name one.
     "In 1959 Dad Daley called me, said I want you to go out and pick up the senator from Massachusetts," remembers Ed. "I said what's his name? 'John Kennedy.' Don't mean a thing. What's he look like?" They ended up on Rush Street, for dinner and a few nightclubs.
      Barack Obama to name another.
     "This kid from Hyde Park gets elected state senator," says Ed. "Now I'm not in love with people from Hyde Park. That's where Despres comes from" — Leon Despres, 5th ward alderman and do-good reformer. Ed, being old Chicago, is no fan of do-good reform. "I'm not paying too much attention to Obama. [State senate president Emil] Jones says, 'Hey, be nicer to this guy.'"
     Ed told Jones, 'Well, he's one of yours, I don't like him."
     Still, Ed complied.
     "So I start being nice to him. I bump into Obama at this party, he's all alone. 'Where are you going?'' Home. 'I'll drive you home.' Drive him on a couple rounds of the district. Never a foul word. None of that cheap talk. As high class as could be. So I take him one day to Beverly Review."

Bob Olszweski Jr.
   "Barack Obama sat in this office right here," says Bob Olszewski Jr., the Beverly Review's editor-in-chief, in the cramped, shabby offices at 105th and Western. "Ed came by, wants us to meet this guy. 'Barry Obama!'' Yeah, whatever. Editors roll their eyes and cringe because you know, a lot of the stuff Ed sends out is PR. But there always somebody from the neighborhood or from the area, so I can justify it, and the help he has given us over at the paper ... whatever Ed McElroy wants around here, he pretty much gets."

     Ed also stops at the Crusader, at 6400 S. King Drive.
     "Ed knows everybody," says John L. Smith, the ad manager. "Ed is a great guy. Everybody in the neighborhood loves Ed. Been one of the few people who come and help every community. He does everything. He helps everybody. We have never, ever called him on anything and he did not respond. Ed has always been there. I don't remember when he wasn't."
     You don't have to ask Ed the secret to reaching 90. He has never had a drink or smoked a cigarette. Or drank a cup of coffee. Or gambled. Or chased skirts.
     "I played full court basketball three nights a week until I was 75 years old," Ed says.
     Still, at 90, there is a whiff of sadness.
     "Now almost all my friends are dead," says Ed.
     And the city has changed. Coming out of the Bridgeport News, he spies an orange parking ticket slapped on the windshield of his Cadillac.
     "A ticket on Halsted Street!" Ed marvels, as if he can't believe it.
     Still, despite the occasional indignity, Ed keeps scrambling, basically, because he always has.
     "Life is tough. My dad died when I was four years old. He died in 1930. There was my mother, with three boys, and what the hell does she do?"
     He makes both a living, and a lot of friends.
     "Ed McElroy is a fine American," says Olszweksi. "He knows life is about helping others and they'll help you....Ed came in and offered his help and he's done nothing but help us from the day we met him.... The old fashioned way. Go meet people. put the shoe leather in, get to know people, establish relationships... So there's a bunch of love out there for this man, I tell ya, a lot of people know him and love him. They don't make 'em like this anymore,"
Olszweksi turns to me.
     "How did you meet him?" he asks.
     "I've always known Ed," I reply.


  1. That final enigmatic comment says a lot.


  2. I"ll re-read that chapter.

  3. Meh. I'm sorry, but this guy sounds kind of tiresome.

    Ed, being old Chicago, is no fan of do-good reform...

    If "do-good reform" had more fans, maybe "old Chicago" wouldn't be in the trouble it is now.

    1. Yes, and if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.

    2. And if bread were as cheap as cynicism, no one would ever go hungry.

    3. Well, that reaction to a friendly, harmless tribute was pretty bitter, Scribe. Not that I don't get where you're coming from. But, I'm pretty sure that NS is in the "do-gooder" band of the political spectrum, yet he can still appreciate a guy for his good qualities. Okay by me, all things considered, and a nice piece. Especially given that he's 90.

      Now, I understand that "all politics is local." When somebody "came from 31st Street" and that's a deal-breaker because "Dad Daley" lived about 5 houses south of 35th Street, that really takes it to a whole new level! : ) We think politicians can be disagreeable today, but Daley and Kennelly, 2 Bridgeport Irish Democrats and the incoming and outgoing mayors, couldn't see fit to attend a wedding reception in each other's presence? Ouch!

    4. So true, Scribe, about the do gooders and more needed.


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