Saturday, December 12, 2015

"Training for the marathon of life"

Therese Schmidt
In my career, I've found myself in some odd positions trying to research a story: hitting the beach with Marine Reserves on maneuvers on the coast of California. Climbing a communications mast atop the John Hancock with the men who were changing the light bulbs on it. Interviewing a nurse who was giving me a prostate exam. Tied naked to a St. Andrew's cross at a dungeon. 
      This story really stands out, because it required running along the subterranean streets under the Loop with Therese Schmidt, watching her deliver packages for her store, Atlas Stationers.  She really moves, wasn't about to delay her deliveries just because she had company, and I struggled to keep up while jotting down her comments as we ran. 
    I go to Atlas all the time, for all my office supply needs, and always stop to chat with Therese if she's in the store and realized, last time we did, that with the cold weather coming on, eventually, I should  post this story. Every business owner should be so determined to serve customers. 

     'This is where the dead guy was," Therese Schmidt calls over her shoulder, taking a quick right at Post Place and hitting Lower Wacker Drive at a brisk trot.
     She gestures at a gathering of dumpsters underneath 205 W. Wacker, where a corpse once turned up, while pushing a cart of $2,000 in office supplies: toner cartridges, binders, batteries, bubble wrap.
     It's Thursday, just past 8 a.m.
     Schmidt, 53, delivers office supplies for Atlas Stationers. She's also co-owner; her husband's grandfather founded Atlas in 1939. Nevertheless, five days a week she spends hours sprinting around downtown Chicago, fulfilling the store's promise, posted on a sign in the window of its Lake Street store: "Free Loop Delivery."
     "I always run when I'm making deliveries," she says.
     Then again, she always runs when she's not making deliveries - she ran two miles already today, about 4:30 a.m. around her neighborhood in Lake Villa, before coming downtown to run more.
     And sometimes, to unwind after running in the early morning and at midday, she'll run again in the evening, on a treadmill at home.
     She has run when it was 30 degrees below zero and 105 above. When the blizzard struck last February she ran behind a snow plow.
     "I never miss it," says Schmidt, who was a three-sport athlete at Morgan Park High School. When her four children were in athletics, she'd drive them to practice, and run until they were done.
     "I run every day," she says. "I run through sprained ankles. I've had minor surgery I've run through. All our vacations. It's one of those things. If you don't run you're afraid you won't run again."
     So she never skips a day? "Not 100 percent," admits Schmidt, estimating that, over the past five years, she has not run on a total of five days. Otherwise, she averages between four and 10 miles a day.
     Why run? That's complicated.
     At 222 N. LaSalle, Schmidt transfers 14 packages from her hand cart to the basement loading dock - these buildings are meant to accept deliveries from trucks, not runners. She chats with the guard at the desk, chats with the men in the mail room accepting the packages.
     "How you doin' today?" she says. "Nice to see you." By 8:20 a.m. she is sprinting back to Atlas along Lower Wacker. Crime doesn't worry her —"Cameras!" she says. She picks up another two orders, already packed on a smaller cart — $17.39 worth of vinyl covered paper clips and $109.73 in mailing labels — heading to two law firms at 1 E. Wacker.
     Schmidt is not one of those inner-focused runners oblivious to the world. She notices and ponders everything as she passes it by, such as a knot of half a dozen homeless men sprawled at Garvey Court.
     "Those guys are always out there sleeping; I feel bad for them," she says, though giving them a wide berth. "You just don't know if they're schizophrenic or not."

   She spies an inert form under a blue and white quilt on Lower Wacker, wrapped head to toe in plastic, and stops to investigate.
     "Is there someone in there?" she says. "I feel bad, all these guys. They came from somewhere."
     As Schmidt runs, she lets her mind roam too; this morning about veterans and post-traumatic stress. "How could they not all have it?" she thinks. About atheists. "They must have faith," she muses, "in their atheism."
     At 1 E. Wacker, a lady in a green scarf gets on the elevator.
     "Hello, how are you doing?" Schmidt says. "That's a pretty scarf. It looks great on you."
     "Thank you," the lady says, adding, "I wish it was Friday."
     "Well, it's almost there," Schmidt replies brightly. "It's Thursday. Thursday's good because tomorrow's Friday."
     "She always upbeat," says Bryan, who works security in the lobby at 1 E. Wacker. "It's always good to see her smiling face."
     Schmidt has a degree in economics from Knox College in Galesburg.
     She shrugs off some ribald humor overheard on an elevator.
     "I have five brothers," she says, and two sisters. She now includes one who died when just a few days old.
     "It wasn't until Daley," she says. "He always talked about, always included, his one son who died, Kevin. Once he did that, my sister and I started to acknowledge our little sister Francine."
     Gozdecki, Del Giudice, Americus & Farkas; Pfaff & Gill; The National Association of Charter School Authorizers; Michael B. Rosen Architect.
     She hands over her driver's license, chatting happily with a variety of guards, some stern, some smiling. She unpacks her cart to put each package through a metal detector. She is given temporary passes, buzzed through doors.
     "You're always smiling," a secretary says to her.
     "Well, it's always a good day," she answers.

     Floor 17. Floor 33. She used to design offices for a living. She just made a sale to a company she was delivering something to after observing that their chairs would wreck the new carpets. They ordered 10 vinyl floor mats; she delivered them the next day.
     "They're all really nice," she says, of the people she interacts with. "People don't realize, they're working two jobs. Some are going to school. One girl on Hubbard has three jobs. . . . But extremely nice."
     Schmidt notices nuances. "The building moves," she says, standing still, for once, in the lobby of Willis Tower — and it does, you can feel vibration under your feet.
     She hands out yellow gel highlighters to three security guards in gray blazers at the front desk.
     "Look where this is going!" says Omar, genuinely delighted, tucking the pen into his sportscoat. "Thanks, you made our day. I love it. We ALWAYS need highlighters!"
     "It's a Uni-ball," Schmidt says upstairs, offering a pen.
     "Oooooh," the law clerk enthuses. "It feels really nice."
     "It's a great pen," Schmidt says. "Of course, if you need 100 of them, you know where to go."
     She runs full bore down Adams, heading west, past the J.W. Hotel, and thinks about Occupy Chicago, coming up quickly.
     "I kinda feel bad for them," she says. "They need some direction. Everyone needs a leader."
     Schmidt feeds off the energy of those she encounters - the only time her mood sags is upstairs at the Monadnock Building, its hallways shadowy and dim.
     "You always feel like a church in this building, because it's so quiet," she says, striding on the 16th floor.
     Returning from the Monadnock, she turns on the gas, rounds Jackson and cuts north on La Salle, passing the three, count 'em, three Occupy Chicago protesters.
     At Monroe, running hard, she notes a homeless man and his "homeless dog" who used to always be there when she passed.
     "I get kind of nervous, thinking what happened to them," she says.
     There are hills in the Loop - not just down to Lower Wacker, but also at Franklin to the River.
     "You don't even notice it," she says. "It's a slight hill. You don't notice it until you're pushing some weight, when you're doing 500 pounds of paper."

     By 1 p.m. she has done 17 deliveries. When not running, she's in the office of the store, where her son Brian also works. "The time goes by so fast," she says. She'll slip out at 3 p.m. for an 18th delivery.
     Why all the running? She had plantar fascitis once, she says, both feet, "before anyone knew what it was."
     "I could not do anything," she says. "Two years. I used a cane." Surgery cleared that up. "Once I could run, I never wanted to stop. I'm always afraid my feet will start hurting again."
     But that isn't the main reason she runs. Running does her heart good, literally.
     "My dad was 47 years old," she says. "He had a heart attack and died in front of me. I was 16. That was a little traumatic."
     "That's why she runs," her husband, Don, adds.
     "Nothing's ever as bad as that," she says, smiling. "I'm training for the marathon of life."

                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 4, 2011


  1. Noting the photo, I thought this was going to be another obituary for a business murdered by the big guys, but I can see Atlas will run forever, for who would go on line for stationery and lose a friend like Therese Schmidt.


  2. On rare occasions I've been forced to go to Office Depot, usually on the weekend to get a printer cartridge when I need to print something that just has to get out ASAP. And I feel like I'm cheating on Atlas Stationers, and go to great lengths -- stockpiling supplies -- to avoid the chance of that occurring.

  3. What a remarkable woman! We could use a lot more people like her, in this world.

  4. (SandyK here, with my new moniker).

    I remember this column, and glad to see it posted here.

    Hope the regulars will be signing up for this new format.

  5. Great people - great store. They have so much packed into that place. I go there for my greeting cards and always find a few other things I didn't know I needed!


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