Sunday, June 14, 2020

One last phone call from Burt Natarus

Burt Natarus (Photo by Richard Chapman/Used with permission)

     I was about to begin this sentence, "Most aldermen..." when I stopped, realizing that I have no idea what most aldermen are like. I rarely hear their names, never mind learn them, and seem to get by fine. Only the oddballs stand out, whether former power broker Ed Burke, or hat-wearing Dorothy Tillman, or serial nepotist Dick Mell. Occasionally I'd encounter one merely in the performance of his duties—Joe Moore, Matt O'Shea. I think I liked them best, regular guys getting stuff done. 
     Then there was Burt Natarus, the oddest of the oddballs. I have to admit, when I saw the Sun-Times obit Fridy, my reaction was, "Oh no, not Burt Natarus ... was he still alive?" Then again, indignity followed Natarus wherever he went, quacking like a pull-toy duck.

     "Neil? Burt Natarus . . . All you have to do is call that guy in charge of bridges and paint 'Irv Kupcinet' on the side of the Wabash Bridge. The other thing I want to ask you if you think I could get my ode to Maggie printed. I think it would be a nice gesture and a kind thing to do."
     There is no official post of ex-alderman. Yet attention, to quote Arthur Miller, must be paid. So I was happy to get a phone call from Natarus, for 36 years the vivacious representative of the 42nd Ward, whose bold vision helped build Chicago into the global city that it is today (OK, OK, a cantankerous machine loyalist known for suggesting we put diapers on horses, but I thought, at least let the poor guy have a moment).
     "I have a copy of the ordinance. Dec. 23, 1985. I was one of the floor leaders. We got Harold Washington to sponsor an ordinance naming the Wabash Avenue Bridge the 'Irv Kupcinet Bridge.' I don't think that designation has been taken away. All they have to do is paint the side of the bridge. All you have to do is get a hold of the new transportation director. Get him on the phone: Kemp, his name is, or Kremp."
     Gabe Klein. Easier said than done. I've been calling for a week now. Nada.
     "I think, with your influence, you could make it happen—by the way you are a good writer, but you have a mean streak."
     Thank you, though "mean" is a matter of perspective. Maybe it's a mean world and I just reflect it. Besides, it can be difficult to decide: whither meanness, wither kindness.
     "You gotta do me a favor. I wrote a poem about Maggie. I sent it in under a letter to the editor. I want them to publish the poem. I'll tell you why it isn't being published: I don't think your editor likes me."
     No! How could that be? Let's look at "Ode to Maggie," shall we—and I think this perfectly illustrates the mean/kind conundrum. His poem begins:

"Oh, sweet, beautiful, brilliant ladyIn sadness and in grief, you have leftyour beloved, Richard, our Gaelic leaderfor the heavens and your maker."
     Now is it kindness or cruelty to print that? Is it mercy to stop? Or to continue:
"In gratitude we thank you for being youand giving us so much of yourself andfor us: Noble love! mutual respect."
     Frankly, I have to stop here, out of concern someone will think I'm making fun of Maggie Daley, when to be honest I'm just amazed at the virtuosity of Natarus' tribute—aldermen of today certainly jostle each other to stand up and sing the mayor's praises, but they can't touch a candle to the elaborate, fulsome paean to the Daley divinity that an old master can perform. That itself is worth a bridge, or at least a plaque. I couldn't have been more surprised if I heard one of those shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits knocks on my door, looked up and saw Hinky Dink Kenna in a paisley vest and bowler hat.
     "I drafted the ordinance covering the railroad tracks, to what became Millennium Park. I passed it, got my friends on board. I'm the one who first put in the ordinance. Maggie liked that. Maggie never forgot that when she got sick I wrote her a couple letters. She wrote me some beautiful letters back. I told myself I would write her a poem. I call it 'Ode to Maggie,' you know 'ode,' O-D-E, you know these ancient odes, John Keats, who can understand it?"
     He kept going; I think he expected me to interrupt, but I was having fun just listening.
     "I talk too much. How are you? How's your . . . mentality?"
     I said I'm fine; I could tell my answer frustrated him, but he let it go. I asked his age.
     "I'm 79. I walk. I sold my car. I walk wherever I go. I live by Ontario Street. Everybody that attacks TIFs don't realize this was once a warehouse district when I was a big shot."
     Why bring the Kup bridge up now?
     "I bring it up now because I walk around and see the other bridge, the Lyric bridge, has a sign on it, but this doesn't have 'Irv Kupcinet' on it. Kup was a great guy. Kup was really something else. He was really great. The bridge . . . just put it in gold, 'Irv Kupcinet Bridge.' That's all. They should put up that sign. That's all I want. I don't want it to be referred to anymore as the Wabash Avenue Bridge. I want it to be the Irv Kupcinet Bridge and that's it."
     He didn't ask my opinion, but I think that, while Kup indeed was a great guy, Mr. Chicago, that a bronze statue on Wacker Drive is also honor aplenty. Still, I told Burt Natarus that I would do what I can, and I have.

            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, December 18, 2011 


  1. Gotta love the old timers — they don’t beat around the bush, especially if they are aldermen. Love your Chicago stories. Bet there’s nothing you haven’t seen or heard!

  2. I'm in the natarus camp on the sometimes you are mean thing.

  3. I find "the elaborate, fulsome paean to the Daley divinity that an old master can perform. That itself is worth a bridge, or at least a plaque" inspiring. We should dedicate Obsequientennial Park, a site for plaques honoring the likes of Ald. Natarus when it's time for their logrolling honors.

  4. “Mean streak” = tough love?


  5. I recall they referred to him as "Burton, my ears are hurtin'" Natarus. You're column kind of solidified that. But he never was guilty of being boring. Very entertaining. I believe you could call him a Legend among aldermans.

  6. This almost made me kind of like the guy -- "diapers on horses"! -- whom I never heard of until now. He did seem to be an exasperating bore and annoyance at times, but he probably knew it and simply couldn't change. Maybe he would even appreciate this blog post: better to be remembered for something than be forgotten altogether :)

  7. One of the more interesting personalities on the public stage (and the theatrical one) during my adult years in Chicago (mid-70s to early 90s). A very colorful character. They don't make aldermen like Burt Natarus anymore.

  8. kgander for the win. "Obsequientennial Park" indeed.


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