John Armour shares a birthday with Martin Luther King Jr., but he turned 13 the day King was born and he's still going strong. In fact, we're willing to bet he's the oldest gainfully employed person in Oak Park.
At the age of 90, he's certainly the oldest park district employee. Which is why they threw a surprise party for him at the Ridgeland Common ice rink last Friday.
The ice rink/pool is where Armour works most of the time, answering phones, selling programs at the annual ice show, watching bikes during the swimming season, registering people for classes, generally being a bright and happy presence in a happy, lively place. In fact, he wouldn't work here if it weren't a happy place. Or is it that it's a happy place because he works here? That's what most of his other co-workers seem to think and aren't afraid to say so.
"He comes to work rain or shine with a smirk on his face," said assistant manager Jenny Berni. "He's a good jokester, most of them unprintable."
When John retired, back in the early 1980s, he didn't want to sit around, and he couldn't play golf in the winter, so one of his neighbors, Nancy Norton, who was on the park board at the time, told him about the ice rink. He became a frequent patron of the free noon skate, aka "the nooners," mostly senior citizens. So frequent, in fact, manager Bill Hamilton offered him a job as a skate guard in 1987. He's been working part-time for the park district since.
"He hasn't lost a step," said Hamilton.
A short, stocky man with an easy smile, expressive face, and resonant speaking voice, he walks with a cane, but otherwise, his demeanor and physical appearance belie his 90 years. When his co-workers spring the surprise, his face registers delight.
"I'm impressed," he says. "I'm overcome. Gosh. Awesome, absolutely awesome."
His co-workers enjoy his company because he's a good storyteller, and after nine decades, he's accrued plenty of material. Born at West Sub Hospital, he's lived his whole life in Oak Park. Believe it or not, he was present when the Scoville Park War Memorial was dedicated and unveiled in 1924. He remembers hearing John C. Dawes, Vice President of the United States, deliver the address.
"The place was packed," Armour recalls. "Don't ask me what he said."
He graduated from OPRF High School, class of '34 ("the best class they ever graduated," he says with conviction) and served in the Navy during WWII, first sailing on an aviation fuel tanker to Alaska, then stationed in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, and finally was taking an ammunition barge from New York through the Panama Canal to the Philippines when the war ended, just as he arrived in San Francisco.
A salesman by trade (food service equipment), he lived with his wife of 52 years on the 200 block of South Elmwood and raised two kids there.
"My wife said we lived in the best country in the best state in the best town on the best block in the best house," Armour recalled. If she didn't say it, he would have. At one point they had 72 children, elementary-school age and younger on the block.
In case you haven't noticed, John Armour tends to accentuate the positive. And he likes to spend his time in positive places.
"This is a vibrant, active, youthful atmosphere," he said of the Ridgeland Common fieldhouse. "For me it's very exciting."
In fact, he kidded his boss when Hamilton turned 40 that he might have to look for a job elsewhere. "He told me, 'You guys are getting too old. I'm only here for the youthful exuberance.'" recalls Hamilton.
"I still have my own teeth, a good heart, and I keep a good attitude. Otherwise I'm shot," Armour said with a smile. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer 10 years ago, which spread to bone cancer. He shrugs it off.
"I was treated for both. I go to physical therapy three times a week. I still get around."
Now he lives with his daughter in the high-rise to the north of the public library facing Scoville Park.
"I look down on the tennis courts. I used to play a lot of tennis. I see the kids smoking pot behind the statue," he says with a laugh.
After receiving a giant birthday card and having his plate loaded with food, he tells me, "As long as they think I can make a contribution, I'm happy here. You should spend a whole day here sometime. It's unbelievable the things that can happen."