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For the last 20 or so third Sundays in October, Doug Deuchler, 67, has played a famous — or infamous — corporeal version of the deceased for an afternoon at Forest Home Cemetery, to help set a Halloween mood.
But he's not playing your average seasonal vampire or zombie. Rather, he willingly serves as a spokesman for the dead — some local legend who momentarily returns to life through the award-winning, docent-led Tale of the Tombstones annual cemetery walk, sponsored by the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest in the history-packed resting grounds at 863 Desplaines Avenue in Forest Park.
Deuchler's longstanding relationship with all this began in 1990 when he was doing research for a play about Grace Hayward, local suffragist and actress, using the society's trove of resources. The opening night of his play, Kick Up Your Heels, doubled as a fundraiser for the group and Deuchler was asked to join the board of directors.
In 1991, the year the cemetery tour debuted, he stepped up to his first tombstone as a presenter in period costume.
Over the next couple of decades, he says, "there have been all these wonderfully committed people, such as Laurel McMahon, who knows everything, and can tell you more about the people in the cemetery than she can about current people living here. She began to pull characters out of the cemetery, since she is so skillful at this, and between Laurel and Frank [Lipo], they would put together a theme."
This year's was "Survivor!"
In 2013, the tour's 22nd year, Deuchler (pronounced Dy-kler) was asked to emulate a young German newspaper editor named Michael Schwab, an anarchist who escaped the noose when other Haymarket radicals didn't. Even so, he spent years in prison.
"He was 33 years old, and I am going to be 67 this week. I am twice his age … but it's acting, show business. It was a fun character. I was on the Internet, listening to a YouTube thing about how to do a German accent, trying to pull up my grandparents in my head, but they are not talking to me yet." Maybe that's because, while they did speak German, his grandparents were born here and had no accent, so channeling them wouldn't be much help.
More than three faces of Doug
In the Oak Park home where he and his wife Nancy have resided for 40 years, the Deuchlers' walls are covered in artful memorabilia, and he readily acknowledges he has way too many piles of books.
"My three kids keep saying, 'It's like hoarders are living here.' You know, I keep liquidating the books every summer, but I don't know … we still have piles of them everywhere," says Deuchler, who was born in Elgin, out along the Fox River. "I was an English teacher for 1,000 years, and then a librarian, and Nancy managed Barbara's Bookstore. So books were always coming into the house faster than they were going out. The kids used to always cry, 'Are we just going to get books at Christmas?' I always love books as presents, you know."
Around town and through his writing, courtesy of the Oak Park Public Library, another of his frequent haunts, Deuchler could be described as an educator journalist. He has written theater reviews for Wednesday Journal since 1982, moderated numerous film series at the library, and has been a longtime docent for the Wright Preservation Trust.
In addition, he has written five plays for local theater groups, performed as a stand-up comic, and has just released his sixth Arcadia book, Local Legends, which features profiles and pictures of 126 past and present noteworthy Oak Parkers. The paperback book is available at the Historical Society (a portion of the proceeds benefits them), as well as the Book Table, Mancini's Restaurant, the Oak Park Visitors Center, and any of the Walgreens in the community.
Raising the dead
When asked to rattle off a few of his favorite deceased characters, Deuchler pauses and pulls Ferdinand Haase, the founder of Forest Park, out of his memory vault, then laughs as he notes there has also been a long line of "Adolph."
"Anyone who knows him, even a little bit, knows Doug is such a knowledgeable person about history — not just Oak Park and River Forest History, but a broader history — and I think he brings a historical perspective to the roles he plays," says Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society. "Obviously on the tour there are people from Oak Park and River Forest, our core area, but we do try and make it a much broader thing when more people are brought to our attention … or we say, 'Here's someone we haven't had on the walk for 10 years. Let's go back to them.' There are various themes that makes it natural to do that."
Over the years, Deuchler has discovered that the most popular roles have been anonymous gravediggers and Victorian undertakers because people find funeral customs of the 19th century fascinating, especially the way it was all handled in the home.
"In Victorian times, when people died, they were laid out in the parlor. The wake was a custom created based on the fear that people would actually be buried alive," says Deuchler, who currently teaches film classes at two community colleges, as well as Facets Multimedia in Chicago.
He surmises that this is because back then undertakers were usually furniture makers, who would "undertake the making of the coffin, undertake renting out the chairs mourners sat in, undertake creating a bulletin," and so on, he says.
On the other hand, embalming — the art and science of temporarily preserving human remains — originated in Egypt, and became a sought-after practice in this country during the Civil War when "embalming the soldiers enabled the family to bring them home from far, far away so they could at least see them one more time," Deuchler observes.
Another favorite character is Dr. Ben Reitman, the Jewish physician who was called the "hobo doctor." He was best known as radical Emma Goldman's lover, who is also buried in the Haymarket section of Forest Home Cemetery. There is also Oscar Neebe, a Haymarket radical, and, of course, all those Adolphs he alluded to earlier.
"Let's see, I played Adolph Luetgert, the 'Sausage Murderer,' who cooked his wife in the rendering vat of his sausage works in 1896 — three times. Then I also played Adolph Westphal, a brewer who had to go into soda pop bottling due to the Temperance Movement; and Adolph Strasser, a "cigar-roller" who became a labor leader in the cigar-makers union. Every male smoked cigars in the late 19th century. They were more popular than cigarettes," Deuchler says.
During one of his repeat performances of Luetgert, a woman on the tour became his biggest fan, which at first was a bit unnerving he recalls.
"She announced she was the great-granddaughter of Adolph Luetgert … and she stayed there with me for five or six tour groups, just listening to me give my monologue," Deuchler says. He couldn't help but wonder if he would be hearing from the family's lawyer the next morning.
Instead, at the end she told him he had made her great-grandfather come alive for her. "I was relieved. But it was very odd," he remembers.
In the "spirit" of what will be, Lipo says next year's Tale of the Tombstones will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which will provide a new opportunity for in-depth storytelling.
"I am not an actor at all," Deuchler says. "I just kind of learn the script and become that character. All those people buried around me had a story and a life. This gives a few of them a chance to speak again. At this time of the year, we do start to think about cemeteries — the Day of the Dead in Mexico [for example] — and this falls into that."
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