Aftermath of '67 snow: hard work, play

'Everybody was helping each other'

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By Bill Dwyer

Editor's note: This story first ran in January of 2007 on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 blizzard.

From Jan. 26 to Feb. 23, 1967 over 38 inches of snow fell on the Oak Park and River Forest area. Between storms, temperatures whipsawed from highs in the 40s to lows well below zero. Winds hit as high as 62 mph.

On Jan. 29, after the initial dump of 23 inches, an additional three inches of snow fell in Oak Park, followed by six more on Feb. 5. The snow is said to have caused the greatest disruption of Chicago area commerce since the great fire in 1871.

Once the snow stopped, most people, especially kids, made the best of it. With many of life's presumed realities temporarily suspended, people had the opportunity to look about and see the world in a different light. There were challenges, but there was also a lot of play.

Running through all of the stories is a sense as deep as the snow that fell back during that late January that what they were experiencing was something one-of-a kind--and something to be remembered.

My mother, Patricia Dwyer, recalls listening to Wally Phillip's weatherman, Roger Triemstra, telling listeners around 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 26 that they could expect no more than flurries that day. By 7 a.m., when my father walked out to the station wagon to head to work, the snow was flying horizontally. It would take him seven hours to return from work on the northwest side, a trip that usually required 20 minutes.

How the storm struck you depended largely on whether you were an adult or a kid. Adults and teens shoveled, while younger kids built massive snowmen and burrowed tunnels through the deep snow. Throughout the villages, kids ran across the tops of suddenly very accessible garage roofs and flung themselves giddily into huge snow drifts.

Tom Grundin, now executive director of the River Forest Park District, recalls being an excited grade-schooler at St. Luke in River Forest, delighted at the return of snow on Jan. 26 after a warm spell. Walking home and back eight blocks each way during the lunch hour, he wondered hopefully along his with friends if the deepening snow might prove to be a rare and welcome "snow day," canceling school.

At the very least, Grundin hoped it would provide an opportunity to suspend the nun's strict rules regarding tardiness. He and the others dawdled about in the blizzard as only kids do, returning to class 20 minutes late. Unfortunately, as Grundin and his little snow-caked colleagues trudged frostily into the school, they were roundly castigated by the ever-strict taskmasters in black.

"The fact that we were practically walking snowmen made absolutely no difference to the dear sisters. They accepted no excuse," Grundin recalled.

For the rest of the long three-day weekend, the incline along the embankment of the Soo Line railroad tracks was a popular destination for dozens of area kids, who spent happy hours sliding down its side. Modern liability concerns and risk management practices were not an issue.

Ed Polfus spent 30 years on the Oak Park police force, the last 10 as the beat cop in the Oak Park Avenue/Lake Street area. He was an eighth-grader living on Menard Avenue near Madison Street in '67. After classes let out at Resurrection School that afternoon, he walked over to the old two-flat his family still owned near Jackson Boulevard and Leamington to get the mail and check on the empty house.

"I remember looking out the kitchen window and seeing the snow piling up over the chain link fence in the backyard," Polfus recalled. When he walked out of the house and looked down to Jackson Boulevard, he saw the CTA bus pulling up through the swirling snow. He thought, "I better get on that bus, or it's gonna be a long walk home."

Polfus said the most indelible memory from that time was the city trucks piling the snow sky high in Columbus Park.

"I'll never forget those piles of snow," said Polfus. "Must have been three, four stories high."

Another Oak Park cop, Ed Hadac, lived across the alley from Wednesday Journal Publisher Dan Haley on the 700 block of Lombard. He vividly recalled the family dog standing on top of the garage, having walked up a snow drift. He also recalled walking over to the old Pan's Grocery on Harrison to buy a few necessities.

"There was nothing there," he said. "It all went 'Pfft!'"

"The stores were empty," agreed Polfus. "No milk, bread, whatever."

Laying in provisions

Tom Brouder had better luck on Saturday at the Jewel Store on Madison. A young property manager and newlywed living on Washington Boulevard, he bought groceries for both himself and his parents and two brothers in Westchester on Saturday morning, then drove the food out to them.

"They couldn't get out. I drove up Roosevelt."

His brother walked two blocks to meet him. Despite the snow and unplowed streets, Brouder said he had no problems getting to work downtown the next day in his large, heavy Ford. He took secondary streets, though.

"Not the Eisenhower," he said. "You stayed the hell away from that."

Peggy and Irv Studney, who have lived at Clinton Avenue and Harrison Street overlooking the Eisenhower since before it was built, extended a helping hand to numerous commuters defeated by the blizzard that Thursday. The Studneys' house is the only one actually facing the expressway, and Peggy recalls a succession of "very tired, very discouraged" drivers who found themselves stranded on the Ike, far from home as the snow piled into drifts across the roadway and over the tops of their suddenly useless cars.

"There was just a low wire fence [at the top of the incline], and people were hopping it," she recalled. For all their misfortune, those motorists couldn't have found better hosts.

"We just gave them what we had in the house. A cup of coffee or some sustenance or some help," she said. A telephone, too.

No help pushing any cars, though. They would remain solidly stuck in the snow for days.

"There were cars all over at funny angles," Studney recalled.

Friday morning, when the relentless snowfall finally ceased, as people rode sleds and toboggans down the incline and across the expressway, Studney trekked down with her kids.

"I told them, 'This is the first and the last time in your life you'll walk down the center of the Eisenhower,'" she recalled. And they did just that, trudging from Clinton Avenue to Harlem Avenue, past buried vehicles through deep snow.

She also recalled buying milk from stranded milk delivery trucks throughout the neighborhood.

"Right from the drivers," she said.

Her fondest memory, however, is the silence. No fan of the expressway or its noise, she relished the stillness.

"It was a glorious feeling to have silence. Complete and dead silence, instead of the roar of the traffic," she said

Above and beyond

Not everyone was home from work, of course.

Friday, Jan. 27 was an ordeal for Oak Park police officers Paul McCloskey and Jim Stryker. Shortly after 6 p.m., the officers were called to transport a pregnant woman just down the street from the Studneys. The officers managed to travel up Harrison as far as East Avenue.

"We were unable to continue westward due to the terrific amount of snow from a past blizzard the past couple of days," they wrote in their report. Stryker got out and ran through the snow to where the woman--in labor and accompanied by her husband--were slogging through knee-deep snow. Her contractions were two minutes apart by the time they arrived at the hospital.

Shortly after 8 o'clock, Stryker and McCloskey were dispatched to North and Harlem avenues to pick up a sick child from the Chicago police and transport the child to Oak Park Hospital. Just as they arrived at the hospital, their squad car's battery went dead. Unable to re-start the engine, they told their Chicago counterparts to radio for another car, then sat back "for quite some time," awaiting their own rescue.

Earlier that morning, Monroe Sullivan was shoveling snow around his house in the 1100 block of South Scoville when his very pregnant wife, Fran, stepped out on the porch and gestured that it was time to head to the hospital. Unfortunately, their doctor, who lived in River Forest, was totally snowbound, unable to get out of his house even to visit his own son at St. Anne Hospital in Chicago. So the Sullivans called the Oak Park police.

"We got another one," Monroe Sullivan recalls the police dispatcher calling out to his colleagues. After making arrangements with their neighbors to watch their three children, Monroe and Fran waded through deep, rutted snow half a block to reach the squad car at East Avenue and Fillmore for transport to Oak Park Hospital.

"The neighbors were wonderful," said Fran Sullivan. "It was wonderful to have such a friendly neighborhood around us."

The elements were another matter.

"It was unbelievable," Monroe Sullivan said of the snow. "It was waist deep."

Fran Sullivan said she was fine until the officer turned on the squad's siren.

"It was so loud," she recalled. "I told people later, 'Now I know why so many babies are delivered in squad cars.'"

But not Fran's. Five hours later at 4:45 p.m., the Sullivan's last child, Patrick Gannon Sullivan, nicknamed "The Blizzard Baby," was born.

The city newspapers were keenly aware of history literally piling up around them. The Tribune's editorial, production and circulation staffs geared up for the herculean task of putting out the next day's paper in the teeth of the storm's full fury. The Trib rented dozens of rooms at downtown hotels for staffers. Reporters and photographers were dispatched throughout the city to capture over two dozens stories for the next morning's edition, along with numerous photos.

No one, it seemed, was spared the job of confronting the storm. Mike Royko's Jan. 27 column in the Daily News recounted his experience of losing his little red sports car in a snow drift and wandering about lost and freezing, with the snow caking his glasses, until he finally found refuge in a small diner. After some hot coffee, Royko stumbled six blocks to the el, where he said he practically kissed the conductor in relief. Reaching the lobby of the Daily News building at 1 a.m., deliriously happy to be safe and warm, he hugged his typewriter.

The Tribune's Jan. 27 editions were produced and printed despite staffers being unable to get to work. Some circulation drivers worked 18-hour shifts, battling fatigue, stranded vehicles and snowdrifts. Distribution of newspapers to outlying areas was disrupted for days. Circulation drivers slept in locker rooms and lunchrooms--even washrooms. One driver, from Lake Geneva, Wis., spent two weeks at the garage before heading home.

Rick Meegan, who still lives on the 700 block of Wisconsin, was one of those Tribune drivers. The 48-year circulation veteran worked Thursday and Friday night on the late edition runs down Halsted and Ashland avenues as far south as 79th Street. Friday night on his way back downtown he picked up several people on Ashland near 79th Street who'd been waiting for a bus.

"They were there for hours stranded," said Meegan, whose impromptu passengers included a Chicago cop who'd left his home in Orland Park Thursday morning. For over 30 hours he'd struggled to reach his station house at Racine and Chicago.

As Meegan and his passengers approached the Eisenhower Expressway overpass at Ashland, they saw a circle of abandoned buses.

"Don't stop, keep going," Meegan recalled the police officer saying. But Meegan had to stop. When he did, he said, it was just seconds before over a dozen youths began making their way toward the truck from several directions. The cop, riding next to Meegan, stepped outside, drew his pistol, and fired two shots into the air. The men scattered.

When he finally reached home, Meegan was greeted by a sight repeated throughout the village.

"Everyone was out shoveling," he said. There were, by Meegan's count, 60 kids in his neighborhood (nicknamed "Fertile Valley"). All were out working.

"The neighbors all got together, and everyone shoveled," he said. "Everybody was out. There were two women in their 70s. They were shoveling."

Entrepreneurship

Nancy Dillon, now a River Forest village trustee, was a young mother and school teacher who braved the storm after classes let out Thursday and ventured out with two friends to her graduate school class at UIC. Unbeknownst to her, classes had been cancelled.

"We were the only ones there," she said. "By that time it was getting really bad," she said. "I was a nervous wreck." Dillon got back home to River Forest safely, and stayed there for three days, though she did venture out for groceries, walking down the middle of Lake Street to the Jewel.

"It was a friendly time, everybody helping each other," she recalled. "Everybody was in the same boat. And you saw people you wouldn't normally see during the winter because they were at work."

Mary Tansey, now the admissions director at Trinity High School, was in seventh grade at St. Giles in Oak Park. Her favorite memory is her father placing a ladder against the garage and letting them climb on the roof.

"We slid down the roof and into a huge snow drift," she recalled. "There was a line at that ladder. There must have been 20 of us. You're not cold when you're little," she observed. "My mom made pots and pots of hot chocolate. Everybody was going in and out."

The massive snow fall was a boon for numerous entrepreneurs. When William Dwyer, Sr. finally got home Thursday evening, he immediately set out for Polk Brothers Appliances on North Avenue to buy a snowblower. He got the last one available, a monster of a machine, with double-digit horsepower that cost a then-steep price of $300.

With his three oldest sons in tow, all armed with shovels, he stopped on Bonnie Brae in River Forest. Amazingly, the street was largely cleared Thursday night. Driveways and sidewalks, however, were a distinctly different story. My dad recalled wondering how he was going to proceed with his new business opportunity.

"I thought to myself, I've never done this before." Then a man came running out of his house waving a fist full of currency, shouting, "Do mine first! Do mine first!"

"I have no idea what to charge you," my dad admitted a bit sheepishly.

"Look, I'm a business man," the homeowner replied. "We'll negotiate. I'm going to give you a figure--$60."

"$80," my dad countered.

"Deal!" the man said.

So began two and a half very busy days of clearing snow. There was so much work that we never left Bonnie Brae. People were coming out and making reservations.

Monday morning, nearly $1,000 richer, my dad returned to Polk Brothers to pay off the snowblower.

Reader Comments

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Barbara from Orlando  

Posted: February 3rd, 2011 8:09 PM

More pictures! Great article.

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