The Sears catalogue would arrive on the porch of our Berwyn bungalow, and we’d want to know which of its photos Dad had retouched at the office. He worked at the R.R. Donnelley’s & Sons printing company, located near Lake Michigan on Cermak Road. Donnelley’s stood, in the ’50s and ’60s, as one of the world’s largest printing companies, churning out Time and Life magazines, mail-order catalogues, telephone books, Sports Illustrated, and much to Dad’s moral consternation, Playboy.

Many of the families in our neighborhood would receive the Sears catalogues on the same days. The thick, fall and spring books comprised over 600 pages, displaying everything from clothing to hardware to appliances. 

But it was the Christmas catalogue’s arrival, filled with all the sparkling toys, that really got kids’ attention. Perusing its pages made possible my Christmas lists. I found my favorite holiday gift of all, the “Fighting Lady” battleship, in one of them.

Dad would explain which of the pictures he had fine-tuned. His editing focused on color and shading. We’d compliment and critique his handiwork. He’d explain how each photo’s colors actually arrived at his desk in multiple, overlaid negatives. Jumping past the technicalities, my sisters would press and tease him about which women’s underwear pages he might have had a hand in beautifying.

These review sessions with Dad helped make his work real to me, even though he carried it out at a place in the city which I only visited once or twice. He was loyal to Donnelley’s. His department formed a very good softball team that played at Grant Park. I’d watch some of the games, and got to know his teammates. Dad pitched and played left field; he threw “lefty” and batted “righty.”

When I was little, I was naïve enough to assume that somehow, the “R and R” in the company name had something to do with Dad and me; after all, he was Richard Sr., and I was Richard Jr. Maybe, I figured, the “& Sons” part referred to me and his co-workers’ boys.

So I was, for a few years at least, a little awestruck by what Dad did in his work.  He labored in this plant by the lake but made it seem close to home. 

By the time I was a dad, beginning in the late 1980s, first in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and then in Oak Park, it was easier to make my work tangible to my kids because I worked, in part, at home. I’d prepare for the Political Science classes I taught at Penn State; my daughter would push open the door, walk into my office in the basement, and ask if she could “type on my file.” Occasionally, I took her with me to campus. In the capitol, she and her brother, one of whom I was holding, appeared in a photo session with the governor and members of the policy council I staffed. 

After we had moved to Oak Park, my kids got to visit sites of projects in the city on which I worked. They helped in our vegetable garden, which became a subject of my writing. Two of them went with me on separate trips to Ethiopia, where I taught for a few years. With my research focused in part on the roles of families in community development, their presence infused that particular scholarly agenda with an intimate grounding in reality.

What a wonder it is now, then, that as a grandfather living in Chicago’s South Loop, I can take my 2-year-old granddaughter for a walk on the very sidewalk along which the now former Donnelley’s plant sits. Mayor Daley declared it a Chicago Landmark in 2004. Today, it houses insurance and tech companies, but Donnelley’s symbols and lettering still adorn its façade. I can see its tower from the 18th Street overpass, near Soldier Field. When my granddaughter is a little older, I’ll explain to her that in that building, years ago, my daddy made colorful pictures of toys that came in a great big book right to our house.

Rich Kordesh grew up in Berwyn, raised his kids in Oak Park, lives in Chicago, and will soon return to Oak Park.

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