Local legends

You can't fit them all in one book

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter

By Doug Deuchler


Frankly, I feel a little weird writing about my new book, Legendary Locals of Oak Park, just released by Arcadia Publications. Chatting about my work in these pages is obviously self-serving, but it wasn't my idea. I was asked to do so. Besides, a) I'm proud of the book, b) I think it's really fun, c) readers may get a deeper appreciation for our community because of it, and d) half the profits go to the Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest. So nobody had to ask me to do this twice!

Oak Park was never just an anonymous bedroom suburb. From its earliest days, its 4.6 square miles have been a veritable hothouse for the cultivation of noteworthy individuals. The village has produced several governors, a presidential assassin, a Miss America, an astronaut, various Pulitzer Prize winners, movie actors and TV stars, plus an amazing assortment of inventors, scientists, mobsters and musicians. Oak Parkers have changed the course of American literature and architecture, they have discovered sickle cell anemia, coronary thrombosis, and synthetic cortisone; they have altered traditional sociological perceptions about changing neighborhoods. They have given the rest of the world yo-yos, Big Macs, Twinkies, Tarzan, Lincoln Logs, blood banks, and slot machines.

I have written five other publications for Arcadia, a company that apparently will never rest until every neighborhood and village in the United States has its own Arcadia book! My first was Oak Park in Vintage Postcards, which was followed by books on Cicero, Berwyn, Maywood, and Brookfield Zoo. Although my editor kept pursuing me to do other books on other towns I really was never interested. That is, until they sent me a comp copy from a new Arcadia series called Legendary Locals. The example they sent was Legendary Locals of Grand Rapids.

Let me just say that Grand Rapids, Mich., seems like a lovely place, but the only person in the entire book who caught my eye was President Gerald Ford. I thought to myself, "Wow, Oak Park has had way more colorful and exciting people over the years than this!"

I went right to work "collecting" people for my new book. It seemed a perfect winter project.

With the other five books, I'd gather as many images as I could lay my hands on — old postcards, local family photos, vintage yearbooks, and such. My dining room table was always heaped for the duration. I'd organize everything to fit Arcadia's 128-page format, then begin writing. This time around, however, I worked in the opposite direction. I wrote the book, then searched for my images.

It grew enormously frustrating at times but there were so many generous folks — staff members of this newspaper included — who helped me track down photos. Out of the roughly 130 Oak Parkers featured, there are only three for whom I could never locate an appropriate illustration.

Frank Ross (1868-1947) and Frank Skiff (1869-1933), two brothers-in-law and life-long buddies who began the Jewel grocery chain, lived next door to one another at 525 and 531 N. East Avenue. This pair of workaholic business partners started out in the 1890s selling coffee and tea door-to-door from a horse-drawn wagon. When they opened their Jewel grocery stores in the early 20th century, they wanted each new location to be "like a fine precious jewel."

I had seen photos of the two Franks with their grocery wagon making deliveries, c. 1898, so I knew they existed. But no one in the Jewel corporate office was ever able to send me a copy of any image that had the proper resolution needed for publication. I got tired of hassling with them; whenever I called, it sounded like I was talking to shell-shocked people in a war zone. So on Ross and Skiff's page I simply used several vintage photos of the Fred Blase grocery in Oak Park. I don't misrepresent it; I simply indicate that store was similar to the early Jewels.

I could not locate a decent photo of "Yo-Yo King" Donald Duncan (1899-1971) with enough pixels to make it printable. So I used a photo of a Yo-Yo contest in the 1930s.

Frank Lipo, the kind and knowledgeable executive director of the Historical Society, helped me immensely. He checked facts, provided tips and feedback, and scanned all the images. I really never did understand the resolution ratio/pixel formula so Frank was a godsend. Over half of the images, by the way, are from the Historical Society archives.

The big problem with a community such as Oak Park is that we have had such a vast number of colorful, productive, innovative and memorable people over the past 180 years, which ones should be included?

The editors provided a loose formula for me to follow: A certain percentage of the folks in the book had to be from history, another portion had to be contemporary people — especially those with current businesses. There also had to be some scandal and controversy for dramatic effect as well as "heart-warming" stories that might "appeal to those who really don't know your town very well."

"Name recognition is always good," the editors would tell me, "so work in any show biz people you've got." No problem. Oak Park has everyone from "Son of Svengoolie" Rich Koz to Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson; to rap star/actor Ludicris, who was first known as Christopher Bridges; to Johnny Galecki, who plays geeky scientist Leonard Hofstadter on CBS's The Big Bang Theory. I even found hilarious high school photos in a 1977 Tabula of comedienne Kathy Griffin appearing in some OPRF productions. I just hope that if she sees them, she doesn't go after me.

But where to draw the line? I have 130 Oak Parkers featured but could have easily included many dozens more.

My dedication for the book reads: "To all the extraordinary people of Oak Park who did not make it into this one slim volume."

Let's face it, if I've left out someone from a hundred years ago, it's not a big deal. But there are so many current community members who ought to be recognized and celebrated, it became really complicated as I struggled with cuts toward the end of the project.

People come up to me and ask questions like "Are Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway in your book?" What do you think? But I also include a large number of other "legends" many may never have heard of.

Others inquire, "So, Doug ... who's in your book?" I suspect what they're really asking is, "Am I in it?"

The bottom line, of course, is that it's my call as to who's in and who's out. I just hope my selection is satisfactory. That process was a lot harder than I anticipated.

Yet I had a wonderful time last winter researching this book. From the get-go, the Oak Park story has been pretty exciting and was full of amazing characters.

Oak Park was a rural railroad stop until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Before the ashes had cooled, lots of displaced families relocated here, causing our first population boom. By the turn of the 20th century, Oak Park was a magnet attracting ever-larger numbers of prosperous, progressive people to settle in what many referred to as "the finest of the streetcar suburbs."

One pivotal period of Oak Park history I particularly emphasize is the volatile 1960s and early '70s when our village emerged from lots of conflict and insecurity to become widely recognized for encouraging racial and ethnic diversity. Urbanologists had predicted that Oak Park would experience rapid white flight and re-segregate ("turn black"), that the adjacent racially changing West Side of Chicago would simply roll over the community. But courageous leadership launched an aggressive approach to integration. A number of the valiant individuals who worked hard to redefine and focus the values of the village in a positive way are featured. Though it's "never a done deal," as many people often observe, Oak Park has long been a community that embraces and celebrates its diversity.

But newcomers often assume the village was always a well-balanced, open community. Integration, however, was a grand experiment and a struggle. Many Oak Parkers who worked for these goals are saluted and celebrated in the book, from sociologist Bobbie Raymond to former village president John Gearen.

Both heroes and villains are featured. Sam Giancana (1908-1975) was a vicious syndicate godfather, assassinated in his home while cooking sausages and peppers. His murder is believed to have been a mob-ordered hit. "Three-Fingered" Jack White (1900-1934) was a ruthless gunman in the Al Capone organization. He was missing digits on his right hand from a botched safe-cracking attempt. White was shot to death in the bedroom of his third-floor apartment in the red-brick building at 920 Wesley Ave. He was possibly silenced by mob enforcers because he'd been co-operating too closely with FBI investigators.

Rheinhold Kulle was head custodian at OPRF High School when it was discovered that during World War II he had been a member of the Nazi SS. In the years of the Holocaust, Kulle served in the notorious "Death's Head" battalion and was as an overseer of slave labor prisoners in the granite quarries of a concentration camp. Oak Parkers were shocked and confused; Kulle never expressed regret or made any excuse for his past.

Charles Guiteau (1841-1882) was a psychopath who was convinced President James A. Garfield owed him a diplomatic position — though he was totally lacking in qualifications for such a post. Increasingly disturbed and agitated, Guiteau stalked the president, finally shooting him twice at the Washington D.C. railroad station. Garfield lingered, mortally wounded, for 80 days before he expired.

In the arts, we find John La Montaine (1920-2013), a celebrated composer and Pulitzer Prize winner who was commissioned to compose a special overture for John F. Kennedy's inauguration. Though now not well known, the Michael Teolis Singers at First United Methodist Church will present La Montaine's "Songs of the Nativity," a full work of four movements, on Saturday, Dec. 7.

Architect E.E. Roberts (1866-1943) was far more popular locally than his contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright. Roberts broke no new ground but designed hundreds of local buildings, many of which we still see every day.

Dave Tough (1907-1948) was a doctor's son. Frail, forlorn-looking Tough was considered the greatest drummer of his day and played with most of the Big Bands. But he was also a deeply troubled alcoholic who became a street derelict and panhandler who died at 40 from a skull fracture caused by a drunken fall.

There are stories of strength and bravery. The home of Dr. Percy Julian (1899-1975), African-American pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, was fire-bombed — twice — in the early '50s. These brutal attacks galvanized the community to support and protect the Julian family.

In 1963, violinist Carol Anderson (b. 1938) was hired by Oak Park Symphony conductor Milton Preves, a Jew, without getting prior approval. Anderson was abruptly dismissed by the president of the symphony's board of directors who stated, "Oak Park is not ready for Negroes." But outraged citizens rallied behind Anderson and Preves and strongly voiced their support. This ugly incident 50 years ago was a wake-up call for the village to start re-examining its racial attitudes and led to the establishment of the Community Relations Commission.

Fremont Nester (1903-1976) was the hard-boiled Oak Park police detective who became chief of police and was the model for cartoonist Chester Gould's comic strip character Dick Tracy. Nester became a surprising but strong supporter of the open housing initiative in the volatile late '60s.

There is scandal represented, too. Mamah Cheney (1869-1914) spoke six languages, was educated and independent. She was one of the first women in the village to drive an automobile. But she shocked the town when she left her family to "run off" to Europe with Frank Lloyd Wright, who was abandoning his wife and six offspring. Mamah and her two visiting children were murdered at Wright's Wisconsin compound, Taliesin, along with five other people, when a deranged servant set fire to the house, then killed everyone with an ax as they tried to escape.

There are plenty of oddball, fascinating villagers featured, like James DeWar (1897-1985), who invented the Twinkie snack cake during the Great Depression. At 88, after hearing his beloved creation referred to as "junk food," chain-smoking DeWar boasted he enjoyed a cigarette and 2 or 3 Twinkies with a glass of milk every night as a bedtime snack.

Legendary Locals of Oak Park will answer lots of questions, like where did various local places get their names, such as Rehm Park, the Austin neighborhood, Lindberg Park, Scoville Avenue, and the Maze Branch Library? Why is McDonald's not called Kroc's, since Ray Kroc, Oak Park's most famous high school dropout, put the fast food chain on the map? Who had three restaurants named after him (Philander's, Poor Phil's, and Barclay's)? Who was Gunderson and why are homes named after him? What was Stankus Hole?

My book, I hope, will reinforce what Oak Park lawyer, actor, and historian Kevin Bry said a while back: "The people of Oak Park have chosen this community not so much as a place to live, but as a way of life."

Love the Journal?

Become our partner in independent community journalism

Thanks for turning to Wednesday Journal and OakPark.com. We love our thousands of digital-only readers. Now though we're asking you to partner up in paying for our reporters and photographers who report this news. It had to happen, right?

On the plus side, we're giving you a simple way, and a better reason, to join in. We're now a non-profit -- Growing Community Media -- so your donation is tax deductible. And signing up for a monthly donation, or making a one-time donation, is fast and easy.

No threats from us. The news will be here. No paywalls or article countdowns. We're counting on an exquisite mix of civic enlightenment and mild shaming. Sort of like public radio.

Claim your bragging rights. Become a digital member.

Donate Now

Reader Comments

No Comments - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy

Facebook Connect

Answer Book 2019

To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2019 Answer Book, please click here.

Quick Links

Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.

MultimediaContact us
Submit Letter To The Editor
Place a Classified Ad

Latest Comments