Chicago, Wisconsin, and On Wisconsin

Rowers, Lake Mendota, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Rowers, Lake Mendota, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Travels began four days into the fourth quarter, on Friday, up in the dark, bus and Metro to National Airport, and a flight to Chicago.  A couple of good Talking-to-Strangers episodes on the flight, to start the quarter right: a nice chat with Chad, a 68-year-old flight attendant, and a great one, and a good visit with my two seatmates, a Washington couple headed to her niece’s wedding in a small town near Wichita, Kansas.  Hopped on the Blue Line train to downtown.  Happily, despite a very early arrival (before 10 a.m.), my hotel room was ready, which enabled me to change into bike shorts and crank out 12 miles in the gym.  Worked a bit, ate a bowl of soup for lunch, and at 2:30 met a former American Airlines colleague, Jeff Zidell, now at Hyatt Hotels.  Got caught up.

On the Blue Line into Chicago, a tourist just arrived from Shanghai, yakking with a native about the great city of Chicago

On the Blue Line into Chicago, a tourist just arrived from Shanghai, yakking with a native about the great city of Chicago

Wacker Drive, from the University of Illinois' Illini Center

Wacker Drive, from the University of Illinois’ Illini Center

Terra cotta detail, the historic Marquette Building (completed 1895).  So I wonder: did my great-grandfather, a terra cotta artisan, work on this building?

Terracotta detail, the historic Marquette Building (completed 1895). So I wonder: did my great-grandfather, a terracotta artisan, work on this building?

At 4:00 I ambled over to 200 S. Wacker, and engaged Jim Bonner, the security man.  He was a talker, Irish-American from the South Side – I recognized him from previous visits to the Chicago venue of the University of Illinois College of Business, my destination, four floors above.  At 5:00 it was time to stand and deliver to a class of 38 EMBA students, bright and engaged.   I stayed on for (free) dinner, and stayed at my table until eight, yakking with a nice mix of students.  When I stood up, Ravi Ganesh, by day an engineer at John Deere in Moline, showed me a part made on a 3D printer.  So cool – it was only three years earlier, in Chicago, when I first became aware of such devices, and no Deere was experimenting with making them in quantity.  Not shy, I asked Ravi if he had extras, and he gave it to me.  It’s in my pocket right now, and here:


Up at 6:30 Saturday morning, down to the basement gym for 14 miles on the bike (without the benefit of caffeine, I was about four percent slower than the previous day).  Ambled around the hotel, past the wonderful Alexander Calder stabile, Flamingo (1973), in the plaza of the Federal office complex (itself notable, a series of buildings by Mies van der Rohe).  Grabbed a yogurt and apple fritter, then hopped on the L Brown Line north to Diversey, then the 76 Bus west to Ashland and my mother’s old neighborhood.  I walked past St. Bonaventure, their parish, and on to Starbucks for a coffee and some jotting in this journal.  Watching the clientele come and go, and the fancy cars and SUVs motor past, I was struck by the huge demographic changes the old ‘hood has seen.  When I visited it as a young adult, in 1974, it was down on its luck – I actually worried that someone might steel my Aunt Dorothy’s Ford Pinto.  But now its all gentrified, home to affluent young singles and families pushing $500 strollers.

At 11:00, I my met my first cousin once removed, Larry Frederick.  It was great to see Lorenzo, who also grew up on Marshfield Avenue, and lived there until 1962.  The plan was to have a good walk through the neighborhood, then lunch.  I put my bag and backpack in Larry’s trunk and we set off down Marshfield, yakking about the old days.  I pointed to the house at 2664 just as the owner approached.  I said “my mom, grandmother and grandfather used to live in your house,” and Orrin kindly invited us in.  We met his wife and kids, got a tour of the house and yakked for quite awhile.  Oops, I discovered later, the family actually lived next door at 2662, but it was still a nice chat.

Wally Osilich

Wally Osilich

We continued south, to the McWhinney Club, a social club that my great-uncle Frank helped establish; my Nonno (grandpa) was also an officer and active member.  We didn’t think it was open, but rang the doorbell, and a young member, Matt, invited us in, whence we met Wally Osilich, 83, a lifelong member now residing in Florida.  Matt peeled off, and Larry, Wally, and I yakked for the longest time.   Wally lived on the street for almost his entire life, and comes back in summer.  I pointed with some pride to Frank’s name at the top of the plaque of distinguished members.  We learned a lot, but the best piece was that the club, founded in 1911, has in the last 10-15 years come back from near death, and now has more than 150 members.  They renovated the interior in 2010 (though it’s still a simple place), and it’s got a new lease on life.  We said goodbye to Wally, but not before this parting dialog on the topic of enjoying our last years on Earth:

Me: I’ve always liked that bumper sticker that reads “we’re spending our children’s inheritance”

Wally: We don’t have any children.

Me: In that case you should spend all of your money so that at the moment you die you have zero.

Wally: No, Rob, that’s not right; your last check should bounce!

We walked south to Larry’s elementary school, Prescott, on the corner of Wrightwood.  Just as Larry was showing me the ledge above the first-floor windows that he and he friends used to walk along (and occasionally fall off!), two older women walked up and we fell into the third T-t-S of the walk.  They were two sisters who were at the school after Larry.  When they enrolled in the early 1960s, they had just arrived from Greece and spoke no English.  Larry and the two sisters – wish I had remembered their names – yakked for a long time about the old neighborhood.  Turns out neither of them lived in a place with hot water (and that was in the 1940s through ‘60s), so they recalled with fondness the public bath a block south, where for a dime you could get a tub of hot water, a towel, and a small bar of soap.

Cousin Larry and the Greek sisters

Cousin Larry and the Greek sisters

We walked south, pausing at 2507, site of Centrella, the former grocery that belonged to my grandfather from the early 1920s until the late 1940s, when he sold the store to Larry’s dad Pete.

Larry was born above the store (1937) and  lived there and until 1962 in adjacent apartments.  Further on, the bathhouse building was no more, replaced by a small playground.  We doubled back, and headed west on Altgeld.  I spotted the former Northwest Terra Cotta Company building where my great-grandfather Enrico worked – the place was now condos, but the façade was original.  It was past lunch, so we ambled into Augie’s at Altgeld and Wrightwood for a beer and burger.  Augie’s was for decades the Tuscan Tavern, owned by Norma Ehrenberg’s dad, an immigrant from that part of Italy (I wrote about Norma in a January 2013 blogpost).

The North Western Terra Cotta Company

The North Western Terra Cotta Company

Detail, North West Terra Cotta Company

Detail, North West Terra Cotta Company

We headed back to the car, and Larry kindly drove me out of his way to Arlington Heights and Cousin Jim’s house.  I sat on the porch until they returned from varied kids’ activities.  On the strength of Pope Francis’ breath of fresh air, this Lutheran joined them for Catholic mass at five, then out to dinner, then to watch sports at home, alternating between the Black Hawks hockey game and Notre Dame football (Cuz graduated in ’78).

Up early Sunday morning, a good yak with Jim and Michaela, and at 8:30 Jim dropped me in downtown Arlington Heights for breakfast with Jane Allen, a former boss at American and a good friend.  We had a swell meal and a great yak, and she drove me (again way out of her way) to O’Hare Airport for the short flight to Madison, next stop on the teaching trip; it’s only 109 miles, but to this airline retiree it was nearly free!

Gift shop, Dane County Regional Airport, Madison; welcome to the land of cheese!

Gift shop, Dane County Regional Airport, Madison; welcome to the land of cheese!

Arrived Madison a little after one.  Thrift dictated a wait for the $2 city bus into town, which because of a parade in progress dropped me a mile from the hotel on the University of Wisconsin campus.  It was my seventh visit one of my very favorite – maybe #1 – college towns.  Checked in, changed into bike shorts, and pedaled 10 miles on a fitness bike.  At 4:30, I ambled over to the Rathskeller in the Wisconsin Union (the student center) and met friends Dan and Cheryl Smith, who I have known for several years – I met Dan via an essay he wrote in the UW alumni magazine about his selling the family farm in 2008.  We had a beer, then headed to a nearby Thai restaurant for a curry.  It was a great visit with solid Wisconsin people.  So nice to be back in the heartland.

Science Hall, University of Wisconsin

Science Hall, University of Wisconsin

At eight Monday morning, as I have done since 2007, I met my UW colleague Jan Heide, professor of marketing and my favorite academic host (many are nice, many are welcoming, but Jan is tops).  We had a caloric breakfast, then headed to school for back-to-back MBA lectures.  I peeled off at 12:15, headed back to the hotel, worked a bit, then signed out a red bike belonging to Madison’s bike-sharing service.  Five bucks bought unlimited rides of 30 minutes or less, and I set off, west along the shore of Lake Mendota, on a perfect autumn afternoon.  Wiggled around a bit, and about 2:30 stopped for a juice at a coffee shop on Monroe St., a few miles southwest of downtown.  As I walked in, an older fellow seemed interested in me.

Bike and pedestrian path along Lake Mendota

Bike and pedestrian path along Lake Mendota

After his friend left, Frank Steiner approached my table and asked if I had been to Umeå (I was wearing my new apple-green business school T-shirt).  We immediately fell into a wonderful T-t-S.  Frank, nearly 80, spent his life as a professor of occupational therapy and psychology – he had been to Umeå and other places in Sweden in the 1990s.  We told each other our life stories; he was son of Romanian immigrants, grew up poor in Brooklyn.  I asked if when he were young he ever thought his life would end up as good as it did; like me, he said he could never have predicted it.  It was a wonderful exchange.

Dr. Frank Steiner, a happy man

Dr. Frank Steiner, a happy man

Got back on the bike, and rode back into downtown, then along the shore of Lake Monona (Madison sits between two lakes), east through the funky Marquette neighborhood, zigging around, then back to the hotel in time for a tonic nap.  At 6:15, Jan and his swell wife Maria picked me up, and we motored to Heritage Tavern, a new restaurant.  Jean Grube, another prof (in whose undergrad class I would speak the next day), joined us for a wonderful meal: great food and enjoyable conversation.

Too much rich food.  Tossed and turned that night, and rose at 6:45, still full.  The only solution was 10 miles on the exercise bike, which worked well.  Did a bit of work, had a couple of yogurts for breakfast (well, okay, and also a raspberry jelly donut, called a Bismarck in the midwest).  At 11, I met Jean in her office; she had worked in Washington – including a stint at Georgetown – a decade ago, and had some great leads and ideas to bring in some dollars.  Delivered a lecture on HR in the airline business from noon to one.  Met Jan, and hewing to tradition we walked a couple of blocks to Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry for lunch (I was finally hungry).  Ambled briskly back, delivered the same HR talk again, and said goodbye.  Such a great place.

Changed clothes, worked a bit in the hotel room, and at 4:30 walked back to the Wisconsin Union.  It was another brilliant and warm fall day, and I sat out on the terrace, setting up “corner office” to answer a few e-mails and bring this journal up to date.  Rowers rowed, sailboats sailed, students and faculty tippled.  The good life in Wisconsin.

My "corner office" on Tuesday, October 8

My “corner office” on Tuesday, October 8


It cooled quickly after the sun set, and I started walking inside.  Then it all broke loose: a UW pep band, cheerleaders, and others processed through the Union, and out onto the terrace, where they “jumped around” (the phrase, present tense, is well known to all Badger fans), playing the school song, “On Wisconsin,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” and a bunch of other tunes.  They strutted, they danced, they made us all smile.  And for me they reinforced the greatness of this place.


New Picture

Wednesday morning, up, onto the bus, to Chicago, then home to D.C.  When we took off from Madison, I was a little sorry I wasn’t on the right side of the plane, to get a view of the city.  But my window afforded another view, ordinary to most but special to me: the interchange of Interstate highways 90 and 94 east of town.  Almost exactly 40 years ago, I unrolled my sleeping bag under one of the interchange’s bridges and spent the last night of my round-the-world trip.  I was hitchhiking home to Minneapolis from O’Hare Airport.  The rides had been slow, and my last ride, just as dusk fell, was with a seriously drunk driver.  But I needed to get down the road, so I stayed in the car, my left hand ready to grab the wheel.  He let me out at the interchange, and I was done for the night.  Next morning, a soon-to-be medical student in a Ford Pinto wagon picked me up and drove me all the way to St. Paul.  From there, getting home was a piece of cake.

Earlier, I considered posting some reminiscences of that awesome, three month circumnavigation, and did not.  But I think this one little recall gives you a sense of bygone adventure.


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