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The activist-doctor Quentin Young is still in

A new film project tries to capture the life of the physician who takes care of Chicago.


Dr. Quentin Young, a longtime civil rights activist, addresses Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH in 1975. - GENE PESEK
  • Gene Pesek
  • Dr. Quentin Young, a longtime civil rights activist, addresses Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH in 1975.

In his long and distinguished career as an activist and doctor, Quentin Young has fought to integrate the medical staff at Cook County Hospital, treated the wounds of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and infuriated Mayor Rahm Emanuel by thwarting his attempt to waste taxpayer dollars on Wrigley Field.

He's a living illustration that the fight for fairness is full of setbacks as well as victories, but that it continues to this day.

I've had Dr. Young on my mind since filmmaker Al Nowakowski called to tell me about the Kickstarter campaign he and his filmmaking partners have undertaken. They need to raise $30,000 to finish "The Good Doctor Young," a documentary about Young's life.

It sounded to me like a noble endeavor. So last week I took a break from Mayor Emanuel's school closings, budget cuts, and TIF deals and headed south to Hyde Park to visit the doctor, who's 90 years old.

It was the first time we'd met and I wasn't disappointed. As Nowakowski's partners—Cat Jarboe and Jeff Bivens—filmed us, Young chatted amiably for over an hour, charming, good-humored, and gracious.

I intended to zero in on my obsession—the business about Mayor Emanuel and Wrigley. But you know how it goes. You start talking about this, and you wind up talking about that. Before I knew it, Young was giving me a condensed version of his life story.

He was born and raised on the south side, not far from where he currently lives. He's as Chicago as Augie March himself.

Young swears up and down that he was for a single-payer health system going back to when he was a 13-year-old freshman at Hyde Park High.

After high school, Young enrolled at the University of Chicago. "There was a war going on and I was antifascist," he says. "I volunteered for the army when I was 19. I was put in the medics."

Following the war, he earned his medical degree at Northwestern University and went to work at Cook County Hospital, eventually rising to the position of chairman of medicine.

As the years wore on, Young was on the front lines of just about every single left-of-center cause, from the antiwar movement to the drive for single-payer health care.

On his wall is a framed photo of an open-housing march in the mid-60s. Young is standing in front of Al Raby, a local civil rights activist so legendary a high school was named after him.

Just in front of Young is King and in front of King is Jesse Jackson, wearing a porkpie hat that would fit in perfectly today among the hipsters of Logan Square. In front of Jackson is Reverend James Bevel, another legendary civil rights activist, wearing his trademark yarmulke. Man, what a time.

When Dr. King brought his civil rights campaign to Chicago in 1966, Young was his personal physician. He says King was sick twice during those months from bad colds.

"I would make a 15-minute visit that would last for two hours," Young says. "He was clearly a man with a mission."

After King was hit in the head with a rock during the infamous open-housing march in Marquette Park, Young tended his wound. "King was not fearless," Young says. "He felt he was going to die. But he didn't have a sense of immortality. . . . He knew his vulnerability and exposure. He lived accordingly. That makes him even more of a hero in my book."

Dr. Quentin Young was at the forefront of progressive causes from the antiwar movement to the drive for single-payer health care. - DOM NAJOLIA/SUN-TIMES
  • Dom Najolia/Sun-Times
  • Dr. Quentin Young was at the forefront of progressive causes from the antiwar movement to the drive for single-payer health care.

Young also had the chance to see the city's political establishment at work, including the first Boss Daley. "Old man Daley was basically a business-supported guy who tried to keep the city as it was. It was segregated and racist and blacks were at the bottom of the heap."

Young wasn't Mayor Harold Washington's doctor, but they were neighbors and good friends for years. Mayor Washington appointed Young president of the Board of Health.

"Harold is the most remarkable person I've met," says Young. "But he would not do what I said."

In particular, Young urged Washington to eat better and exercise more. Alas, Washington died of a heart attack in 1987.

Eventually, we got to the story that I just had to hear—how Young and Governor Quinn teamed up to stop Mayor Emanuel from wasting good taxpayer money on Wrigley Field.

In 2012, the mayor was negotiating with the Cubs on a subsidy to rehab the ballpark. Such a handout requires approval by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, a body made up of four appointees by the governor and three by the mayor.

Last October Mayor Emanuel moved to take control of the authority by getting Manny Sanchez, a Quinn appointee, to join his trio in voting for a new, handpicked executive director.

At the last moment, however, Governor Quinn pulled a fast one: he replaced Sanchez with Young. Sanchez didn't know he'd been replaced until he showed up for the meeting, ready to vote for Emanuel's appointee.

Man, Chicago is a tough town.

"Four beats three every time," Young says.

You should have heard the mayor's appointees huffing and puffing at that meeting about Quinn's low-down, dirty deeds. It was like they were shocked—shocked, I tell you—to discover that politicking goes on in this city.

I wish they'd been around to raise a ruckus as Mayor Emanuel pulled his own fast one this summer, when he officially got the City Council to move forward with his South Loop basketball arena/hotel deal on a voice vote that aldermen didn't even know they were taking.

For the record, Mayor Emanuel says he wasn't going to support a handout for the Cubs. If you say so, Mr. Mayor. I guess it was just a coincidence that it wasn't until January that the Cubs officially announced they were giving up on a handout and planning to rehab Wrigley on their own.

Ironically, Mayor Emanuel has been bragging ever since about how he's held the line on a Wrigley handout. He's probably going to use it as one of the centerpieces of his reelection campaign—if the Cubs ever get around to starting the actual construction.

I tell you—you can go far in this world if you have no shame.

I think the mayor should take that public money he saved on Wrigley and use it to reopen some of the mental health clinics he closed in high-crime neighborhoods. He could even name one of the clinics for Dr. Young.

If he can't bring himself to do that, he can at least make a personal contribution to Nowakowski's Kickstarter campaign. It's a small way to honor one of Chicago's great crusaders of the last 60-something years.

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