Rose Farina--her blue jacket draped over her shoulders like a cape--is on the phone in the lobby of the Daley Center. She's the manager of the center's events and puts together all of the noon shows, so she's almost always on the phone.
"It's growing out of my ear," she says after she hangs up. "We do about 240 shows a year--it could be slightly more or less. That's a lot of details."
As she talks, the lobby fills with lawyers, retirees, and street people coming in from the rain to catch the day's performance by the All-City High School Choir.
"Did you tell the reporter here about our displays?" Farina asks the assistant commissioner from the Department of Cultural Affairs, who's standing nearby.
"I was gonna," he starts to say, but Farina cuts him off.
"We have about two different displays in the lobby every month. It's usually an ethnic theme--folk art from different countries of the world. This month it's Byelorussia." She looks hard at me. "You never heard of Byelorussia?"
I start to stammer yes, but she cuts me off.
"Shame on you. Byelorussia is east of Lithuania and north of the Ukraine. It borders Poland; Minsk is the capital. The Byelorussians have struggled to maintain their independence and cultural heritage. We have a fine Byelorussian community in Chicago. I know many of their leaders."
She heads down the escalator to the cafeteria, towing the assistant commissioner and me.
"I got my start when Mayor Daley hired me to work with Colonel Reilly--who used to be the executive director of the Mayor's Office of Special Events-- as ethnic-groups coordinator for the Chicago Bicentennial Committee. Then I moved to the Chicago Council of Fine Arts, which became the Chicago Office of Fine Arts, which is under the Department of Cultural Affairs--Are you going to mention the Department of Cultural Affairs?"
"Well, make sure you do. And also mention our commissioner Joan Harris. She does a wonderful job. Anyway, Colonel Reilly hired me on the advice of Mayor Richard J. Daley. My husband Louis--yes, the former alderman--had this old show on Channel 26--"
"When was that?" I interrupt.
"When was what?"
"Your husband's show--when was it on?"
"How do I know when it was on? Don't ask me questions about dates. I'm lousy with dates. Anyway--Where was I?"
"Your husband's show."
"Oh, yes. It was called Lou Farina's Chicago Happenings. I lined up all the ethnic leaders to appear on it. I knew a lot of them because they used to come to our farm in Michigan and pick blueberries. Don't ask me why, but ethnics love to pick blueberries. Anyway, after I worked on the bicentennial celebration, I started managing the Daley Center shows."
"You mean they just stuck you in this big job and didn't tell you what to do?"
"What's to tell? I'm 58 years old. You don't ask. You do. I'm not complaining. Don't put in that I'm complaining."
Farina sits down in a booth near the rear of the cafeteria across the aisle from a heavy blond man who's enjoying a piece of fried chicken. The assistant commissioner makes himself useful by fetching Farina a cup of tea.
"Did I tell you that I was the first person in city government to celebrate Black History Month?" she asks.
"Well, I was--at least to my knowledge. That's what Ramon Price told me. You can check it out with him. He's at the DuSable Museum. We have celebrations for all our ethnic groups. We celebrate the traditional Ukrainian New Year's, Three Kings Day (that's a Puerto Rican Christmas celebration), Republic Day of India (that's also in January), Salute to the Irish, Lithuanian Independence Day, Chinese New Year's (that can be in January or February; it depends on when it hits with the different calendars), Vietnamese New Year's, Croatian Indepen-dence (that's April 10th), Festival Polonaise--" She stops midsentence and looks at me. "What ethnicity are you?"
"Jewish, huh? I could run for office against you tomorrow, and still get more Jewish votes than you. That's how the Jews love me. My secret is that I treat people the way they should be treated. The kid who clears this table--I treat him the same as you would treat the head of state. It's that simple.
"Of course, I'm not saying we don't have problems. Sometimes we have problems. I'll give you an example. Haitian Flag Day is May 18th--"
"I knew that," says the assistant commissioner, who's just returned with the tea.
"But it's also the Thursday before the Greek Heritage Week Parade, which should be celebrated on March 25th, which is Greek Independence Day. But they moved the parade to May because of the weather--you try marching outside when it's like Siberia."
"So?" I say.
"So? Well, we usually have our Daley Center celebration on the Thursday before the Greek parade."
"I knew that too," says the commissioner.
"So what we'll do is we'll have the Greeks come on at noon, and then we'll bring on the Haitians."
She sips her tea. There isn't much to tell about herself, she says. "I'm 58 years old. My parents were Sicilian immigrants. I went to Waller High School. I've been married 38 years. I raised four sons. And now I do this. The realistic approach to life is: when you close one door, you open another. And I have three grandchildren: Lauren, Nicholas, and Lisa. I love my grandchildren."
"Do you change their diapers?"
"Do I change their diapers? Of course I change their diapers. If you were my grandchild, you would never have a diaper rash."
Farina turns to the assistant commissioner. "Did you show him the pictures?"
"I was gonna," he starts to say.
She shakes her head and dumps a pile of pictures from a folder onto the table. "These are just some of the celebrities who have attended our shows over the years," she says. "What we do is we have them hold a copy of our newsletter, the 'Under the Picasso' calendar, and then we take a picture."
Sure enough, there are photos of all sorts of celebrities--Peggy Fleming, Sophia Loren, Jimmy Damon, Clare Boothe Luce, Mrs. Len O'Connor, Esther Rolle, Tony Bennett, Jeannie Morris, Peter Graves, Stephanie Powers, Lou Brock, Sheila MacRae, Gary Coleman, Ernie Terrell--clutching a copy of the "Under the Picasso" calendar and standing next to Farina, who's beaming. She pulls out a photo she's afraid I've missed. "This is the great organist Carlo Curley, the Liberace of the organ. His grandfather was Mayor Curley of Boston.
"We had a great time with Charlton Heston. I got him to pose with Tito, who is the Puerto Rican fellow who used to work at our information booth. Tito's mother was overwhelmed. She'd seen the Spanish-language version of The Ten Commandments ten times, and there was her son--standing with Moses!"
It's almost one. The chubby guy across the aisle has been replaced by a chubbier one, who's also enjoying fried chicken.
"Could I ask you one thing?" she says.
"Well, I had major surgery last September, and I was out of work for a while. When I was in the hospital, I was overwhelmed with flowers, letters, and gifts from people who said, 'We attend the events all the time, and we miss you. Get well.' And, well, it's kind of difficult to track everyone down and thank them. So I'd like to take this opportunity to say 'Thank you.' OK?"
She leads us back upstairs, where the show is almost over. The crowd has thinned. Venoris Cates, director of the choir, is introducing the next song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The integrated choir of students sing this moving hymn, known as the black national anthem, well. After they're finished, the crowd claps and the workers pack up the chairs. Farina returns to the phone.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.