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The Other Brickhouse

Quiet and retiring, Nelda was nothing like her legendary husband, Jack. But after he left her for another woman, her independent nature emerged.

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Dressing in the morning, Nelda Brickhouse would go to a closet off the bedroom of her spacious wood-and-stone house on Locust Road in Wilmette. The broad back lawn visible from the windows, she'd pull out one of her many three-button pullover blouses in white and primary colors, most of them by sportswear designer Leon Levin. Donning the blouse and a pair of knit slacks--her uniform--she'd walk downstairs to face the day.

For 39 years Nelda was married to sports broadcaster Jack Brickhouse. When he left her for another woman, Nelda was just entering her 60s. "At the time she felt like she had nothing, but in fact she had everything," says her daughter, Sky Jimenez. "She had all the inner stuff, only she didn't know it."

She was born Nelda Teach in Avon, Illinois, a hamlet south of Galesburg. Her mother, Nina, taught school in the towns near Avon and lived with her parents on a farm both before and after Nelda came along. The girl never knew her father, supposedly because her grandfather wouldn't allow Nina to wed a man who was part Native American. "We don't even know my grandfather's name," says Jimenez. "My mother said that she and my grandmother would pass by the Dairy Queen in Avon, and this man would say, 'Hello, Nina. Hello, Nelda.' My mother later learned that was her father."

Nelda entered the University of Illinois, but dropped out after a year because Nina had been badly injured in a car accident and there was no money for tuition. Her grandfather took out a loan so she could attend Gem City Business College in Quincy, where she picked up typing, shorthand, and accounting. They served her well--by 1937 Nelda was in charge of a loan company office in Peoria.

One day a fledgling sports broadcaster on WMBD radio walked in looking for a car loan. Jack Brickhouse would write in his memoir, Thanks for Listening!, "I had trouble making the car payments but it was a pleasure to visit Lincoln Loan and explain my financial predicaments because it gave me an excuse to see Nelda." Jack's car was ultimately repossessed, but the relationship with Nelda lasted. He proposed to her by a lake in Wisconsin. "You need to marry me," Jack told her. "If you don't, you'll never see me again." They wed in Bessemer, Michigan, in 1939. Nelda, who was 23, came up with the money for the judge and the license.

The next year Jack was summoned to Chicago to broadcast Cubs and Sox games for WGN radio. After nine years of marriage they had a daughter, who died shortly after birth from a hole in her heart, and then Sky, whose given name is Jean. By the early 1950s Jack was on television, his reputation growing, and the family had moved to Wilmette, first to a house on Linden Avenue and then to the one on Locust Road. They lived there except for the month or two each year that they went to Arizona for spring training.

Jack and Nelda's relationship fell into a routine that served both of them. "Jack was extremely busy, on a hectic schedule," says Jack Rosenberg, the longtime WGN TV sports director. "He was off and running seven days a week, which is not unusual in families like this." Nelda seemed to understand. "I wouldn't enjoy being married to a man who didn't like his work," she once told the Tribune. "And when people ask me if I go to all the games, I ask them if their husbands take them to their offices every day. It's really the same thing."

With help from Jack's secretary, Nelda managed the household, handled the finances, and figured the taxes. Jane Hasten, a childhood friend of Sky's, remembers mornings when Jack would be sitting in a La-Z-Boy in the den as Nelda, at the desk by the window, quizzed him on expenses and balanced their checkbook to the penny.

"See, dad couldn't write a check," says Jimenez. "Remember, like my mother he had grown up without a father [Will Brickhouse, a carnival worker, died when Jack was two], and he didn't know about the things that a father usually teaches." After one Thanksgiving dinner he led the male guests to the basement for some cards. A few minutes later he shouted for his wife. He'd tried to start a fire, and the pine-paneled rec room had filled with smoke. Nelda walked in and opened the flue.

Jack Brickhouse, a tall and imposing figure, announced Cubs, Sox, and Bears games in an energetic style marked by the tagline "Hey, hey!" He eventually earned a spot in baseball's Hall of Fame. He met presidents, popes, star athletes, and famous entertainers, had a legendary falling-out with Cubs manager Leo Durocher, liked his drink, and told stories masterfully. "He was a raconteur, no doubt about it," says Rosenberg. "He had total recall, and he would go on and on."

Nelda, a slim, dark-haired woman with olive skin and a breathy voice, hung back. In conversation she would ask about you and your family, and she rarely forgot what you told her. "Jack entertained, but Nelda engaged," observes Janet Ross, an in-law, reminiscing at the kitchen table on Locust. "I remember the first time I came to this house. Nelda was standing at the door, and she greeted me with open hands. That was the way she was, there waiting for you with a hug. Coming as I did from a dysfunctional family, her arms were like home to a motherless child."

Jack's best friend was comedian Ernie Simon, who died in 1968. A year after that he had lunch with Simon's teenage son Scott, the future host of NPR's Weekend Edition but then a student at Senn High School. "You know, Scotty, we kind of worry about you in that high school," said Brickhouse, as Scott Simon told the story in his sports memoir Home and Away. "You know, Aunt Nelda and I were talking. I could probably pull a few strings and fix it to get you into New Trier. Best high school in the country, right?" Brickhouse proposed putting Scott up at their house, an idea that was surely his wife's. Scott turned down the invitation, as he liked Senn just fine and realized that his leftist political views would not wash with Uncle Jack and that boarding with the Brickhouses might offend his mother.

The 1970s found Nelda outwardly content. Though no athlete, she'd taken up golf, in part because Jack enjoyed it so much. Sky had graduated from college, married, and moved to Missouri. But late in the decade Jack asked for a divorce. He'd fallen in love with a younger woman, a publicist named Pat Ettelson, about whom Nelda hadn't a clue. "In retrospect I can say that Nelda was a loving wife and mother--and a great lady," Jack would write in his memoir. "But the chemistry wasn't there in the latter years of our lengthy marriage. The fact that my job kept me on the road so much no doubt played a significant role in the breakup, even though I hesitate to say that lest it be construed as a cop-out."

Jack was himself an only child, and Jimenez says that the death in 1973 of his mother, Daisy, a tiny, Welsh-born woman to whom he was devoted, made him reassess his priorities. "It made him realize that life is short. 'OK,' he said, 'I need to do what makes me happy.'"

The divorce left Nelda hurt, bitter, and confused. "I know she felt vulnerable, but she went back to her roots," says Jane Hasten. "One day she looked at all her ball gowns and her furs and said, 'I'm not going to need these anymore.' She gave them to charity."

Nelda found solace in work. In 1975 the Brickhouses had purchased WGSB AM, a 1,000-watt radio station in Saint Charles, and to avoid any conflict with FCC rules, the station was put in Nelda's name. She threw herself into managing it. Shortly after Nelda took over, the owner of a rival station advised an eager college graduate named Jan Nelson to look up Nelda at the WGSB offices. "Nelda was at lunch when I got there, and when she walked in I stood up and introduced myself," says Nelson. "I said, 'I need to talk to you, because I'm going to work for you.' Nelda said, 'Well, OK, give me a few minutes to put my things away.' At our meeting she listened to me brag about the few gigs I'd had, and then she told me she was going to put me on the air for 20 minutes right then and there."

Nelson stayed on for two hours and was hired. She was the afternoon disc jockey for a year and the afternoon host after that. She spun records, took phone calls, ran trivia contests, talked to psychic Irene Hughes--and developed a regard for the boss. "Nelda was very down-to-earth and very logical," says Nelson, later a production engineer at WGN. "She was also a disciplinarian. If you didn't follow through with something, you heard about it, definitely. Most of all, she gave a young woman like me a nice place to develop her skills." In 1980 Nelda, who'd tired of the drive from Wilmette to Saint Charles, sold the operation for a tidy profit to Howard Miller, the conservative talk-show host.

"After that, Nelda took advantage of the freedom she had earned," says Nelson. She served as president of the women's board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago. She read constantly--romances, biographies, and sports stories. On golf trips to California and Georgia, "Nelda took along almost as many books as clothes," says her friend and traveling companion Audrey Tanzer. "We would come in from playing, and while I was showering she'd be reading."

Nelda dated a couple of men after Jack. "She had fun," says Jimenez. "She called me once and said, 'I went out dancing and saw the sun rise.'" But both suitors died. Besides, says Jimenez, "though it wasn't really good between my parents when they split up, I think my mother adored my father, and always loved him. She felt that the man who left her wasn't the same man she married."

When Jimenez divorced her first husband, she took the last name Sky. "I wanted to honor my Native American heritage," explains Jimenez, now 54 and a school counselor, "and I didn't want to go back to my maiden name. It had been a burden growing up--boys would ask me out because they wanted Cubs tickets and things like that." When she married a man named Jimenez, she promoted Sky to her first name and jettisoned Jean altogether.

"I expected my father to be upset, but he wasn't," says Jimenez. "He had no problem calling me Sky. My mother never said anything to me directly, but she did to other people, and she never called me Sky."

Nelda became fiercely close to Noah Schuffman, Jimenez's son and her only grandchild. When he visited from Missouri, the two would sit in the den and talk for hours. "She had a special bond with Noah," says Jimenez. "He was her future, her hope--everything."

Glaucoma and cataracts started to claim Nelda's eyesight in the late 80s. In 1993 a stroke did further damage to her sight and all but destroyed her ability to speak. She struggled to regain it. "She worked on her speech all day long, like it was her job," says Janet Ross. Nelda would flub many words--"She said 'Go to the refrigerator' when she meant to say 'lesbian'"--but she could make herself understood, at least to intimates. And she could laugh at her disabilities.

Eventually she was nearly blind. Yet with assists--Velcro patches to help identify the thermostat and the washing machine, common numbers programmed into the phone--she navigated her house. She spurned any suggestion that she move. Attendants were hired. An old friend who came in to pay the bills left amazed at Nelda's memory. "We're told she could tell you exactly what the Com Ed bill was from two years back," says Hasten.

Noah wanted to be an actor, and when he debuted in Marty on Chicago's north side in 2001, Jimenez and Ross brought Nelda down for the show. At home she listened endlessly to books on tape. Noah read to her from the Brickhouse sections of Scott Simon's book.

Jack died of a heart attack in August 1998. He was 82. Nelda, still estranged from him, didn't attend the funeral at Saint James Episcopal Cathedral. This March, Nelda was operated on for an ulcerated colon. She demanded that the TV in her hospital room be turned to the news, says Ross, because she was mad at Saddam Hussein and wanted the allied forces to "get him." She came home to a hospital bed in her den and died in midafternoon June 15 at the age of 87. "Jack got to go to sleep," she said shortly before. "I want to go to sleep."

There was no funeral. "She didn't want anybody to sit around crying about her," says Jan Nelson. But her family organized an afternoon of remembrance on July 26. The mourners gathered at the house and then proceeded to Gillson Park in Wilmette to dedicate an oak tree in Nelda's memory and share thoughts and a prayer. Jack's memorial, by contrast, is an eight-foot-high bronze statue in the plaza next to Tribune Tower. The statue cost $150,000, and the campaign to erect it, led by his widow, Pat Brickhouse, raised enough extra money to fund a fellowship in brain cancer research.

Noah, now 26, is working for a mortgage company in Los Angeles while trying to get on his acting feet. He says his grandparents left him separate legacies. "Grandpa Jack grew up with nothing, and obviously he made something of himself. I respect his drive and perseverance. When I let him know I intended to be an actor, he told me, 'Throw yourself into every part you try out for, and remember there are a thousand people who want the same part. You have to give 110 percent.' My grandmother instilled in both my mother and me the need to be independent, to plan for the future. She was strong before her stroke, and stronger than that afterward, battling through so much in her later years. She taught me to be optimistic, not pessimistic, to find the bright side."

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