By Sridhar Pappu
On the other side of the turnstile at the Linden Avenue el station in Wilmette, Bulldog waits. He doesn't look 69, two days removed from a birthday. Forty, tops, I think. Bill Kurtis or Walter Jacobson could be going to him live at six in the evening, if Channel Two still had a six o'clock newscast.
John Drummond has a cigar-yellowed smile and slicked-back hair and ears that stick way out. He got his nickname from a 1930s B-movie detective who shared his last name; when Drummond went on the air in 1969, he recalls, the "old-timers" tagged him Bulldog. Even with this knowledge, you can't escape the thought that he looks the part.
It's been two years since he last reported a story on Channel Two, but for nearly three decades he was the voice that detailed the exploits of syndicate wise guys and "juice-loan kings" just as their reign was ending. The names still trip easily off his tongue: Joey "the Doves" Aiuppa, Joey "the Clown" Lombardo, Jimmy "the Bomber" Catuara. He looked like a crime reporter should--conservative suit and tie, sometimes a fedora. He gave the spotlight over to his colorful stories, sounding weary yet exuberant in that weariness. When Sam Giancana died in 1975, Drummond went on the air with the guest list from the wedding of Giancana's daughter Antoinette; it included a Chicago alderman, a judge, and a Cook County Board commissioner. Drummond had style; without so much as a smirk, he could deliver the sentence "For the butter-and-egg men who hail from places like Albertville, Wisconsin, Rush Street will always be the place where the action is."
But right now the Dirksen Federal Building seems as distant as Guam. Bulldog and I are in a family restaurant in Evanston. As he slides into the corner booth, he lets out an "oooooh," explaining that his back's been killing him lately, though it's nothing compared to last year, when he tore his left rotator cuff and had to have surgery. For six weeks he couldn't come to a restaurant like this because he couldn't bend his arm. Putting his wallet in the left back pocket was out too. He couldn't go golfing or fish or drive the Caddie. "I couldn't even dress myself," he says. "For Christsake, I'm a southpaw."
Still, he's kept plenty busy since his retirement. He's narrated six A & E Biography shows, the last one on gangster Baby Face Nelson. He also served as a consultant for one of the network's programs on Helen Brach. Last year he filled in on Cameron Langford's WMAQ radio show 20 times, and he wrote a book, Thirty Years in the Trenches: Covering Crooks, Characters and Capers.
"I do like that TV show I watch now," he says. "That's Law & Order. You ever watch that? I think that show is so on. In fact, if I was a state's attorney, I would have all my people watch that. Really, I would."
If that sounds too earnest for a hardened chronicler of crooks, then perhaps you never knew Drummond. His penchant for mobsters was cultivated early in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where the brother of a neighbor would come up from Chicago on holiday visits. The man was a civil engineer and a bachelor who brought stories of big-time hoods and the pitiless moves of the Kelly-Nash machine. Common stories, perhaps, but for Drummond they forever made Chicago a place where black and white hats collided and where boys like himself could find the action.
Back then the city was full of characters, he points out, people like Vince Geraci, "a big man in the massage parlor game," Tiger Joe Marsh, an ex-wrestler turned actor, or Myron "Slim" Brundage, who ran the College of Complexes, where everyone had a fair say.
"I think we've lost something," he says. "I definitely do. Maybe I'm wrong, but you don't see those types of guys anymore. I think it's all over. I don't think people come from the same bottle anymore. I don't think we have as many characters as we had in those days. Maybe it had something to do with the flight to suburbia, television making us all think alike. I don't think Navy Pier has that many good stories. No, I just don't think so. No."
Drummond worked as a radio reporter in Iowa after earning a master's degree in political science from the University of Minnesota; then he was at a television station in Rockford. In 1967 he came to Chicago, taking a job at WIND radio, where he covered "an awful lot of meetings"--the school board, library board, City Council. If he didn't know something, he'd ask one of the newspaper guys for help. When he realized their generosity would carry him only so far, he began to clip articles, discovering ties between subjects and piecing together identities as he sorted these stories into files. When he left for WBBM TV in 1969, he continued the practice, and by 1977 he had a row of file cabinets devoted to his scissor work. Today many of these files are stored in his basement.
"I have a lot of them," he says. "They still come in handy, I have to say. The other day, for example, Angelo LaPietra died. Now you say, 'Who the hell is that?' Well, Angelo LaPietra was the mob boss in Chinatown. It's L-a-P-i-e-t-r-a. First name is Angelo, known as the Hook. His brother's name was Jimmy the Lapper. Nasty fellows."
Jimmy the what?
"Jimmy the Lapper."
"L-a-p-p-e-r," Drummond says. "Why he got that name I don't know. So I read that LaPietra died. So I called the station up because I do a lot of work with Cameron Langford and I did a piece on the air that night at six o'clock. We saw that in the small print. Now later both the Tribune and the Sun-Times had obituary stories on that. But I saw that first. I went through the list. I always go through the small print, the paid obituaries. And there it was, LaPietra from Bridgeport. I said, 'Well, that's got to be the guy.' But I can't go on the air with that, with that evidence. So I called the FBI. I said, 'There's an Angelo LaPietra that's listed in the obituary today, in the paid obituaries, in the small print. Is he Angelo "the Hook" LaPietra?' The FBI talked to the guys in the organized crime unit and they looked at it so then they could see the relations. Who his wife was, his daughter was. That was the same guy. So on Monday, whenever it was--I also gave 'BBM the story--I went down and opened up the files and looked at all the stuff I had on LaPietra. It confirmed what I knew about him, but it was good to see when he was sentenced and that type of thing. The files come in handy, yep."
Drummond begins to tell me about a banker who absconded with the life savings of his immigrant customers, but he can't remember the guy's name. Later we drive back up to Wilmette. Bulldog lives in a small bungalow with a detached garage that he and his wife, Carol, bought in 1970. They'd been renting in Evanston, he says, when they purchased the house for a "relative song" from a pilot and a stewardess who were in the midst of a divorce. When the pair reconciled and wanted the house back, the Drummonds and their three children had been living there a week. By then, he says, they had already come to love it--how close it was to the lake and the el, which he took to work nearly every day.
"The kids got to go to the New Trier school district," he says, "which I guess was good and bad. A lot if not most of the kids who go there are affluent, and their idea of spring break, which I had no concept of when I was in high school or even college, was to go to Aspen or Fort Lauderdale or Paris. So if your kid is there, they see these things. They have a tendency to think that everybody has these things, and that's not true."
Before going inside we walk around the neighborhood to work off our lunch. "That fish fry," he says, "was greasy as shit." Despite the cool weather and gray sky, the surroundings still look as though they'd been assembled from a kit. Nice houses and leafless, overarching trees. Stretches of cobblestone. Neighbors who know each other. Drummond says hi to nearly every dog. "That Otis is dynamite," he remarks of one pup.
As we walk east, the Baha'i Temple looms at the end of the street, just on the other side of an old sanitation canal.
"You're John Drummond," says an older man who's walking two dogs. "Aren't you?"
"Yessir. How are you? Good to see you."
"We miss you on the TV."
"Well," he says almost sheepishly, "I appreciate that."
"You'd always tell us about the crimes."
"I don't think there are any," Drummond says. "They might be all dried up."
Five metal filing cabinets occupy a corner of Drummond's basement. The place is full of the tokens of family life: a washer and drier, a refrigerator with four Bud Lights, a bench and barbell set. Hanging from the ceiling are Christmas decorations, ski poles, and a toboggan.
"These are all the files I've got," Drummond says. "Let's suppose you have a story. I don't have a story right now, but let's suppose. I keep them alphabetically by name or by cities. I keep a file for a suburb or something like that. Let's suppose we're doing a story on something generic, gangland murders." He takes out a thick stack of paper. "Some of the more prominent victims are listed by their names--these are for the generic types of things or for palookas who are not well-known."
From G he moves on to M. "There's Merrillville, Indiana," he says. "Here's the Miglin murder. Here's a file on missing persons. Some of these can be pretty good clippings for background. Usually a person that's more prominent or well-known, they have a separate name. Brach, obviously, would have a separate one, Helen Brach."
He opens another cabinet. "Here's a good one," he says, pulling out a file on Ken Eto, otherwise known as Tokyo Joe, Joe Montana, or Joe the Jap. Once the head of an illegal gambling operation, Eto was shot on February 10, 1983, three times in the head with a .22 caliber. But the silencer was faulty, which reduced the velocity of the bullets, so Eto survived, managing to make it to a pharmacy at 7029 W. Grand, where paramedics were called and he decided to turn government witness. After the two men who shot him were freed on bond, they were found dead, stuffed into the trunk of a car. The file has more than just clips--there are transcripts of newscasts, notes Drummond made over the years, as well as court documents.
He holds up a crinkly, barely legible piece of copy. Is that City News?
He nods and says, "Some of those got so faded that I had to throw them out.
"I clipped a story today," he says. "The Tribune did a preview, not that I intend to cover it, sort of a background thing, on the trial of the Du Page Seven, whose trial's beginning next week. You never know."
He holds the file wistfully, looking a bit like the fire horse who's caught the scent of burning embers long after the engine has taken his place. Stories don't end as one event--they come back in the small print of paid obituaries.
"I don't consider myself fully retired," Drummond says as we walk to the garage to retrieve a bag I've left in the front seat of his car. "I think semiretired's the appropriate term."
I pull the bag out and fling it over my shoulder.
"I always think possibly that I weakened my shoulder," he says. "I always went to work, carrying a lot of stuff with me, because you never know. I always carried tapes, tape recorder, clippings. I always carried a couple of newspapers with me. A magazine to read. I always carried some underwear, some change of garments, a bunch of that stuff in case you got rousted. Because you never knew when you had to get onto that train and get the hell out to O'Hare Airport."
Two days later, on Easter, Drummond calls. He apologizes for bothering me on a holiday, but he's remembered the name of the banker he had been telling me about, "the one who ripped off a lot of hardworking Polish people and then was apprehended in Cleveland. I can't remember the name of the savings and loan he ran....I wish I could remember that name."
Give him a couple of days.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.