The Face of Hyde Park | Bleader

The Face of Hyde Park


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The Reader’s gotten a lot of reaction to the cover of last week’s special issue on Hyde Park and Kenwood—some amused, some bemused, and some downright outraged (“That guy with no shirt on was the best you could do to encourage people to come to and live in Hyde Park/Kenwood? We have a beautiful lakefront”).

In Hyde Park, Nobel Prize winners cinch up their trunks and flip-flop over to Promontory Point on hot summer days, there to doff their shirts, don their shades, and fire up their stogies. These gray eminences define a local variety of masculine splendor, and our cover lad with the tufted chest fits right in.

He’s Conrad Wennerberg, he’s 77, and he’s lived in Hyde Park for 35 years. Though not a Nobelist himself, he’s a standard-issue Hyde Parker in being an authority on something recondite, and his area of expertise is distance swimming. In 1974 he published a book that’s still in print, Wind, Waves, and Sunburn: A Brief History of Marathon Swimmers. He mentions Ted Erikson, whom he identifies as the first man to swim across Lake Michigan, 36 miles from McCormick Place to Michigan City, in 1961. Wennerberg coached him. He mentions Greta Andersen: “She beat every man she ever swam against. She’s still swimming. She runs a school in California.” He mentions the late Charles Huggins, whom he enjoyed yakking with out on the Point. Huggins won a Nobel Prize in 1966 for his work on the relationship between hormones and prostate cancer.

And he mentions the late Irving Kaplansky, chairman of the U. of C.’s mathematics department. Wennerberg remembers Kaplansky telling him one day on the Point that it was where he’d made one of his most important breakthroughs. Surely the Point’s a good place for that—land’s end, where vast waters lap against the city and the laws of the cosmos seem close enough to touch.

When it’s hot you’ll find Wennerberg where photographer Marc Monaghan found him. “From the Promontory you can swim to the 59th Street pier half a mile away and back—that’s a mile,” says Wennerberg. “Some swim two miles. Or three miles. At seven in the morning you’ll see a clique of women swimming to the pier and back.”

Wennerberg used to do two or three miles a day himself, but now he’s down to a third of a mile. On weekends he swims with his wife, Christine Vollmer, who’s 25 years younger than he is and a supervisor for the Water Reclamation District. They have a daughter at Lincoln Park High and another daughter who went there and is now in college in Iowa. Lincoln Park is quite a ways from Hyde Park. “It costs you 30,000 bucks to go to the Lab School, you know,” he says.

When his face appeared on the cover of the Reader, four people came up to him in Hyde Park’s Treasure Island to say they’d seen it, and his dentist called to congratulate him from La Grange.

“I can’t commit a crime ’cause there’s my picture,” says the athlete, author, and emblematic Hyde Parker, at ease with fame.

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