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In a lonely gravel lot on the 6200 block of North Pulaski Road, a billboard poses a question in plain black text to all who pass: “Who is John Galt?” It seems a rather cryptic query, unless of course you’re one of Ayn Rand’s devotees, a group whose membership has included everyone from the late Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey to the Catholic churchgoing congressman Paul Ryan. But even casual Rand readers will immediately recognize this as the opening line of the author’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.
The roadside ad’s question raises another: Who is responsible? “We don’t know who’s behind the billboard,” says Don Watkins, a fellow from the Ayn Rand Institute, the Irvine, California-based nonprofit that exists to push Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. “We’ve been very active in the Chicago area, putting on regular talks and events. That may or may not have played a role in inspiring the billboard. But we are definitely happy to see signs of Rand’s growing influence.”
Martin Connor Jeffers, president of the Loyola Student Objectivist Society, also had only speculation to offer about the party behind the billboard. “There are many who ascribe to objectivism as a philosophy that would pay for the signs in order to communicate the need for a major shift in our cultural philosophy,” he says. “I would imagine the billboards are a message to those that ascribe to objectivism as well as a way to spur those that don’t to look into it.”
The billboard at Pulaski and Granville is not without precedent. According to the 2009 Rand biography Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Louise Burns, in 1967 a young Ted Turner, who had assumed ownership of his family’s outdoor advertising business, plastered “Who is John Galt?” on 248 signs across the south.
“My parents saw a bunch on their way down to Florida via Jersey,” says Anne Omrod, owner of the local software company John Galt Solutions. The bio page of her firm’s website carries the headline “Who is John Galt?” But she’s quick to add that her organization isn’t associated with the Sauganash billboard.
People in the neighborhood with whom I spoke seem to pay no mind to the sign. “I’ve noticed it but never given it a lot of thought,” says John Italia, who as president of the nearby Rayco Sign Supply is used to fielding questions about area signage.
A block north of the Galt billboard sits Home Care Plus, a medical equipment supplier. Manager Dawn Portokalis says she once inquired about advertising on the billboard and received a quote of $8,000 a month. The amount puzzled her, just like the billboard’s message. “I’ve never researched who John Doe is!” she says. —Jake Malooley