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Heart of Steel

The Fitzgibbons Historical Museum gets to the soul of the southeast side

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By Ted Kleine

One afternoon in August 87-year-old George Terp brought a suitcase full of mementos he'd found while cleaning out the house of his brother-in-law, Warren Caprez, to the Fitzgibbons Historical Museum in Calumet Park. Caprez, who died a few years ago, spent his entire life in Chicago's East Side, and among the items he'd stored away were a group picture and a graduation ribbon from the Gallistel grammar-school class of 1930.

Terp handed the suitcase to Frank Stanley, one of the museum's curators. The 74-year-old Stanley, who also went to Gallistel in the 1930s, was delighted. "They called this a Gallistel crepe hanger," he said, holding up the blue ribbon, which every student wore for a month before graduation. "You know where they sold these? Helbing's. They had everything at Helbing's."

Eventually the ribbon and class picture will join the rest of the museum's collection, which includes a uniform from a local youth baseball team, a hard hat worn at U.S. Steel's South Works, a pair of ice tongs, and a photograph of the 1930 Wisconsin Steel Blast Furnace Department Bowling Team.

The museum, at 9801 S. Avenue G, memorializes what Stanley calls "the forgotten part of Chicago." Like many young men who grew up in East Side, Stanley graduated directly from Bowen High School to a job in the steel mills. He worked 40 years for Wisconsin Steel and by the time it closed in 1980 was the personnel manager. "The steel mills ran real good from 1939 until they closed," he says. "For all that time they used to say, If you can't find a job on the southeast side, you can't find a job. The average high school graduate worked in the mill. He had the job lined up before he graduated. We had some who had three generations. People with just mediocre jobs could have a house and a car. People with dirty jobs were making more than people with white-collar jobs."

The museum can trace its start to 1980, when James Martin, a professor at Columbia College, received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study the southeast side. "It was changing so dramatically," Stanley says. "They were looking for a typical blue-collar neighborhood that was going through transition."

Martin ransacked the neighborhood like an archaeologist, building a collection of documents, photographs, and personal keepsakes that went on display at the Museum of Science and Industry and inspired a 1985 PBS documentary, Wrapped in Steel. When Martin was finished with his research he gave the collection to the East Side Historical Society, which used it to start the museum in the Calumet Park field house. (It was known as the East Side Historical Society until last year, when "East" was changed to "Southeast" to take in the neighborhoods of Hegewisch, South Deering, and South Chicago.)

Most of the museum's volunteers are older people like Stanley, Alex Savastano, and Ora Coon, who has lived in the same house on Avenue C since World War II. Their loyalty to the area derives in part from the southeast side's isolation from the rest of Chicago--it's 15 miles from downtown and linked to the rest of the south side only by bridges. As a result it had its own churches, its own movie theaters and bowling alleys, its own industries. It pretty much developed as a separate village along the Calumet River.

Among the people this traditional neighborhood produced was one of Chicago's leading reactionaries, Ed Vrdolyak. The museum has an entire scrapbook devoted to the rise and fall of Fast Eddie, who was, depending upon which side of 95th Street you lived on, the George Wallace of the Rust Belt or its George Washington. A flyer from his first campaign for alderman is shrewd, effective, and shameless; in a statement about his tavern-owning parents Vrdolyak writes, "They came to Chicago from a foreign land, taught their children that honoring and respecting their God, their family and country were the most important obligations a member of the family has."

By 1982 Vrdolyak was chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, and the next year he became captain of the bloc of white aldermen who stonewalled Mayor Harold Washington. Vrdolyak's headline-making power gave a psychological lift to southeast-siders, who'd long felt slighted by City Hall politicians, especially Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Barney Janecki, a 70-year-old museum visitor, once went to Vrdolyak's office to ask for a donation for Saint Joseph's Church. Vrdolyak arranged for the money--while simultaneously conducting business on the phone. Janecki says liberal critics didn't like Vrdolyak because "he was handsome, intelligent, articulate, and he would act fast. That's why they called him Fast Eddie."

Rod Sellers, a teacher at Washington High School and an authority on southeast-side history, says Vrdolyak "brought a sense to the people of the southeast side that Chicago had a southeast side. Prior to his time there was a sense that people in Chicago didn't know about this neighborhood, and with Vrdolyak and his power base people had to pay attention."

But the museum isn't simply an old-timers' club. Sixteen-year-old Nestor Rivera, who lives at 97th Street and Avenue M, stopped in one afternoon and stood fascinated by a model train that scraped back and forth along a diorama of Ewing Avenue, the neighborhood's main shopping area, circa 1940. "They don't have no train now," Rivera said. "They knocked down Goldblatt's. And White Castle's."

Several of the museum's exhibits were put together by Mexican-American teenagers like Rivera, students in a museology class Sellers teaches at Washington. "I limit them to Chicago history, and I try to urge them to do community history," Sellers says as he clicks through a rack displaying some of his students' work--a map of ethnic churches in the area, a report on the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, in which ten striking steelworkers were gunned down by police outside the Republic Steel plant. The students have also done interviews with World War II veterans for a Chicago Historical Society project and produced a videotape featuring Daily Calumet headlines and photographs from each of the southeast side's four neighborhoods.

"One of the problems you have in the class is that the history of this community is not necessarily the history of the people who live here now," Sellers says. But he's persuaded his Hispanic students to study the history of the Irish, Poles, Serbs, Croatians, and Swedes who preceded them on the southeast side because the history of their neighborhood--labor, immigration, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, ethnic succession--"is the history of the city." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Frank Stankley, Ora Coon, Alex Savastano photo by Nathan Mandell; Vrdolyak '87 pin uncredited photo/ uncredited misc photo.

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