Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Tom Higgins R.I.P.

“Monday and Thursday nights the department stores along Broadway were open until nine.  Sears smelled like peanuts if you went in the back door off Massachusetts.  Near the door at Gordon’s was the cosmetics section, so you’d smell the perfume when you walked in.  It made you feel good.”  Tom Higgins on downtown Gary in the 1940s
Tom Higgins in 2007 with Red Rider BB gun signed by Jean Shepherd

Tom Higgins, indefatigable Gary native, newsman and TV host, good friend, and IUN’s former Alumni Relations director, passed away after a three-year battle with cancer.  I was often his guest on WYIN’s “The Tom Higgins Show” and one he co-hosted with Wally McCormack on a Portage cable station.  What a memorable pair of characters.  Higgins frequently visited the Archives and donated books he wrote about his alma mater Horace Mann and rival Froebel.  NWI Times reporter Sarah Reese interviewed Tom’s wife Betty Higgins and daughters Stacy and Tracy, and they all mentioned the jokes and stories he told and his love of Gary.  Tony Rose, who worked with Higgins for 13 years, summed him up perfectly, calling Tom “a model broadcaster, a model citizen, and a model human being.”  Tony Roberts, also a co-worker at WWCA radio station, told Reese:
  Tom was one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet. He had a wry sense of humor, very quick-witted. He was the perfect guy for the mornings. I had to fill in for him a couple of times, and I was worried because he was so good and so talented. He set a high standard. He was very even-tempered. Tom never got too high, and he never got too low. He enjoyed life.

Nicole Anslover requested that  I reprise a talk I gave in 2012 to her class, making use of oral histories, on the postwar “Age of Anxiety” in the Calumet Region.  I told her to pencil me in.   Students will read excerpts from interviews with IUN Performing Arts professor Garrett Cope, Post-Tribune reporter Carrol Vertrees, and “The Hig-man.”  All died within the past year. On a memoir Higgins recalled old haunts:
  You could live your whole life on the block.  Everything was there for you.  There were two ice cream places at Fifth and Jackson: Mrs. Hanley’s on the southeast corner and the Igloo on the northeast corner.  We went to the Tivoli Tap at Fifth and Polk or the Flamingo on Fifth between Washington and Adams for pizza.  Pharmacies were plentiful.  At Fifth and Polk was Honoff’s, and a block down at Tyler was Hanna’s.  On the alley between them was a grocery store.  There were a lot of bars, of course.
  In warm weather Horace Mann guys hung out at Randolph Street beach.  You’d walk down to a snack shop at Shelby.  We’d have beach parties and bonfires.  On the route home was Ted’s Drive-In, located where 12 and 20 came together, right before the Aetna light. It was the main route between Chicago and Michigan.  Ted’s featured a rum-flavored cake and the best food.  Waitresses dressed like drum majorettes and came to your car.  If you gave them money for the jukebox, some would dance.  Ted’s did a huge business, especially on weekends.  One girl supposedly made $400 in tips one July 4.  Ted’s stayed open until late fall.  After we could drive, it was standard procedure to meet up at Ted’s after the movies.
  Joe Sullivan had a hot stick shift Dodge.  One night he outran the police with me in the car.  He dropped us off at Markman’s Drug Store at Fifth and Lincoln and took off.  Al Terry, George Evdokiou, and I once went to the stock races at Blue Island.  Al was so enthused afterwards he drove all the way back to Gary in second gear.  He liked the way it caused the engine to growl and made for fast getaways.  H.B. Steward had the use of a yellow Buick convertible with double spotlights.  We were really envious.

Higgins kept a sailboat, Amkatt, at the Hammond marina ever since it opened 24 years ago.  “This year (in April) he was strong enough to drive it into the pier and dock it,” Betty Higgins recalled.  In “Lake Michigan Tales” Steel Shavings, volume 28, is Tom’s true saga of going overboard during a storm on Father’s Day, 1996. Hanging onto a kid’s size life jacket and fearful of hypothermia, he spotted Ollie Atterbury and Keith Carey on board an approaching Boston Whaler.  Higgins wrote:
  Keith threw me a line, then he and Ollie brought me to the gunwale of the boat.  “Hop in,” said Ollie.  “I can’t,” I apologized.  “My pants keep slipping down.”  With that, Ollie left his driver’s station, came to the port side, slipped his hands under my shoulder, and in one smooth motion lifted me on board, still carrying the life jacket.
  The lightning and roiling thunder were getting more frequent, and the rain was just starting.
  “Follow me into the harbor,” Ollie called to the sailboat.  “They can’t,” I said.  “They don’t know anything about running that boat.  I’ve got to get back on.”
  With that, Ollie ran his boat about 30 yards to alongside Amkatt and gave me a boost while (son-in-law) Mike (Maretich) pulled me up through the lifelines.  Then, as the Whaler turned to head in, the rains, accompanied by more lightning, came in cloudburst fashion.  In fact, back at the wheel, that rain felt warm compared to the Lake.  It was over.

Affable though he surely was, Higgins didn’t suffer fools.  As Alumni Director, he refused to kowtow to an incoming chancellor who had no idea how revered he was or to an incompetent Channel 56 general manager.  In many ways he was a role model – to my son Phil who started his career at WYIN, and to me for the dogged way he researched local history.  Throughout his seventies he never slowed down, much less retired.  Rest in peace, my friend.  Because if you, I’m looking forward to at least seven more productive years.

A new NWI Times local history website contains a photo of Cedar Lake’s Monon train depot as well as a tank rolling off Hammond’s Pullman-Standard plant assembly line.  Columnist Larry Clark’s wrote that he found his great-grandparents, the Schroeders, listed in the 1860 Chicago census as Scrieder, in the 1870 census as Shroder, in subsequent Porter County lists as Schrader and Schraeder, and, starting in 1920, as Schroeder.  Clark noted:
  The most interesting aspect when going through lists of names is picking out first names that are not used any longer. There was a man in LaPorte County in 1840 named Orange Lemon.  In 1850 in Porter County there was Tennessee Baum, Theophilus Cain, Philemon Button, Philander and Eliphalet Curtis, Amasa Eastwood, Sophronia Dillingham, Azariah Freeman, Horatio Gates, Gershom Hollister, Simeon Jessup, Nehamiah Merrill, Ovid Oaks, Asaph Page, Ambrose Perry and wife Euphrasia, Merryman Price and Narcissa Zane. These are just a few of the people who had names that haven't met the test of time but are out there for adventurous future parents.
I fell in with Chris Young’s family on the way to IUN’s Redhawk Café on its debut under new management.  The place was quite crowded, unlike most days, but the Mexican food court was not yet open.  Chris recommended Monterrey Taco on West Ridge.  His sons Robert and Anthony are in Samuel A. Love’s summer Film class, and waved when I dropped in to loan Sam “A Talent for Detail: The Photographs of Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston” by Maryland grad school buddies Pete Daniel and Ray Smock.  For years I passed a paperback copy around in my classes.  When Ray gave me a hardback that he found when we both were at Powell’s famous Portland, Oregon, bookstore, he inscribed it to the only person he knew that had worn one out.  Among Johnston’s famous photos of celebrities are ones of humorist Mark Twain, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and urban reformer Jacob A. Riis.  Like progressives of her generation, she was interested in social injustices, such as the plight of women workers.

Samuel A. Love in Glen Park; photo by Ashanti West

Because Sam was discussing Danish immigrant Jacob Riis, I hung around.  He is patient and imaginative in keeping kids’ attention yet covered important information.  I had not realized that Riis’s assistants had to set off a chemically induced blast in order to create adequate lighting to document slum conditions in dark alleys and windowless tenements.  Sam re-introduced me (I’d been to class once before) as Dr. Jimbo, mentioned my book about Riis, and solicited my opinion about Riis’s legacy.  He’d told the class that Riis had influenced other photo-journalists, including Camilo Vergara, whose title “How the Other Half Worships” is a take-off on Riis’s classic 1890 study of New York City housing conditions, “How the Other Half Lives.”  I added that on lecture tours Riis showed glass slides with a stereopticon and reminded audiences that slums existed in virtually all cities (even, I added, early Gary, which Riis once visited).
Michael Bayer shared Wilson E. Allen’s photo quoting Bernie Sanders as well as this statement from the Vermont Senator, appearing in The Nation:
  I’ve known Hillary Clinton for many years. Let me confess: I like Hillary. I disagree with Hillary Clinton on many issues. My job is to differentiate myself from her on the issues—not by personal attacks. I’ve never run a negative ad in my life. Why not? First of all, in Vermont, they don’t work—and, frankly, I think increasingly around this country they don’t work. I really do believe that people want a candidate to come up with solutions to America’s problems rather than just attacking his or her opponent.

On the lighter side, Steve Pickert passed on this sick joke:

Phone rings, woman answers.

The pervert, with heavy breathing, says, “I bet you have a tight ass with no hair?”

Woman replies, “Yes I do; he's watching golf - who shall I say is calling?”

For 24 hours we lost the use of our phones due to a Comcast glitch.  During the same period, due to similar problems, the New York Stock Exchange ground to a halt and all United Airlines flights were grounded.  So far, the government claims there is no evidence of foul play.

Neighbor Gina, walking two dogs, asked if Maggie was still with us.  Dave’s family returned from Florida, so their dog is back home.  Angie is off to Texas for a wedding so James and Becca spent the night after we had dinner at Applebee’s.

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