Monday, April 10, 2017

Irrepressible Johnny V

  “If we were out having dinner somewhere, we'd often hear someone yell out, 'Johnny V!' An hour later, we'd find dad still talking. He simply loved people.”  Congressman Pete Visclosky, speaking about his father

 John Visclosky, House Speaker Tom Foley, Helen Visclosky, Pete Visclosky, circa 1991

Former Gary mayor John Visclosky died at age 101.  I wrote an article about Johnny V for a book project about the parents of successful Gary natives.  Of Croatian-Slovak descent, Visclosky moved to Gary with his parents in 1917.  Twelve years later, his father died of a burst appendix, leaving behind a wife and five children, of which John was the middle child.  John’s mother found work as a custodian at Lew Wallace, scrubbing floors.  In 1933 Johnny dropped out of school and enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal relief agency designed to put young men to work and enable them to send money back to their families.  Eventually, John returned home and finished high school.  A gifted athlete, John pole vaulted for the Wallace track team and broke a leg playing football. He became a life guard and earned numerous Gold Glove medals boxing.  He learned the welding trade and got a job at U.S. Steel’s pickle mill.  For extra money, he tended bar.  During World War II he joined the navy and served in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

After Visclosky’s political mentor Pete Mandich became mayor in 1952, Johnny was appointed deputy controller under Metro Holovachka and then George Chacharis.  When Mandich ran for Lake County sheriff, George Chacharis succeeded him and Visclosky became controller.  Son Pete, born in 1949, recalled: “Dad played a lot of politics – that’s how he described what he did – at Marco’s Tap on Ridge Road across from the Glen Theater.  As a kid, I’d sit on beer cases in the back having a Nehi orange pop while dad was politicking.  He loved outfoxing the other guy; that gave him delight.  People respected him; they knew when he gave his word, he’d honor it.”  In those days before campaign finance laws, fundraising was mainly cash and carry.  John kept records not in a ledger but on whatever paper was available – including cocktail napkins, match boxes, and the back of parking receipts.  He’d throw them into a locked filing cabinet.  Later, when federal prosecutors questioned him about campaign finances, he produced two full wooden bushel basket of those records.  In 1962, the federal government indicted Chacharis and several members of his administration but not Johnny V.  After Chacharis pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain, Visclosky became mayor. 
 Johnny V sworn in as mayor by Betty Malenka

Visclosky and Charcharis had been wary allies at best and never close.  In fact, Chacharis twice had tried to replace him as controller with one of his cronies only to be dissuaded by Mandich. Visclosky’s first act as mayor was to appoint reformer Glen Van Trease as city controller.  He intended to run for mayor in 1963, but former allies abandoned him for the more pliable A. Martin Katz. After a failed run for county assessor in 1966, Visclosky officially retired from politics but became a key adviser when son Peter ran for Congress in 1984 following the sudden death of Adam Benjamin, Jr., whom Pete had worked for. Pete upset incumbent Katie Hall and county prosecutor Jack Crawford and later said: “I would never have been elected without my dad.  He had the book on everybody.  I had some wasted efforts, but I never went down a blind alley.”

NWI Times columnist Rich James eulogized Johnny V as one who proudly called himself a politician and always had an engaging smile and a story to tell.  James wrote:
      Shortly after the 1984 election, I asked Johnny V. at what point he thought Pete was going to be a winner.  He didn’t even have to think about it. He said it was during a parade in Hammond a couple weeks before the primary. He said he knew his son was going to be a winner because of the way people were reaching out to touch him along the parade route.
      Johnny V. kept tabs on Pete in the many elections that followed.  When he had reached 90 or so, Pete was driving Johnny V. to a restaurant, and dad gave his son hell because scores of candidates had political signs up but not Pete. It didn’t matter, Johnny V. said, that Pete was unopposed in the primary.
      Johnny V. passed on to the great political heaven a week ago. I suspect he’s telling more stories and waging another campaign.

Post-Tribune reporter Jerry Davich wrote about Johnny V when he turned 100, calling him “the perfect illustration of the American Dream.” He quoted son Pete as saying: His favorite thing to do was put people to work so they could then take care of themselves. He loved solving problems. Former State Senator Earline Rogers recalled that he attended her high school open house and helped her husband land a job with the Gary Fire Department.  When Earline first ran for state representative in 1978, Johnny V stopped by her headquarters and made a campaign donation. She told Davich: “Johnny V was always kind, thoughtful and he really cared about the city of Gary and its future. He's really a very special person.

Robert Ordway (above) wrote this comment about Jerry Davich’s “Crooked Politics in Northwest Indiana”: A quick and enjoyable read, Davich details a narrative of political corruption in Northwest Indiana using stories from the media, academics and politicos, both past and present.  The book makes it self-evident that Iiving in the shadow of Chicago, Region politicians have been influenced for over a century on how to conduct business. We are reminded that while organized efforts to curb fraud and waste are ongoing, there are plenty of good public officials that serve as reasons to remain positive about Northwest Indiana's future.”  Johnny V was one of them.
 Coaches Lane and English with Bowling for Donuts team

Angie and Becca

Over the weekend, grandson James competed in a state bowling tournament in Lafayette, and Becca won a trophy for singing “Astonishing” (“I will blaze until I find my time and place, I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace, I will not disappear without a trace”) from “Little Woman” in a Chesterton H.S. talent show.  Miranda and Sean stopped in for lunch after a week in Cancun, Mexico, and I watched the dramatic Masters triumph of Sergio Garcia in a one-hole playoff against Justin Rose, the Spaniard’s first victory in a major in 74 tries. I used to root against Garcia, who once disparaged Tiger Wood, but now I tend to sympathize with aging veterans.
Sean and Miranda
Sergio Garcia
I’ve introduced Ron Cohen innumerable times, mentioning that we started at IUN on the same day in the Fall of 1970, co-founded the Calumet Regional Archives and Steel Shavings magazine, and co-edited “Gary: A Pictorial History” before my colleague turned his attention to the history of folk music. Prior to his talk on Woody Guthrie at Gino’s to my history book club group, I read this 2012 blurb from Country Joe MacDonald, most famous for singing “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” at Woodstock with his psychedelic jug band Country Joe and the Fish:
Upon the celebration of the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth there will be a new visitation to the bard’s life and works.  In spite of his global fame, little is actually known by the average person about the man and his career and life.  “Woody Guthrie: Writing America’s Songs” fills in the blanks. I suggest you put on some music and learn with Cohen’s new book while you have your own Woody Guthrie birthday party.
I added that Guthrie’s dad named him after Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate for President at the time Woody was born.

Beforehand, Ron wondered if anyone had read his book.  I replied, “Besides me, at least two people.”  I had loaned mine to Brian Barnes, and I knew from experience that Debra Dubovitz always came prepared.  Sure enough, when Ron couldn’t immediately come up the name of Woody’s third wife, she correctly said, “Anneke.”  After Ron stated that “This Land Is Your Land” first became well-known as a children’s song, former teacher Connie Barnes noted that her fourth graders learned it from an elementary school songbook.  George Van Til recalled that after Rennie Davis spoke at IUN against the war on Vietnam, those on stage, including Mayor Richard Hatcher, led the crowd in the singing of “This Land Is Your Land.” On January 18, 2009, at the “We Are One” Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and others sang Woody’s classic anthem.
above, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger; below, Anthony Rizzo with trophy
Because of an 80-minute rain delay, I got home in time to watch the raising of the 2016 World Series banner before the Cubs home opener.  Even more impressive were Cubs players walking the length of the field with Anthony Rizzo holding the championship trophy.  Rizzo later had the game-winning hit against the Dodgers in the ninth.

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