When I remember my father, BILL SCHOENBURG, I’ll remember strength — quiet strength.

When I remember my father, BILL SCHOENBURG, I’ll remember strength — quiet strength.

In recent years, I’ve come to describe him to others as a man of the ’50s, my shorthand for that class of man who served in World War II, went to work, left the diaper-changing to his wife, and ditto for most of the conversation.

When I think of the cushy childhood my parents gave me, or the even cushier one my kids have had, I recognize some of the forces that shaped Dad.

He was the 10th of 11 kids — all but two of them were boys — who grew up in Chicago. He learned that if you didn’t eat fast, you might not get enough to satisfy. The streets of Chicago, as he described them when I taped an interview with him in 1998, were divided back then along ethnic lines in ways that may have not been obvious to a visitor, but were well known to those at ground level.

“The block I was on was Jewish,” he said. “The next block over was Polish. Two blocks north was Italian. And just like the gangs are today, you had your neighborhoods, and you’re safe in your own neighborhoods. If you’d go into somebody else’s neighborhood or they came into yours, somebody would get clobbered.”

In fact, he described the problem of attending religious classes at a synagogue that, oddly, was outside home turf.

“They would surround me, the Italian boys, and I’d have to fight my way, take my lickings, and go to Hebrew school,” he said. He didn’t remember any broken bones.

He did remember being in elementary school when Chicago Mayor WILLIAM HALE “BIG BILL” THOMPSON, known to be close to gangster AL CAPONE, came to the school to campaign.
Dad’s father came from Lithuania and spent a life in Chicago in the produce business. He ultimately ran Louis Schoenburg & Sons, a wholesale operation among a row of warehouses in an area called South Water Market.

Working with other brothers moving around cases of fruit helped make my father physically strong, with serious shoulders.

The only sports competition he was ever involved in, at least that I’m aware of, was a bit of speed skating on a Tribune Silver Skates team on Chicago Park District ice as a kid. But part of the home rules he followed was to attend religious services every Saturday, and that kept him from playground baseball teams or high school sports. He graduated from Von Steuben High in Chicago in February 1937.

One of his great regrets was not having received a college education.

“My older brothers, they all pitched in and said, ‘Let’s send Willie to college,’” he recalled. But he lasted only a month after they dropped him off at the University of Illinois in Champaign. A disagreement with frat brothers led them to want to paddle him.

“No way was anybody going to paddle me,” he recalls thinking—and they didn’t. He also flubbed a test. He thought it was a misunderstanding, but he didn’t know he had the power to discuss it with the professor.

“I had no money,” he said. “I had no clothes. I’m not blaming anybody. I just wasn’t mature enough to know what I was doing.”

Dad enlisted in the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor and rose to the rank of technical sergeant. He served in the Philippines, though it was after Japanese occupation ended. A box of war memorabilia he kept at home included some even-then-worthless money used during that Japanese occupation.

But he was proud of his service. In retirement, he’d often take the CTA train from his home in Evanston to downtown Chicago, and he’d have a map of the Philippines with him, ready to show people he might meet.

After the war, he returned to the produce business until only two brothers were left there. He left that business when he was about 40. I remember he then split time working the lunchtime rush at a local McDonald’s and washing Evanston city buses at night.

He got a chance to try selling insurance with Prudential. I used to sit as he listened to how-to-sell records on our phonograph. He would cold-canvass neighborhoods, and my brother and I would sometimes help stuff as many as 500 letters a week that he would mail, seeking leads. I got insurance policies myself on what were otherwise slow weeks.

For a quiet guy, he became a good salesman. He sold enough to regularly make annual conventions, which became our family vacations. He worked until he was in his 70s.

The best thing he ever did was to meet my mom, then EDITH YOUNGMAN, at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom in 1946. A war immigrant from Austria who was smart as a whip and learned English so well that no accent was apparent, she was his companion for more than six decades. She died at 82 in 2008.

Dad was an interesting combination of frugal — I can hardly remember him ever parking in a pay lot — and generous. He was proud to hand over some spending cash whenever my family would visit. He never wanted his kids to feel the pain he did when he got dropped off at college with virtually nothing.

And he was learned in his way. He used the GI Bill to take some Dale Carnegie courses, and when I did the student council election speech circuit, Dad was the one who coached me on how to come across to an audience. As KIM and I raised our son SAM and daughter ELLY and they had to speak in public, I was able to pass along what Dad taught me. They both know that name, Dale Carnegie.

The segregated city in which Dad grew up gave him, for many years, attitudes that I strongly disagreed with. But he mellowed in recent decades — dropping some of his bad habits and opening up to a broader society. And his pride in his kids and grandkids was strong.

And despite all that strong, silent stuff, he had his personal side. He was a good joke-teller, and used to carry around pieces of paper with jokes written on them so he could have one at the ready. He didn’t laugh much in my early years, when money was tight, but when he did laugh, it was with a kind of explosive wheeze that — given how out of character it was in the first place — was absolutely contagious. Even into his later years, his laugh would get me laughing so hard that tears would come.

Dad and Mom made a good purchase back in 1954 — when they were expecting me — and bought a small postwar house in Evanston. He never moved out of it, and I’ve always called it home.

After a year of home hospice care, it’s where his life ended on Wednesday. He was 92.

Thanks for everything, Dad.

Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at 788-1540 or bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.