By John Rice
Claude A. Walker stands apart from the other Forest Park Review publishers of the past century because he was also a successful politician. Walker was a larger-than-life character who could command a room with his big frame and boisterous voice. He somehow ran the Review (and several other suburban newspapers), while serving as state representative for the 4th District. His legacy in Forest Park continues to this day.
Walker was born in Chicago in 1905. His family was of Polish descent and had Anglicized the family name from Walkowiak. He grew up in a Polish enclave in Summit and graduated from Lyons Township High School, then went on to earn his bachelor's degree from Lewis University and his law degree from Loyola University. He later served as editor and publisher of several suburban weekly newspapers for 44 years.
Besides publishing, he somehow also found time to operate Forest Printing Co. and to pen a weekly column called "Personal Observations." He even owned a building & loan in Summit.
His wife was also from Summit. Walker married the former Lillian Przybylski and they had three boys, Claude Jr., Richard and Michael. They sent all three sons to military school and Mike ended up serving in the Marines.
"Both parents were strict about manners," his granddaughter Maureen Gaughan recalled, "It was yes ma'am, yes sir and no elbows on the table."
When he was enforcing rules, Walker could be intimidating. He was over 6-feet tall and had played semi-pro football. He reportedly knocked out a fellow in Springfield, who dared to call him a "dumb Polack." But Walker also had a sense of humor about the stereotype, saying that he wore "a big coat and small hat."
"He was fabulous, funny and gregarious," Gaughan recalled.
"He was a born politician," daughter-in-law Nancy Svoboda said. "He was very outgoing and made a lot of political friends in Springfield." These included friends from across the aisle, like Paul Simon, who started a newspaper when he was 19, becoming the youngest editor in the U.S. "The duo co-sponsored bills to strengthen the freedom of the press," said his grandson, Claude Walker III. As a freshman state rep, Walker sponsored 35 bills that passed unanimously.
Lillian, meanwhile, was perfect for her role as a politician's wife. "She was always impeccably dressed," Gaughan recalled. "She loved to throw parties and entertain guests. She also kept Claude organized." The couple lived in apartments in Forest Park and kept a home in Hollywood, Florida.
Although elected office was his priority, Walker's great love was writing. He used his column to champion traditional values. He was "old school" and decried the growing lack of manners and civility in American society. He also wrote about policy-making and the inner workings of the state capitol. In Springfield, he became close friends with a rising star, Charles Percy, who later served as U.S. Senator.
When Claude III was a young boy, he used to visit Walker in the state house chamber. "That's when I decided to become a politician." (He's currently active in Common Cause). "Pop fostered my budding political addiction, touting me to lawmakers around the U.S. He introduced me to such legislative lions as Senator Everett Dirksen and Chuck Percy."
Aside from politics, Claude III liked spending time with "Pop" at the Forest Park Review. "As kids, my sisters and I would hang out at the old Review office on Madison Street to pester my grandfather, dad and uncles. Or we would enjoy the ear-shattering presses at Forest Printing, play with the lead linotype "slugs" and inhale the ink. It truly was in our veins. It's so gratifying to see the Review flourishing, when most newspapers are struggling."
When he wasn't writing, Walker was enjoying life to the fullest. He traveled extensively, making frequent trips to Florida. He also docked a speedboat in Chicago's Montrose Harbor. But his heart remained in Forest Park. That heart suddenly stopped beating on March 25, 1957. He was 65.
His descendants continue to embrace the community. Svoboda had a 30-year career at Forest Park banks, finishing up at Forest Park National. She was also very active in the Chamber of Commerce and Main Street, becoming good friends with Main Street Director Art Jones.
Svoboda already had deep roots in the community, as her father, Robert, owned the sprawling Andro Drugs at Desplaines & Madison. She worked there in cosmetics and behind the soda fountain. Her family lived in a brand-new brick on Taylor Street. "It had all the pink and turquoise tile you could want."
Svoboda passed on her pride in Forest Park to her daughters. Gaughan recalled playing an elf at the bank every Christmas. She participated in parades and worked in daycare at the Community Center for Cindy Lyons. Her daughter, Darby, recently celebrated her 12th birthday by helping paint the Circle Avenue Bridge. Their panel has a white background, decorated with flowers and handprints.
The family of Claude A. Walker continues to leave its mark on Forest Park.