By John Rice
Jackie Schulz is living proof that people who don't think they're very interesting can be fascinating. Jackie recently retired from writing her weekly column for the Forest Park Review after an astounding 47-year career. But even if she hadn't written a word for the newspaper, Schulz would be a beloved figure in Forest Park. Friends and neighbors know her as that nice woman who walks her dog everywhere and welcomes visitors from far off places to her home. But writing almost 2,500 columns has made her a cultural icon in the community.
Her first column appeared on Wednesday, April 8, 1970. It was titled, "People about Town …" and it bore her byline, as well as her telephone number, 366-4685. This is still the number where readers can reach Jackie. In her humble way, Schulz welcomed readers to the column and invited them to share their news with her.
"We're all interested in each other," she wrote, "so send in your good news and help spread a little joy while satisfying our curiosity."
Thus began Schulz's loving relationship with the people of Forest Park. She celebrated their new babies, grandchildren, vacations, promotions, weddings and even the recipes they discovered. She wrote in a breezy, friendly manner, like she was talking to each reader. She also faithfully listed their birthdays, including some who were no longer celebrating. The column was far from hard news, more like a warm hug.
Schulz inherited her warmth from her Irish mother. Her stern German father was another story. Schulz was their only child. She was raised Catholic in St. Killian Parish, on the South Side of Chicago. She received a parochial education at the parish school and stuck with Catholic schools, including Aquinas High School, St. Theresa in Winona, Minnesota, and Loyola University. She earned degrees in English and Education.
"My mom put me through school," she recalled with gratitude.
After she graduated, Schulz landed a job with the Chicago Public Schools. The novice teacher was assigned to teach kindergarten at Jenner School, in the heart of the Cabrini-Green housing complex.
"I had 75 kids in my morning session and 50 in the afternoon," Schulz recalled with a laugh. She continued teaching primary grades for CPS, until she came up against a principal who was impossible. She spent her remaining years teaching at St. Celestine in Elmwood Park.
In the meantime, Schulz moved into the Forest Park two-flat that had been built by her grandfather, Paul Schulz. She first came aboard the Review staff after the death of Publisher Claude Walker, whose obituary ran a week before her first column. Carl Schwebl and Bill McKenzie had purchased the Review and wanted her to write a "gossip column."
Schulz had no use for gossip, written or verbal. She started a society column instead.
"I used to call people for stories," she said. "I decided to list birthdays because everyone has a birthday." Filling a weekly column was a daunting task. "I was trying to find something unique and interesting," Schulz said. "Every so often, I would strike gold. I'd publicize a show, or an event."
Jackie took on the column because "this was a good discipline to improve myself." She certainly didn't do it for the money.
"When Bob Haeger took over, I was getting paid $50 every three months." What really attracted her was the camaraderie in the newsroom at 7516 Madison Street.
"I had to go in once a week and I typed on a typewriter." Another perk was working for an editor like Haeger.
"He was a character," Schulz recalled, "Drinking martinis and playing the piano at Homer's. He was a lot of fun and had a very relaxed writing style." Haeger was in his 50s and sang with a barbershop group. His column, like Jackie's, was a break from the hard news. He gave Schulz plenty of leeway with her column. Still, she would find herself "panicking before deadline, looking for 'The Big It,' my topic."
Jackie's method for finding stories was to walk her dog Callahan all over town.
"I'd bump into people and get a story. My dog got me my friends and my newspaper columns." Callahan helped her with news gathering for 15 years until he died last year. She now has a rescue dog named Barkley pounding the pavement.
When the Wednesday Journal purchased the Review, Publisher Dan Haley gave Schulz an immediate pay raise. "I was paid $50 per column. I found people were so interesting, I could write a column every week just about one person."
When she wasn't writing, Schulz played the piano and cello. She belonged to a string quartet and loves classical music.
"When I was a little girl, I used to dance around the room to the 'Waltz of the Flowers.' She was partial to music by Russian composers, like Tchaikovsky. She also got a thrill, when a musician friend introduced her to the Russian conductor Rostropovich. "He kissed me in three places," Schulz fondly recalled.
Travel was another passion for Schulz. "I traveled alone," she recalled. "I wanted to see what the world was like. The people I met were like the people across the street." Schulz ventured to India and Nepal, where she worked with a doctor who studied monkeys. "I'm an animal lover," Jackie declared, "but, if you've seen one monkey, you've seen them all."
She went with a group of teachers to Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Bali, Hong Kong and China.
"I went to the 'hard places,'" she noted, "before I went to Europe." She also visited Morocco, Iran, Kosovo and the Philippines. When she wasn't traveling the world, the world came to her door. "I take in renters from all over the world," Schulz said, referring to her second-floor flat, where a family from Albania is staying. She once hosted a family from Iran and returned the favor by visiting their home.
During these years of travel, Jackie found love several times. "I had some good romances, but I wasn't going to get into it full-time."
Although Jackie has led a colorful life, she didn't write about it in the Review.
"I never wrote about myself in my column or about my trips. It wasn't that kind of column. The focus should always be on other people."
It takes discipline for a columnist to write a column week after week, without writing about their own life. No one was better than Jackie in coming up with topics and taking photos to run with the text.
In recent years, she would come to the newsroom on Mondays — deadline day — and compose her column in the afternoon. Although everyone in the newsroom was busy with their own pieces, they would help Jackie navigate the technology of typing her column and posting her pictures. It was basically a love feast when Jackie showed up and needed help.
Finally, it got to be too much and Schulz wanted to get off the weekly rollercoaster. She didn't realize how hard it would be to quit.
"I get a big heavy feeling when I drive past the Wednesday Journal," she confessed. "I got depressed when I quit." For Schulz, leaving the paper meant losing part of her identity.
Schulz began her first column with, "Hi, Fellow Forest Parkers! So happy you've rested your eyes on this column. Next week your name will be right here, I hope." For almost five decades, Forest Parkers rested their eyes on Jackie's column. She is sorely missed by readers and staff. But if Jackie comes up with another "Big It" and wants to write about it, she would be more than welcome in the newsroom.