It was a thrill to meet my journalistic hero, Chicago Tribune reporter, Ron Grossman. I enjoy Ron’s folksy tone and old-school wisdom. I was also struck by his connection to Forest Park. His family made an annual pilgrimage to Jewish Waldheim Cemetery for Yizkor.
This is a Jewish tradition that involved visiting his grandparents’ graves, saying a prayer and placing a pebble on the headstone.
“It was like a visit to a park and a history lesson at the same time,” he recalled.
The highlight, though, was his mother serving a special meal of lamb chops.
I didn’t know Ron had a contemporary connection to Forest Park until I learned he was taking weekly harmonica lessons from John Milan. Following a lesson, I dined with Ron and his delightful wife, Diane. Ron’s love for the harmonica goes back to his days at the University of Chicago, where he paid a yearly tuition of $600 to earn his Ph.D. in history.
While studying on the South Side, Ron became a big fan of the blues, especially the three harmonica giants, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Charlie Musselwhite. Ron is such a big fan, he and Diane traveled to Mississippi to visit Williamson’s grave. Thus inspired, Ron gave himself harmonica lessons for his 80th birthday.
He chose John Milan as his teacher, because his granddaughter had taken lessons from him. Ron started out on the diatonic harmonica his heroes had played.
However, he found it too difficult to bend blue notes, so he switched to the simpler chromatic model. After three years of lessons, he mastered it well enough to accompany a band on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” at his daughter’s wedding.
Ron didn’t start out to be a musician. Growing up in Albany Park, he wanted to be a writer. Ron is proud of his roots in the close-knit Jewish neighborhood. He enjoys strolling down city streets and observing the subtle changes to the buildings. It goes back to his love of architecture, which he once studied.
Ron was a little late getting into the writing racket. He spent 30 years teaching history at Lake Forest College, Michigan State University and the University of Nebraska. He didn’t join the Tribune until he was 50. He said that the rough and tumble of Chicago politics didn’t faze him after all the intrigue he had faced in academia.
Thirty-three years later, he’s still writing opinion columns, news stories and historical flashbacks. He wrote a flashback about Woodlawn Cemetery’s Showmen’s Rest. He said the brooding elephants made it look like a section for Republicans.
Ron is an old “lefty” with liberal leanings, but he writes about the need for political reconciliation. He laments the fact that the Tribune is moving from its tower, where the First Amendment is carved in marble.
During our dinner, Ron regaled us with stories of his exploits all over the world. He didn’t even mention he had interviewed novelist Joseph Heller and playwright Arthur Miller.
That’s because he’s a humble, down-to-earth neighborhood guy. He sees these same qualities in the people of Forest Park. He called the village his “Alpha and Omega.” The place where he honored graves as a kid and wails on the harmonica at the age of 83.
Yizkor for Ron was more than savoring lamb chops. During the meal, his mother, Ethel, contented herself with cornflakes. Seeing the sacrifices his parents made inspires Ron to follow their example.
He hopes that, in the coming year, the spirit of Yizkor will motivate more of us to sacrifice for the people who need our help.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com