In 1992, U.S. Steel’s South Works mill closed, putting thousands out of work and pushing South Chicago’s economic downturn into freefall.
The old man wandering through memories in a park district fieldhouse had known it was coming for 20 years.
“In 1992 it went down. RIP. Rest in… place? But really ’72 is when it started to go down,” he said. “We were probably the first guys to know that the mills were starting to go down in ’72.”
His name is Ron and his white hair is wavy, sticks up a little. He wore jeans and a dark polo made of some fitness material not found in nature. He collects wristwatches and had put an old Gene Autry cowboy watch in a new leather band. Autry’s six-shooter clicks as each second ticks by.
Ron has a thick Chicago accent. These and those are dese and dose. When he talks about his son’s job in Joliet, he calls it Jolly-ette.
“I was the designer of No. 4 Electric, No. 11 and 12 blast furnace, the continuous secret billet mill we designed, you name it,” Ron said.
The Southeast Side Historical Society meets Thursdays in the Calumet Park fieldhouse. A quick left past the door leads to a room glutted with past.
Letterman jackets from South Side high schools, massive shelves of old newspapers, walls lined with photos of movie theaters, standing poster display racks where photos of 1800s basketball teams mingle with 1980s street fairs, trophies and pamphlets from games won and lost by players long gone.
The soundtrack is sneaker-squeaks and laughter from the day camp kids playing sports.
“My wife was from Hegewisch,” Ron said, leaning over to look at a black-and-white photo of a 1950s movie house. “I didn’t know they had a theater.”
Ron was born in South Chicago, spent most of his life at a house on Marquette — he gave the address two or three times.
“It was just great. I hung around with the Marquette gang, what they call, and we just took care of the block and everything. The ’50s were the greatest era of my lifetime. I really enjoyed that.”
Ron started as an engineer at U.S. Steel in 1958. He was drafted into Vietnam in 1966, returning in ’72. When the design engineering office closed shortly after, his boss warned the team not to stay in steel.
“He said, ‘Watch out. The mills are going to go down.’ That was the first indication,” he said.
He got a job at an engineering firm that designed nuclear power plants. He stayed there 30 years before retirement.
Also in 1972, he married the girl from Hegewisch and moved to Calumet City, an early adopter of white flight. The rest of his family wouldn’t move until the ‘90s. They went to the North Side after South Works closed.
“There was no mill, there was no businesses, the Ma and Pa Kettle shops were closing down. Commercial Avenue was all deteriorating at that point in time.”
Here he gestured at a large, glass-encased diorama of Commercial Avenue as it was in the early 20th century. I hadn’t recognized it. What’s today a rundown stretch of closed storefronts and Boost Mobile outlets looked like something out of Thornton Wilder.
Ron lives with his sons in the house in Calumet City. His wife died three years ago. The three men had been her caretakers for the decade before that as Alzheimer’s stole her mind.
Ron’s sons came with to the fieldhouse, to see the past their father came from. They talk the same as their dad. Dese and dose. Jolly-ette.
He knew in 1972 that the mill that fed the region was going to close.
“Did people believe you, or did you tell anyone?” I asked.
“No, they didn’t believe us or anything.”
“Why didn’t people believe you?”
Surrounded by memorabilia of the South Side that was, the engineer shrugged.
“It was going strong at that point in time, you know?”