YMCA’s history includes link to Chicago connections

By Caryl Clem:

A London gentleman, George Williams, started a movement on June 6, 1844 dismayed by the deplorable living conditions in cities. The organization Young Men’s Christian Association aspired to the goals of providing safe places to socially gather, explore education and share in worship. YMCA’s were a safe haven.  A retired merchant marine captain worried about the safety of sailors and merchants traveling to Boston. Sea trade was the basis for the majority of goods arriving in America, providing safe shelter would build financial security for everyone involved.   Places sponsored by the YMCA were established in Boston by the early 1850’s.

The theme to build a better community by working together kept expanding the impact of YMCA. After a meeting with President Lincoln, a volunteer force of 5,000 surgeons, nurses, and chaplains were supplying the soldiers with clothing, medical treatments, and company while distributing 1,000 Bibles during the Civil War. Adding to safe lodging, military assistance, and immigrations services, YMCA built its first gym in 1869 to promote healthy living and body building. Chicago was the first large dormitory to house YMCA members, Farwell Hall constructed in 1867 that would serve as a model for future construction. Another Chicago first was a YMCA hotel built in 1916 since the membership was doubling in size.  Future Chicago YMCA hotel register lists recorded famous names such as award winning journalists Andy Rooney and Dan Rather, civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X.  

The president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., Mr. Rosenwald was a leader promoting and funding building African American YMCA facilities in Chicago and across the country in 1911.  Americans taking road trips during the 1920’s through the 1940’s, could find 100,000rooms in YMCA hotel lodgings more than any hotel chain.    Exploring Chicago and Milwaukee in the late 1960’s cost $5.00 when I shared a double bed room with another college girlfriend.

 Playing ball has forever been a favorite American pastime.  In 1896 “volleyball” was invented in a YMCA in Mass., in Colorado in 1926 “ softball” was introduced into league games by the YMCA,   the term “ racquetball” was coined at a YMCA in Conn. in 1956.  Pairing with the Red Cross, swimming lessons were sponsored by the YMCA. In 1923, the first YMCA summer camp was in Volvo, Illinois, and Camp Duncan.  By 1958 over 13 summer camp locations in three states were managed by the YMCA.

Even the YMCA can “modernize”, dropping the old term for “Y”. The male gender membership started changing after WWII, now the organization includes all members of a family.  Current issues of feeding hungry children and understanding diversity are included in the variety of programs available. One study estimated that the “Y” has positively influenced at least 70% of Americans. 

The “Y” remains a vibrant entity; inspiring Y success stories are available online

Celebrating Walgreens

One hundred and twenty years old born in 1901, I remember some of my early trips to Walgreens on the south side of Chicago more for a chocolate shake at the small diner. Walgreens was truly famous for their malted milk shake that they created in 1922. The first self-service Walgreens opened on Chicago’s South Side in June 1952; the second followed in a few months at Evergreen Plaza. I remember traveling to Evergreen Plaza on the bus with a girlfriend in the late 1960’s and stopping at Walgreens for either a snack or a great place to purchase candy. My Mom shopped at Walgreens to pick up women or men’s perfume for the holidays. I also remember attending a party at the Walgreens home in Lake Forest in the 1980’s; attending a thank you party for theater they sponsored. They were very pleasant and down to earth.

Working at Horton’s Drugstore (for $4 a week) was a job he took only because of an accident that left him unable to take part in sports. While working in a local shoe factory, Walgreen accidentally cut off the top joint of his middle finger, ending his athletic competition. Walgreen became a pharmacist and left for Chicago. He worked for a variety of drug stores taking in what could be done and what should not be during the late 1890’s. it was not until 1901 that Walgreen was able to put together enough money for the down payment on the pharmacy. He wanted to buy the store in which he was working, owned by Isaac Blood. The store was located in the Barret Hotel at Cottage Grove and Bowen Avenue on the southside of Chicago.

After creating the malted milk shake, there were 44 stores, expanding into Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Walgreens Charles Walgreen Sr. died in 1939, his son Charles R. Walgreen Jr. took over the chain until his retirement. Charles Walgreen III became the company’s president in 1969 and retired in 1999. However, he remained on the board of director until 2010. Some major milestones for the company happened in 1984 when Walgreen opened this one thousandth store. The five thousandth store was opened in 2005 and the eight thousandth store was opened in 2012. In 2014, Walgreens took its products and services to the four corners of the world with the completion of its merger with Alliance Boots, a leading international pharmacy-led health and beauty group.

Currently, it operates more than 9,000 Walgreens drugstores. The drugstores are in all fifty states, including the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The Walgreens headquarters office is in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Illinois.

Chicago’s Music Row and Motor Row

My mother and Grandmother used to play so my parents bought their Kimball piano in 1946. I, too, took lessons as a child and played for many years on the same piano. Today, I still have the piano that I sometimes play though it is clearly out of tune and the ivory keys are chipping. Between Adams and Van Buren, on Wabash in the South Loop, it used to be known as “Music Row”. Nearby, my parents purchased their Kimball on Jackson which is now the DePaul Law School. Kimball’s robust business declined in the 1950’s even though they were a giant when it came to pianos and organs. If tuned, my Kimball consolette is probably worth a fortune.

Also on Music Row, according to Antique Piano Shop, The Steger Piano Company was established in 1879 by John V. Steger.  In 1892, the company was established as The Steger & Sons Piano Manufacturing Company. John Steger left Chicago and founded the nearby town of Steger, Illinois, in order to establish the Steger piano factory there.

Across the street was the Lyon and Healy, established in 1864 as a sheet music shop still headquartered in Chicago. By the end of the 19th century, they manufactured musical instruments. Harps, guitars, mandolins, banjos, and brass and percussion instruments. Founded by George Lyons and Patrick Healy, their harps are probably the most popular played by professional musicians including the Chicago Symphony orchestra; considered the best in craftmanship.

Motor Row was directly west of McCormick Place Convention Center including buildings on Michigan Avenue between 2200 and 2500 south and others at approximately 2200 Indiana Ave and Wabash. The district was established between 1905 and 1936 where hundreds of vehicles were sold and repaired. Old autos such as Hudson and Pierce Arrow were available and showcased in rooms on Motor Row. Over 50 buildings occupied the area and stretched over a mile; the most illustrious automobile neighborhood.

The City of Chicago designated the strip for redevelopment as a new entertainment and dining district in McCormick Place area.  Check out the new Motor Row. The former showrooms of Ford, Buick, Cadillac, Hudson, Locomobile, Marmon, are being redeveloped into theater, restaurant, bar, nightclubs, hotel and retail storefronts. Though not sure how Covid has created problems, Motor Row now offers a wonderful working class brewery, Windy City Playhouse as well as a variety of upscale restaurants and bars; a new way to celebrate the New Year.

Portillo’s: A big hot dog deal

By Caryl Clem:

Who purchases a 6 by 12 foot dog house shaped trailer to sell hot dogs even though he has never cooked one? A young frustrated ex-Marine who has left 14 jobs in 18 months was willing to take that gamble. As the Chicago Tribune reported, Dick Portillo was newly married and his mother in law and Brown’s Chicken manager brother encouraged him to try the food industry. In 1963, his trailer named The Dog House was his first attempt to become a hot dog king which opened in Villa Park.

In his autobiography, Out of the Dog House, Dick reports his first customers were served overcooked dogs on dry or burned buns.  Dick’s military background had taught him how to investigate any situation. He went to a popular hot dog restaurant, studied how hot dogs were prepared, buns steamed and even snuck into the storeroom area to take a sample of their relish.  He perfected his basic menu of Hot Dogs, Italian beef, Italian sausage and Polish sausage sandwiches resulting in a steady stream of customers. Dick believed his business would continue to grow if he provided product quality, friendly customer service, a welcoming positive attitude and evident, consistent cleanliness.  In 1967, the business was renamed Portillo’s adding more locations around Chicago.

Dick Portillo used his boundless energy to visit his restaurants on a regular basis.  After watching how customers waited in line he improved food service time. Menu options expand to include fish, salads, pasta, cheese fries, his world famous chocolate cake (made from his daughter-in-law Gina’s recipe) and the chocolate cake shake. Years ago, he was in Downers Grove, Illinois and watched from a parking lot a young mother struggling to control her children’s actions. He could clearly see how drive through windows would increase serving food to families with young children.

Dick Portillo credits his success to the training and maintaining of loyal employees.   The average Portillo location employs between 150-200 people.  Long haul workers who have served for 20 years have been gifted Caribbean cruises. When Portillo decided to open in California, he bused over 2,000 people to his Grand Opening including Marines from the base where he was once stationed, Camp Pendleton. Currently, Portillo’s has over 60 locations in 7 states. Portillo’s was sold to Berkshire Partner’s in 2013.

The real key to Portillo’s success is customer’s taste buds craving more proven by the fact that one location in Chicago grosses over 17 million in sales a year. When mentioning writing about Portillo’s, I heard about a pre-teen young lady named Olivia who lives near Downers Grove. She is a bright light in a classroom and talented student fighting cancer. She has told a teacher that her favorite restaurant is Portillo’s; especially enjoying their cheese fries. She is undergoing daily radiation treatment for several weeks; driving to Luries Childrens Hospital from the southwest suburbs everyday and returning home early evening. The family would love gift cards to restaurants which would be gratefully appreciated to ease the burden surrounding Olivia’s lifesaving care at this time. You may contact Olivia’s Mom on her Facebook site https://www.facebook.com/annamaria.parker.

Admiring the ingenuity of Admiral Corporation

By Caryl Clem

Ross Siragusa had worked summers testing and building transformers at the Jefferson Electric Company. He had started using company equipment to test out his own ideas. This risk taking teenager was fired for not following lab use procedures.  In 1924 after graduating from Loyola High Academy, confident Ross, 18 years old, asked for his father’s blessings to set up his business sharing space with him in a cobbler shop located in the garage.  A legendary Chicago Industrialist in the radio and television market originated under his first sign that read, “Transformer Corporation of America”.

Four years later, his long hours and innovative talent moved the fledgling company to a 4th floor factory at 2309 S Keeler Avenue in Lawndale supplying radio parts around the world. Receiver production expanded the radio market; he introduced his popular classy, eloquent Clarion design radio.

 The stock market crash swept him into instant debt. Ross faced financial failure that he spent the next three years trying to pay.  Ross never lost his determined to start over. His spirited fascination for new product development was inspired by viewing a television at the 1933 World’s Fair.  Fast forward, his company would sell in 1951 , a radio, record player cabinet with a 20 inch T.V set feature black/white with color as an option for $1,000 dollars, adjust to a value of $8,000 today. 

Gambling on his ability to succeed, he sold personal property, factory equipment, and borrowed money to secure funds.  Another garage luck charm from a friend started his new company in 1934, Continental Radio and Television Corporation.  Siragusa knew he was facing stiff competition from credible Chicago based supplies made by with Zenith and Motorola.  His financially responsible reputation allowed him to reconnect with former suppliers. Ross centered his efforts on portable, less expensive, stylish radio models that any consumer could afford.

 In 1936 he bought the trademark “Admiral” for his product line that later would become the company name. His first plant was in 1937 at 3800 West Cortland. By 1950, Admiral manufacturing employed more than 6,000 workers, a leader in radio, record players, and television.

Ross spent money on newspaper advertising, for example, “Here’s a radio you’ll get a tremendous thrill out of owning! So smart, with its golden-mesh metal grille and dial . . . so contrasting in choice of Ivory, Beige, Green or Mahogany cabinet colors. So low-priced for the performance it gives! This is the new radio you have been looking for!” —Newspaper ad for the $24.95 Admiral Deluxe Table Radio, 1955

Admiral was in constant demand.  Ross was a millionaire by the age of 44 in 1950 because of his uncanny ability to select a model and style at the best price for consumer popularity and loyalty. During his entire career, Siragusa kept expanding the range of his product line.  A true Chicago entrepreneur, honest, dedicated, believing there were no limits to hard work and ambition.