By SUE PURRINGTON
The last time I spoke to Harold Washington was about two weeks before he died. I was the director of Chicago NOW at the time and we had auctioned “Tea and Crumpets” with the mayor at one of our fundraisers (the idea of tea and crumpets, if you recall, came about when Walter Jacobsen publicly hinted that he wanted to be invited to the mayor’s apartment for tea and crumpets). Well, the mayor’s staff was unable to locate crumpets, so the winners and myself had tea and scones with the mayor.
After the others had left, Harold and I talked for a little while, and I asked him how he was doing and how he liked being mayor. He said, “I love this job more than anything I have ever done! This was all I ever wanted to be, although I didn’t know it at the time.” He loved the people, the pomp and circumstance, the working of government and public policy. He loved being mayor, he loved Chicago.
And he loved Hyde Park. It is difficult to write about Harold in a non-political way because that was the essence of the man. But wrapped up in that were the strong ties to the neighborhood he adopted. While the South Side molded him, Hyde Park was the place in many ways that he had been waiting for all his life.
He loved the neighborhood because while we treated him with the respect he deserved, we were also brash, strong, articulate and relentless in our pursuit of whatever we thought (no, knew) was right. He relished the encounters he had on 53rd Street or 55th Street or at the University of Chicago and he thrived on the intellectual challenges brought to him every day. He loved the diversity and deeply respected the people who spent their lives working to preserve that diversity. People from other parts of the city complained that there were too man … too many Jews, too many Blacks, too many Hyde Parkers in his administration. Few people remarked that there had not been many Jews, Blacks or Hyde Parkers in city government previously. He was proud of the neighborhood that produced all that talent that not only put him in office but sustained him, and of course, kept after him when we felt he did wrong.
Before he became mayor, Harold walked around more by himself. Unfortunately that was one of the few things he missed when he went from Congress to the city, he began to lose his privacy. He lunched at the Unique Delicatessen at 53rd and Harper (I always thought it was his favorite place) where he held court regularly, always taking time to launch into an intense discussion with his constitutents. And we in turn never really felt we were his constitutents, we were his friends; we were his partners going down that path with him to make the city become a better place for everyone. He ate at Valois, he had takeout from the Far East Kitchen, and sometimes had breakfast at Nicky’s. And his regular grocery store was the Co-op Express on 53rd, where he did all of his late night emergency shopping for toilet paper, toothpaste, and snacks. That was the place to be just before they closed for the evening: I shopped many nights with Ab Mikva, Bob Mann, Al Raby, Lu Palmer and others. The Express was a hidden hotbed of political discussion. One night at the Express, when Harold was just making up his mind to announce his run for Mayor, he asked me if I wanted to quit my job and run away to the circus with him (join the mayoral campaign). I didn’t, he did and the rest is history.
Again, before he became mayor, I would see him at the easternmost part of the Point, just at the place where there is an endless line of water and sky. He was seemingly staring out at the water, but even then the political wheels were turning about the next adventure, the next challenge. After he became Mayor, I never saw him there again except for special events, something I regretted and I am sure he did. One morning I was stopped in my walk to the then-shuttered 63rd Street Beach house by a car in which Harold was sittin … and we walked around that old building as he told me its history. He would love what it is now. Occasionally he was able to make it on March 13 to honor Clarence Darrow and wait for his spirit to arise from the lagoon. He certianly was never an outdoorsman, but he appreciated the environment and understood the need to protect it.
Even the birds. He had a love-hate relationship with those parrots. He understood how valuable his location across the street from them protected them and helped them thrive, but there were those days, at 6:30 a.m. when they flew by his windows on their morning flights with their raucous voices, when he felt like opening his window and screaming at them to go away. But he was proud of them in his own way and told me once they fit well in Hyde Park because of their loudness and their tenacity.
And next to the people, he loved the bookstores. Harold Washington, despite his tight schedule, was a voracious reader all his life. He spent his extra hours in Powell’s, O’Gara’s, 57th Street, and Seminary bookstores, and read and read. I saw him often in that wonderful bookstore on Kimbark, Reid Mitchners, that seemed to stay open forever, and where he spent late night hours reading everything. I think his favorites were biographies and autobiographies, however, and mostly about people who affected change, both in the system and from the outside. I would come home some nights and there would be a book dropped off to my landlord for me about someone he thought I should know more about. There was never a note with the book but I knew it was from him and that this was my homework.
Harold and I lived in the same precinct, and when he was in Congress, about once a month, as I was waiting for the No. 6 bus downtown, the limo would turn the corner at 54th onto Hyde Park Boulevard, the door would open and Congressman Washington would open the door, get out and invite me to ride with him. I actually believe he timed it so that a large number of people were waiting at the corner when he picked me up. I would get in and we would laugh all the way downtown. I loved all the pomp and circumstance too! Of course that all came to an end when he was elected mayor. I would see that limo turn the corner onto Hyde Park Boulevard and keep going. I mentioned this to him when I saw him at an event and told him that apparently I was no longer good enough to ride with the mayor of Chicago, and about a week later, as I was again waiting for the bus, the limo rounded the corner, it stopped, the mayor got out and invited me into the car, talking to whoever remained at the bus stop. He smiled and asked me how I felt riding with the mayor of the city of Chicago and I told him how excited I was. He said, “well, good, I’m glad you are enjoying it because this is your last free ride!” And it was.
He would talk to me about the vibracy of the neighborhood and about the integrity it produced. He also told me that Hyde Park was one of the few places where he could truly be himself in the midst of all the political machinations because in Hyde Park everything was political, and familiar, from the hundreds of meetings on everything, to the passion of the causes and the arrogance of “divine right.” It was a place where he could be anyone he wanted to be and not worry about who he was supposed to be.
I still have his home phone number and periodically get ready to throw it out because someone else has it now, but I can’t, and I still think of him sometimes when I am waiting for that bus in the morning and a long black car turns at the corner of 54th and Hyde Park Boulevard and heads downtown.
This article is one of a series that was originally published monthly through a collaboration of the Herald with the Hyde Park Historical Society. Sue Purrington is a HPHS member and one of Hyde Park’s legendary activists. Currently she works for Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th).
The Hyde Park Historical Society maintains a museum and library at 5529 S. Lake Park Ave. It is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 773-493-1893 or visit hydeparkhistory.org.