An Alley in Chicago

“I Was a Very Friendly Little Guy”

Monsignor John Joseph Egan got his start in public life hawking the Chicago Tribune the big news night in 1927 when Gene Tunney beat Jack Dempsey for the second time in the “battle of the long count.” It was a fitting beginning for Monsignor Egan’s career, for he would spend much of it helping people “on the ropes” as he worked in St. Justin Martyr Parish, in the Cana Conference, in urban neighborhoods, at the University of Notre Dame, and in community organizations.

Jack Egan sold a lot of papers his first night in business. He’d already learned, at eleven, to compensate for his bantam size with a wide smile and a friendly manner. Some people who came out when he shouted, “Extra, Extra,” gave him as much as a quarter or a fifty cent piece for the three cent paper.

For people in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood two years before the stock market crash of 1929, that newspaper peddled at their doors by newsboys like Jack Egan was the equivalent of television’s ten o’clock news a generation later. They happily overtipped to be on top of the news.

There was no way Jack Egan could have known that night in 1927 that thirty years later he would be the big news of the day himself or that the Chicago Tribune would be one of his opponents as he took on many of Chicago’s powerful vested interests in a battle about the city’s future. Like Jack Dempsey, Jack Egan would not win his fight. Against his powerful adversaries, he didn’t have a chance. But with the characteristic spunk of a bantamweight, Jack Egan would give his fight his best shot in what might be called his battle of the long shot.

In 1958 the headline news was urban renewal in Hyde Park-Kenwood on Chicago’s near South Side. The federal government was making funds available to the city, but those funds were limited. From Monsignor Egan’s point of view, University of Chicago officials wanted to use the federal money to build a moat around their ivy-covered campus. City Hall supported them. That was all right with Monsignor Egan so long as they provided housing alternatives for the poor blacks and whites presently living in the quarters about to be demolished.

On behalf of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Monsignor Egan pleaded at City Hall the case of those about to be dislodged. Like a log cabin trying to overshadow the Sears Tower, the earnest young priest made his case that the poor in Boss Daley’s great city by the lake had the same right to benefit from the city’s urban renewal funds as the great university.

Opposing Monsignor Egan was the array of Goliaths that had been working out the Hyde Park-Kenwood plan for three years. They were Mayor Richard J. Daley: president-maker, hizzoner, “Boss,” “the guy who got things done,” and the Chicago City Council: clout-kingdom, a body strong enough to unmake a lesser mayor. Monsignor Egan was also up against the University of Chicago: one of the world’s powerhouse educational forces, supplied by Rockefeller millions, birthplace of the atom bomb, and the Chicago Tribune: “the world’s greatest newspaper,” a bastion of conservatism in its Gothic tower on Michigan Avenue.

Monsignor Egan confronted the city’s power centers pretty much alone, as the archdiocese’s front man, its agent. There were many official manifestoes to support him. Popes as far back as Leo XIII in 1891 had written encyclical letters urging Catholics to concern themselves about the plight of the poor and the rights of working people. American bishops had published letters of their own, specific to the United States, on the problems of the powerless. American theologians linked the teachings of Jesus on the poor to the condition of the poor in twentieth century United States. All those brave words meant nothing unless there were brave souls to take the Church’s brave teachings into the streets.

Who might be expected to verbalize the Church’s tilt toward the poor? Was the task too political for Chicago’s sweetly permissive Cardinal who could look out innocently from his red moire camouflage and ask a street-savvy, hard-nosed, community organizer, “Now, sonny, tell me what is happening?” Would it have been inappropriate for the brilliant, charismatic rector of the archdiocesan seminary who encouraged men like Jack Egan to take a stand for the poor and then held back on support when their stand was too public?

In the end, it took a Jack Egan backed by the carefully progressive Samuel Cardinal Stritch and trained by that inspiring but repressive seminary rector, Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand, whose long Teutonic visage shared the measured gravity of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. It took a Jack Egan, one of “Rynie Hillenbrand’s young men,” part of a group of young priests upon whom the influential Hillenbrand placed his stamp. As an English contemporary described Jack Egan’s circle of seminarians, “When they emerged from the seminary, they had already had a kind of formation that no priests in the U.S. had. There had never been a seminary like this.” Those young priests, maybe a dozen of them, were part of a group of priests and lay people who created what Jack Egan looks back on as a Golden Age in the Chicago Church. That was the decade before John Cardinal Cody arrived. It was the decade when Chicago led the Church in the United States.

Rynie’s young men were a phenomenon. No matter what parish they were sent to after their ordination, what jobs they were given, they made daring, not always popular, breakthroughs in liturgy, in social questions, in their relations with the people in the pew. They were farsighted. Their ministries were fresh.

Jack Egan with his leprechaun zest, silver-tongued like early Irish labor organizers of the same heritage, ingratiating, and convinced the Church’s place was beside the poor, took the most public positions. He stood, as early Catholic Action chaplain Father Gerard Weber (another of Rynie’s young men) said of himself and Egan, “with one foot in the Church and one foot outside.” Several cardinal archbishops of Chicago supported Jack’s initiatives. Yet over the years Monsignor Jack Egan stood basically alone. As a self-designated connector, he was a lynchpin extraordinaire, linking the Church to the city, ideas to action, people to people, organizations to leaders.

In one sense, Jack Egan was an unlikely slingshooter in the contest with the University of Chicago. He could have been, and for a brief interval later on admits he was, a typical Irish pastor, a “boss” in his own way. Much in his background fit him to be a priest of the old school, not the new: an Irish heritage, training with the Sisters, a fiercely authoritarian father, and a devout Irish mother.

Like most of the Catholics of their day, Jack’s parents were immigrants. Nellie (Helen) Curry and John Egan left poor Irish families in thatch-roofed cottages spiked with the lingering pungency of burning peat to emigrate to New York. Helen came from the hilly farm area of County Fermanagh in what is now Northern Ireland, and John from the gently rolling countryside of County Offaly about sixty miles west from Dublin. Dressmaker Helen met Fifth Avenue bus driver John about two years after she debarked, a winsome Irish colleen, in the daunting metropolis on Manhattan Island. “With all sincerity,” Jack relates, “I think mother left home because there was no place for her in a family with ten children. The easiest thing to do was to come to the United States where her sister had preceded her.”

Jack remembers hearing that his parents met at an Irish Fellowship dinner or dance. “It may have been his (John’s) brother Mike who introduced him to my mother. It may have been her sister Annie, her sister Rose. But anyway they fell in love. A rich love. A typically Irish love. Fidelity was unquestioned.” They had a good marriage. Jack doesn’t remember their acts of affection as visible. “Yet he confided everything to her. He knew of her good common sense. She knew everything about him. They had a life apart from the children. They had a relationship.”

The second child, after his sister Helen, Jack was born October 9, 1916, on New York’s 134th Street, now part of Harlem. The family lived in typically Irish St. Aloysius Parish, a grounding point for newcomers like his parents. Jack was six when the Fifth Avenue Motor Coach Company, having bought out the Chicago Motor Coach Company, transferred his father to Chicago. “Dad had a good education and a good mind for figures. While he was ambitious, he was cautious. He had the title of Chief Clerk in the Transportation Department.”

The Egans left St. Aloysius where Jack, got up as a resplendent page boy, first experienced the Church’s panoply at Forty Hours Devotion (or, maybe, Confirmation), and Central Park, where he got a nasty scratch and a scolding he never forgot for teasing an organ grinder’s monkey. The family rode the New York Central to Chicago, nine-month-old Jimmy on Nellie Egan’s lap, Helen and Jack watching at the train windows for their first glimpse of Chicago, the city with which Jack would deeply identify and which would in time identify with him.

Like most Chicago apartment-dwellers of the twenties, the Egans joined annual May moving-day throngs in their early years in the city. They ricocheted from their first Uptown flat further north to a basement apartment below Alerdice Plumbers in the 5400 block of North Broadway, kitty-corner from the imposing French Gothic church Father John Crowe was building for St. Ita parishioners. Briefly, they enjoyed their mutual Irish roots (Father Crowe was imbedding a black rock in his cornerstone from the ruins of St. Ita’s monastic school in his native County Limerick). The Egans next moved to St. Mel’s on the West Side, and, finally, to a series of apartments on North Paulina and Hermitage in Our Lady of Lourdes parish where two more children, Kathleen and Pat, were born. “My life sort of began at Lourdes,” Jack says.

It was in that North Side Ravenswood neighborhood that Jack Egan settled into the Church. There he first served at the altar, learning to respond, “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum,” to Father James Scanlan’s, “Introibo ad altare Dei.” Jack would have nipped two blocks through the pre-dawn cold to meet the priest in the sacristy. Together they would walk out onto the altar. It was Jack’s duty to ring the bells, carry the missal from one side of the altar to the other, and hold the paten under the chins of the dark figures who came forward out of the recesses of the huge Spanish-style interior for Communion. Jack never forgot the morning the venerable old priest put his arm around his young server and told him, “I hope I don’t die before I see you a bishop.”

Organized in 1892 to serve the English-speaking Catholics in Ravenswood, this originally “suburban” parish had a church modeled after a cathedral in Valladolid in northern Spain (where Columbus died in 1506). The parish was largely Irish until World War I. By the time Jack Egan’s family moved in, the installation of the Ravenswood elevated line and the construction of apartment buildings to supercede the roomy mansions of the original parishioners had created more of a United Nations. “Japanese, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Polish, and Italian, as well as Irish,” Jack recalls from the days when he delivered his neighbors’ Chicago Tribunes, their Herald Americans, their Chicago Daily Newses, and their Abendposts.

Grateful now for that neighborhood melange, Jack credits the mix for his ability to empathize with a wide variety of human beings. He got into the homes of the people on his route. “I talked to them. I was a very friendly little guy. They liked me.” Jack learned the world is made up of people other than Irish. “We weren’t part of the West Side Irish or the South Side Irish. I didn’t have to work through that tribalism.” The Swedish clerks at Signe Carlson’s Bakery on Winnemac rewarded him at the end of his daily paper route with a bag of day-old buns for a dime, and his only neighborhood nickname—“Stale Buns Egan.” He got to know the firemen of Hook and Ladder Number 22 on Winnemac Street, Protestant ministers and their wives, people in the meat market and the grocery store. He felt he got “a love and appreciation of people, an understanding of them.”

It wasn’t that Jack didn’t identify with his Irish roots or share the sustaining pride of the Irish in the University of Notre Dame long before his brother Jimmy went to school there and Jack served as assistant to the president, Father Theodore Hesburgh. Jack remembers crying as he delivered the newspapers headlining Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne’s death in a plane crash in 1931. He still grins when he recollects the 120,000 fans—“I think it is still the largest crowd that ever watched a football game”—exulting as Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen led their team to victory over Army at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1924. To this day he rues the hours he was forced to listen to Father Charles Coughlin from six to seven o’clock p.m. CST on Sunday evenings, another Irish tribal ritual.

Father Coughlin’s popular demagoguery was supported by the lower middle class and upper-working-class Irish and German Catholics, according to sociologist Father Andrew Greeley. (Three months after joining CBS, Coughlin got an average of 80,000 letters a week enclosing more than $20,000, William Manchester noted in The Glory and the Dream. As his popularity grew, Father Coughlin might receive a million letters after some broadcasts. It could take 150 clerks to sort out the bills and stack the change.)

In 1928 Jack’s empathy was already wider than Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitism or Chicago’s bias against its increasing black population even though he had little opportunity to meet blacks in the Ravenswood area of an increasingly segregated Chicago. In those days black runner Ralph Metcalfe training for the 1936 Olympics in Chase Park across from Our Lady of Lourdes was an exotic sight to Jack and his friends. However, Jack came to know his first black not only in the bosom of his family, but also at a time when the Egan family was at its most vulnerable. During a time when Mrs. Egan was hospitalized, Jimmy Egan struggled to breathe in a darkened bedroom, his life threatened by pneumonia. The darkness reaching out from that room touched the Egans’ every waking moment. Through the long weeks of Jimmy’s crisis, and then convalescence, the only light came from the black housekeeper. “Mrs. Bishop was a mother to us,” Jack remembers gratefully. “What a lovely woman, the soul of kindness, gracious, quiet, helpful, generous, cheerful. I can’t say enough about her.”

Jack recalls confiding in his father one morning when it seemed life would never be normal again, “Gee, Daddy, I’m glad you and I are well.” By this time, his mother had been hospitalized more than a month with her tumor surgery. His brother still lay rasping in his dark room. Medical bills that would overshadow their lives for years were accumulating. But the family never regretted what had gone to Mrs. Bishop. Her nurturing presence had sustained them. “How we loved her,” Jack recalls. “How we cried when she left.”

Jack believes it was Mrs. Bishop who influenced his response to an early “funding experience” (in the phrase of Chicago writer Father Jack Shea) that burned into Jack’s mind and “may have marked my later interest in civil rights.” It concerned an incident involving a black man riding a streetcar.

In those days a kid paid three cents on the streetcar, and an adult seven. This fare included a “transfer” to allow riders to change cars for complicated routes. One day after Jack’s mother agreed a twelve-year-old was old enough to negotiate a solo trip to Chicago’s downtown “Loop,” a scared Jack witnessed a conductor’s refusal of a black man’s transfer. He said it was over the time limit. The streetcar had rattled halfway down the block “fairly rapidly” when the “conductor came over and took the old black man and threw him off the streetcar. I remember being absolutely terrified. I looked back at the poor man lying in the street and people beginning to gather.”

Jack’s terror increased when the conductor turned to him. “Whether he said, `Did you see him pull a knife on me?’ or hit me, or whatever it was, I insisted, `I did not,’ ran through the streetcar and got off at the next stop.”

Tremendously agitated, not knowing where he was, Jack had known enough to vacate that dangerous scene. “This was the first time I had a sense of a person of another race being so cruelly treated. The fact that the old man was black affected me very deeply.” That experience followed Jack Egan through his life, just as his experience on his paper route would do.

It was in Our Lady of Lourdes days that Jack Egan hawked those papers for the Dempsey-Tunney fight. A friend of Jack’s who knew there’d be fight-result editions of the Chicago Tribune and Herald-Examiner asked Jack along to peddle the Extras. Jack’s first experience excited him. “You would go up and down the streets yelling, `Extra, Extra,’ and someone would lean out the window and ask what was happening.”

By first peddling the newspapers and then taking on a regular paper route for A. H. Gridley, who had the franchise from Foster Avenue to Irving Park, and from Clark to Ravenswood (the area occupied by Our Lady of Lourdes parish), Jack played directly into his father’s two paramount cachets, a demanding work ethic (“he was a very hard worker; to my mind, too hard”) and dogged loyalty (“he was loyal to his company to a fault”). Jack stuck with Mr. Gridley from the time he was ten until he went to work part-time at Sears at seventeen. At times his sister Kathleen helped with the route. Even Mr. Egan took a turn pulling the wagon on cold January mornings. Jimmy, already “an ideal young man” according to his brother, had his own route with Mr. Gridley.

His father’s single-mindedness deeply affected Jack’s childhood. “For example, we never took a vacation,” he recalls. “Dad was always going to bring us to the Wisconsin Dells. But when the time came, he never thought the Ford would get that far. So we never got there.” His father’s drives also dominated Jack’s adult life.

They were burned into Jack. Working hard was so ingrained that even a major, death-threatening, heart attack in his early forties couldn’t tip Jack off his father-imposed treadmill. His father’s will to work and his father’s obsessive obedience to authority shaped Jack’s life. “To jump ahead sixty years,” Jack says, as he ruminates about his father’s influence, “when I went to see Cardinal Cody about going to Notre Dame in 1970, if he had said, `John, I want you to stay here,’ I’d have stayed. But he didn’t say that.” Jack would have stayed because his father had imbued Jack with the loyalty that kept his father at Chicago Motor Coach for forty-five years.

Hard on himself, Mr. Egan kept a goad at his sons’ backs from their earliest days. “I guess I was a great crybaby,” Jack says, recalling a family story of his waking in the night and crying. His father, an early riser who didn’t want his night’s sleep interrupted, ordered, “Nellie, that child has cried enough.” He spanked his son efficiently enough to stop that crying bout and all subsequent outbursts. From that moment Jack’s father had only to warn his toddler, “Sh-h-h-h. Keep quiet,” and “I would swallow any crying I wanted to do.” Obedience became as routine as oatmeal.

A few years later when Jack or his siblings were out playing baseball in the empty lot across the street, his father would whistle when he wanted them in. “He didn’t want to whistle twice. We came.”

This demand for inflexible obedience was still a problem when Jack was a student at DePaul Academy. By now the issue was the familiar familial battleground, use of the family conveyance. “I wouldn’t know until about six o’clock on the night of a dance whether my father would let me use the car. That created a lot of tension and stress and anger.”

When Jack’s father finally gave his permission, he also imposed an eleven o’clock curfew. Sometimes, in those days when the archdiocese included the Joliet diocese, Jack couldn’t make it sixty or seventy miles home from an inter-school basketball game. On occasion that meant someone else had to return his date to her door. Other times, Jack leaned against a locked front door until his mother got permission to come and say, “Jack, come on in.”

Jack conformed with his father’s notions of obedience and discipline. “You studied hard.” His father tore up any homework he didn’t approve. “You worked hard.” Any time Jack finished his homework before bed, his father would set him to practicing Palmer method. “You brought in enough to pay for your tuition and your clothes.” Jack paid his way at DePaul just as his sister Helen earned her tuition for Immaculata High School clerking at the local National Tea Store on Saturdays.

Looking back, Jack assesses the usefulness of his father’s penchant for instant obedience. “My father lacked understanding, and lacked forgiveness, and was very, very strict,” Jack says. But in at least one way the father’s rigidity stood both sons in good stead. “I will never forget my brother telling that Navy discipline was nothing after what we went through with our father.” While it’s true that Jimmy’s light-hearted nature (“he always had my father laughing”) bore up better under the father’s strictures, he, too, felt the paternal pressure.

Jack’s father prepared him for life in the seminary. “Some of my classmates chafed under the discipline, but it was duck soup for me.” Meticulously as he conformed, however, Jack reserved a portion of his soul from his father’s domination. He didn’t have the chutzpa at twelve or thirteen to take off for the Oblates of Mary seminary against his father’s wishes, although he was very attracted to their life. However, when he decided about that time to learn to swim, he saved money from his paper route to join the local YMCA without parental permission. He regularly turned up for lessons until his father discovered Jack’s insubordination. Shocked at the deception—and the male nudity in the pool—Jack’s father decreed that swimming was too dangerous. “But it was too late. I had already learned to swim.” Jack never told his father that he was right about the peril, for on one occasion Jack was pulled unconscious from the pool after he slipped on the concrete floor and rolled, helpless and comatose, into the water.

The paper routes that provided funds for the swimming lessons and for tuition for DePaul Academy also isolated Jack. “I didn’t belong to any gang or crowd,” Jack recalls. He wasn’t a loner. He had friends. But he “didn’t mind being alone.” Later in life, he regretted that his work routine kept him from reading the classics, “the books every young person should read when he or she is in grammar school and high school.”

Jack has an easy explanation: “My father didn’t read. He worked. He expected us to do what he did.” That’s exactly what Mr. Egan’s children did.

Next Chapter . . .