My dad was a Chicago Policeman for 30+ years. He was a patrolman at the time when police salaries were small. He had one or two other jobs in the evening to help meet our bills, but I suppose that was common at the time.
One thing most of us kids of cops will tell you is that cops tend to hang out with their families and often their best friends are other cops. My dad’s cop friends were the best of the best: decent family men who treated others with respect and kindness.
We had six kids in our family and my dad’s friends had large families as well. Around the world today, most families are numbering between 1 and 2 children a family with some exceptions.
I think of this often today when there is so much talk about self expression and fitness at the expense of families and responsibilities. I used to take long nature walks with my son in one of those seat contraptions on my back. We took long bike rides with my oldest four all the way down the bike trail. Kids never seemed to hurt parents fitness–well at least not as much as beer and bad food.
One of the neighborhood cop families, I’ll call them the “O’Tooles” for this post, lived about six blocks away in Chicago from us just east side of Western Avenue–a couple blocks away from Saint Cajetan and Kennedy Park. Mr. and Mrs. O’Toole had seven children. Mrs. O’Toole had lost one on the way as well. They had kids exactly the same age as half of our brood, my brother, my little sister and myself. There was another group of O’Toole’s who were younger. Some of ours were older.
The O’Toole’s had one of those classic Chicago brick bungalows that today one of the sons own–God bless him.
We were not friends with the O’Tooles as in playmates because they lived too far away. Playmates in the early days lived on the same block. Before birth control and other cultural swings, there were 30 or 40 grade school age kids on each block. But when we were at school and met one of the O’Toole’s in the hall, we always had a few good words with them. The oldest O’Toole boy was named Robert, like his dad.
Mr. O’Toole was a wonderful warm-hearted man who was a positive, confident, leader of men and a great dad. He was a war veteran and a Chicago Police detective. He has several brothers who also earned their money on the police force. It was never a job for the spiritless nor was it a job for the cruel or the careless. Son Robert was doing his best to grow up like his dad, especially on the gregarious side of things. In Robert’s hallway conversation, he would always talk about stuff going on, but you never knew what might pop out. It would always be cheerful however.
One day he showed up modeling his brand new Thom McAn shoes. These shoes were 2 for $5–believe it or not and they were pretty decent shoes. I would imagine the O’Toole’s bought a lot of shoes at Thom McAn’s. We certainly bought them at my house. But they were a bit of poor man’s bargain. Some of the guys, even in those days, might have been embarrassed to tell their mates they were wearing Thom McAn’s, but not Robert. It was something to be positive about, something for which to be thankful.
I remember another time, Robert had been to the dentist and he wanted to show me his fillings–he opened his mouth and I think almost every tooth in his head had a filling in it. It was something to be positive about, the teeth were fixed–something for which to be thankful. Years later, these are the kind of arbitrary things that stick out in your head and you have to wonder why?
My younger sister knew Mary O’Toole’s. Mary was pretty and petite. The O’Toole boys were tall and the girls were short for some reason.
Little Maggie O’Toole and I were in the same class together for several years in grade school. There were three classes in each grade, but somehow St. Cajetan would keep many students together from year to year. I always liked Maggie a lot. She was never critical, just friendly whenever I saw her. I did a lot of embarrassing things in grade school, but Maggie ignored the bad. Maggie reminded me so much of my sisters. As we got older there was never any notion of romance, although my dad would ask me about her from time to time. My dad loved the O’Toole’s and it broke his heart that he could talk one of us into a match.
In those days, my dad and I would often go to Mass together. With my dad it was often the late “High Mass,” but he would eventually change to the early-bird special-that features many firemen, policemen, and nurses in uniform before their shift.
After the late Mass, often my dad wanted to walk up to one of the drug stores at 111th street. In our little neighborhood “downtown” he’d buy me a chocolate covered frozen banana in the warm months or he would pop for a tamale at Red’s Hot Dog Stand in the cool months. I think these were both 10 cents a piece and that seemed to be his budget at the time.
One day, after the High Mass, he told me that he was going to head over and pay a surprise visit on Mr. O’Toole. By then, the O’Toole’s would have had their full compliment of 7 children and the place must have been a mad dash on Sunday morning. But we arrived after the morning rush. Mrs. Anne O’Toole must have just finished cleaning up for a breakfast for 9 and here my dad and I were there for a friendly chat. She offered us breakfast without even blinking. My father was all no’s and I’ll just have a coffee, but Mrs. O’Toole insisted on cooking something up for me. In 20 minutes or so, I had a couple eggs, bacon, toast, and an orange juice. She had made a private breakfast meal for me. I felt like royalty. Then, lickety-split, the iron skillet was cleaned and ready for the next meal at the O’Toole house.
Life jumps ahead.
One of my older sisters who was to become a nurse had helped out the O’Toole’s at a tough time during a medical problem. Later she would visit with the O’Toole’s when they came to “her” hospital in their elder years. My sisters were always about quiet service and help. The O’Toole’s were certainly about service as well. Many of the O’Toole’s became policemen–women included.
Robert O’Toole died a few years ago at a ripe old age. His wife had died a few years earlier. In our almost Godless age, the parish church was packed. A photo of Robert in his last years was posted with a smiling granddaughter next him giving him a big hug as only granddaughters can do. The grace and warmth of the O’Toole’s is right there on the child’s face. It carries on to this day.
Larry Norris is the author of The Brown and White.