When people become news stories, you often don’t get a sense for who they really were.
John Wrana died last summer at 95 during an altercation with Park Forest police at an assisted-living center in the village.
He was hit five times by beanbag rounds fired from a shotgun at close range in his apartment and then shoved to the ground by a police officer using a riot shield, according to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
His death was ruled a homicide by the county medical examiner, and a Park Forest officer, Craig Taylor, was charged with felony reckless conduct after an investigation that took eight months.
Wrana, a World War II veteran, needed a cane or a walker to get around, but police claim he was wielding a knife and a long shoehorn, which police mistook for a machete, in a threatening manner on the night he was killed last July.
Those are a few of the facts that have been widely reported in the news during the last week.
What you may not know is that Wrana became a father for the first time when he was 51 and married a 50-year-old widow named Helen.
“He never had any children of his own,” said Sharon Mangerson, of Glenwood, Helen’s daughter.
Mangerson was an adult with children of her own when Wrana became her stepfather.
Yet, today, she often uses the word “Dad” when referring to him.
“This is what he married into,” Mangerson said, placing a photograph of Wrana surrounded by dozens of people.
“That’s him there,” she said, pointing to a man who is beaming, “surrounded by our family.”
While Wrana was married to Helen, they lived in California, so it wasn’t as if Mangerson spent a lot of time with them.
“Well, that’s not true,” she said. “They visited here at least once or twice a year, and I visited them in California almost as often.”
And each year Wrana would pay to fly two of Mangerson’s six children — five boys and one daughter — out to California to visit their grandmother.
“Two one year, two others the next and so on,” she said. “He was actually the only grandfather they ever knew because my father died when he was only 52.”
It was Mangerson who persuaded her mother to move to California.
“I told her you’re not going to just sit around here for the rest of your life being a grandmother,” she recalled. “You’re too young.”
Helen moved to California, where she had relatives, and at 50 met Wrana.
“I was just so happy my mother was happy,” Mangerson said. “That’s all I wanted for her. And she was happy with John.”
Mangerson refused to call Wrana “Dad” for years, despite her mother’s requests.
“I just wasn’t ready,” she recalled.
She told me Wrana held “all sorts of jobs” over the years. He went to a school in Kansas City where he learned how to sharpen saws and opened a business doing that for a time.
When the grandchildren came to visit, he would take them on boat rides down the Colorado River, which ran past his house, because he also once was a captain on a tour boat.
“He retired, then went back to work, then retired again,” Mangerson said. “He was always retiring and then going back to work.”
When Helen died after 35 years of marriage, while the couple were living with Mangerson, Wrana turned to her and said, “I don’t have anyone else to go to. I don’t have anywhere to live.”
“I told him you can live here as long as you want. This is your home,” she said of her Glenwood house, where she had lived for 50 years.
I suggested to Mangerson that many children don’t like the idea of caring for their elderly parents and few would likely care for a stepfather who was up in years.
“Why wouldn’t you do that?” she asked. “How could you not?”
They had their disagreements, Mangerson said, but she did his laundry, cooked his meals and made sure he met his buddies to play cards at the senior citizens center nearby.
“His mind was sharp,” she said. “He loved to play craps, so a week before he died I took him to the casino. He was so happy because he won some money. But he told me his hands were so weak and shaky that he kept dropping the dice all over the place.
“How can a man who can hardly throw dice, who couldn’t stand on his own without bracing himself against a chair, threaten police officers with a knife?”
In the early morning hours the day Wrana died, after he was taken to Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Mangerson said she received a call from a surgeon who was treating him.
The surgeon said there was internal bleeding, surgery was required to stop it and even if the surgery were done, Wrana would likely end up on life support. Then the surgeon handed the phone to Wrana, who had heard the entire conversation.
“We had previously discussed that possibility, and he made me promise that if it came down to it I wouldn’t let the doctors put him on life support,” Mangerson said.
Wrana reminded her of that conversation and her promise.
“I told him I would keep the promise,” she said. “I wouldn’t let them put him on life support.”
And then Wrana, knowing he was about to die, told Mangerson, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Goodbye.”
He had been in the assisted-living center for four months because Mangerson, having suffered a stroke and undergone back surgery, could no longer care for him at home.
“I thought it would be a good place, a safe place,” she said. “He would still be close to his buddies who could visit and play cards.
“You know, since he was killed no official has sat where you are sitting. No Park Forest police. No state police. No one from the state’s attorney.
“No one has told me what happened that night. I had to hire a lawyer to find that out. I had to hold a press conference. It took eight months to get charges brought.”
She is proceeding with a lawsuit, despite the criminal charges, “because someone has to be held accountable for this man’s death.”
John Wrana — father, grandfather and great-grandfather — deserved a better fate.