The third to the last time I saw Ed McElroy alive was in early September, when he showed up at the Poetry Foundation for my book launch. That’s what Ed did: he showed up. Old-school, no excuses. While typical friends are always there when they need you, Ed was always there, in a suit and tie, driving a black Cadillac.
Though he wasn’t always happy about it. “I thought there would be food at this,” he said after the reading, his subtle hint that maybe I should invite him to the foundation’s private dinner. So I did. He parked in a crosswalk on Clark Street, which puzzled my New York publishing pals — why was the car still there 90 minutes later? I pointed out the ceremonial police baton with its red tassel placed conspicuously on the dashboard. Welcome to Chicago.
Ed was famous, once, in the 1950s and 1960s, on WJJD. He announced wrestling, boxing, bicycle races. He hung out with Ted Williams. When he married Rita in 1955, Richard J. Daley attended the wedding. Daley once sent Ed to the airport to pick up a young senator from Massachusetts. John F. Kennedy and Ed had dinner on Rush Street.
“Ed knew Martin Luther King,” I told our table mates. “King was very good to me,” agreed Ed.
The second to the last time I saw Ed alive was at the end of September. He invited me to dinner at Gene & Georgetti with Marc Schulman, owner of Eli’s Cheesecake. The occasion was pure Ed, in that I had no idea why we were there — for Marc’s benefit, or my benefit, or his.
After radio, Ed became a publicist for the Water Reclamation District, the Fraternal Order of Police and countless judges. He worked so smoothly you forgot he was working. We talked about Marc’s dad, Eli, and the last time Ed and I ate at his namesake steakhouse on Chicago Avenue. Colleague Ray Coffey had grown weary in retirement, and we were cheering him up. That was also the sort of thing Ed did. He kept tabs. If you were Catholic and homebound, he’d slide by and give you communion, removing the wafer from a gold box he kept in his pocket. If you needed cheering, he’d take you to a steakhouse.
In that light, maybe dinner was for me.
Ed took me down the Deep Tunnel, twice; into the Thornton Quarry; and to Army & Lou’s for fried chicken. He pinballed around the city like he owned it. And in a sense, he did. “He knew the name of every crossing guard, traffic aide and police officer,” Ald. Ed Burke recalled Friday, exaggerating only slightly.
After Ed McElroy and Marc and I finished dinner, I was surprised that Ed’s wife, Rita, picked him up. That wasn’t Ed’s way. At 91, he got himself around.
“I need to call Ed this week,” I told my wife the next day. “Make sure he’s OK.” But I didn’t call. Unlike Ed, I’m not good at that kind of thing and was reluctant to ask if he was all right. It seemed almost an insult. Of course Ed was all right. Ed was always all right.
Only Ed wasn’t all right. He had had a stroke. And a heart attack. By Monday, he was in the hospital.
The last time I saw Ed McElroy was at Rush University Medical Center, a week ago Saturday. I armed myself with a box of Fannie May chocolates and hurried over.
“If I’ve learned anything from you Ed, it’s that you show up,” I said, when he thanked me for coming. His voice was weak but, being Ed, he still had plenty to say. The clamor of being in a hospital. “Boom, boom, boom!” he said. The indignities. “This is worse than World War II.” And that the doctors at Rush treated him dismissively, like a body in a bed, and not as a man who knew people, a man with his own TV show, a man who drove Barack Obama around town when the future president was green and grateful. Ed would want me to scold them. Hey Rush: these patients may be old, but they’re still people. I watched as Ed told a doctor off. He knew the streets, he said. And he did. Ed grew up in Visitation Parish during the Depression. He was no cream puff, to the very end.
An orderly took Ed away for a test. I stood aside and watched him go. There was no need for goodbye. Because after an amazingly fast recovery, we’d be back at Gene’s, as always, sharing a slice of carrot cake. As a man who never smoked, drank alcohol or even coffee, Ed would breeze through this. I was certain. Only he didn’t breeze through. He died, Thursday night, and I never said goodbye. So I’ll have to say goodbye here. God bless you Ed. And thank you for being there.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Monday at St. Germaine Church. Interment will be at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. Curley Funeral Home is handling the arrangements.Tweets by @neilsteinberg