Alberts Legzdins was a soccer coach with the Lombard Park District and a production control manager at Reynolds Aluminum in McCook.
But back in Latvia, his homeland, he was a lion. A well-known musician, he couldn’t walk down a street in Riga without being stopped for a handshake or autograph.
“He would be a person whose face everybody knew in the country, like the Beatles or Dylan or Joan Baez,” said Guntis Smidchens, a University of Washington professor.
“He’s literally like the equivalent of a Paul McCartney,” said bandmate Armand Birkens.
In 1961, Mr. Legzdins co-founded Cikagas Piecisi — the Chicago Five. The group’s songs spoke of freedom, pride and longing for home while adapting to new lives in the Latvian diaspora.
The music resonated in his native country and with Latvians scattered around the globe after World War II. Underground recordings were smuggled in to Latvia while it was under Soviet control after its forced annexation in 1940.
“Every birthday, every party, we loved these songs,” said the Latvian ambassador to the United States, Andris Teikmanis, 57. “The tapes were not allowed because it was American truth. It was ‘the enemy’s group’ from this capitalist world.”
Yet, Teikmanis said, “Everybody knew these songs by heart. We could sing these songs, and we felt like we are the same as Latvians who are in the U.S. It was a link between Latvians and the free world.”
Mr. Legzdins was one of the two last surviving founders of the Chicago Five and the only one active from its 1961 inception until the band retired in 2014.
“He was the soul of the group,” said Teikmanis, who attended Mr. Legzdins’ March 25 funeral.
He died of congestive heart failure March 18, at 83, at his Lombard home. In his final moments, Mr. Legzdins asked his family if they’d finalized plans to attend a Latvian Song Festival in June in Esslingen, Germany, that’s to feature a musical he conceived and co-wrote, “Esslingen,’’ about his years in a displaced-persons camp there.
Latvia has withstood centuries of outside influence, occupation and control. From 1940 until independence in 1991, it endured repression under a policy of “extreme Russification,” according to the Latvian embassy. Many Latvians were deported to Siberia.
After WWII, Mr. Legzdins’ family wound up in the Esslingen camp, where he lived from 12 to 18. Some of the country’s finest singers, actors and teachers were there.
“It really shaped and formed a lot of his life,” his son said. “They started up choirs, dance troupes, boy scouts.”
He also learned to excel at soccer, which later opened doors for him.
In 1951, his family immigrated to the United States aboard the USS General S.D. Sturgis.
“He went to the soccer fields of Chicago and asked if anybody needed players,” his son said.
After scoring a few goals, a German team “signed him up, found him an apartment, found him a job.”
Mr. Legzdins was drafted into the Army and served in Germany. Returning to Chicago, he attended the University of Illinois’ Navy Pier campus on the GI Bill. He met Rita, his Latvia-born wife of 53 years, when she volunteered to share a locker. They settled in Lombard.
The Chicago Five adopted the guitar-with-a-message style of folk and protest singers like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. Mr. Legzdins played guitar, sang lead and wrote music and lyrics. The group sang about freedom and love of Latvia, incorporating skits, satire and comedy and produced 12 records and 10 CDs.
In 1970, he traveled to Riga and floated the idea of a Chicago Five concert. Writer Egils Kaljo described what happened next in a latviansonline.com review of Mr. Legzdins’ book on the band: “No one wants to talk to him on the phone, and there is also his attempt to call his wife in the United States, telling the operator that he ‘wants to talk to America’ and the response is ‘Don’t we all?’ ’’
The call was disconnected.
But through the Chicago Five’s underground recordings, “He gave an oppressed Latvian nation under communist rule hope,’’ said another son, Edgars.
During the Soviet thaw known as perestroika, the Chicago Five performed a triumphant 1989 outdoor concert in Riga before 100,000 people.
“At that moment, songs were not secret weapons anymore,” said Smidchens, author of “The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution.”
In 2000, Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga awarded Mr. Legzdins the nation’s Order of the Three Stars.
In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Legzdins is survived by daughter Mara Sventeckis and three grandchildren. He’ll be remembered at the American Latvian Association meeting being held in Rosemont through Sunday.