Neal Samors remembers Chicago airports in ‘Now Arriving’

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Having authored or co-authored two dozen books about Chicago, its neighborhoods and its most iconic landmarks, Neal Samors was a natural to write a new book that would focus on the region’s two principal airports: O’Hare and Midway.

As is usually the case with the Buffalo Grove-based writer and publisher, he wanted to capture a sense of nostalgia with “Now Arriving: Traveling To and From Chicago By Air, 90 Years of Flight.”

Neal Samors

Neal Samors

On that journey down memory lane, “Now Arriving” looks back at something we will never again: the ability to exit an airplane and be immediately greeted on the tarmac by a friend or loved one.

“As you look through the book and see all the photos in it, that’s one of the first thing people likely will notice,” said Samors, in a chat about the book he co-authored with Christopher Lynch, who grew up around Midway Airport, where his family ran Monarch Air Services. Lynch himself has previously penned two books about Midway, and Samors stressed he was the conduit to a major aspect of “Now Arriving.”

“Thanks to Chris,” said Samors, “we got very, very lucky. He was the one who was contacted by the people who bought Mike Rotunno’s house in Berwyn, who had discovered hundreds of negatives of photos Rotunno had taken decades before.”

Who was Mike Rotunno? He was a well-known photographer in Our Town, who spent a good deal of time from the 1930s to the ’60s photographing celebrities as they arrived in Chicago. The collection of many never-before published photos include images of everyone from Amelia Earhart to J. Edgar Hoover, to Will Rogers, Cary Grant, Charles Lindbergh, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Three Stooges.

A rare shot of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon taken a year before they competed for the White House — looking extremely cordial — is also in the book. An added twist to that 1959 photo is the fact Nixon is looking at JFK’s copy of Allan Drury’s bestselling novel “Advise and Consent,” about a candidate for U.S. secretary of state, needing confirmation by the Senate.

Katharine Hepburn | Johnny Latoza

Katharine Hepburn | Johnny Latoza

Another significant aspect of the appeal of “Now Arriving” was the access Samors and Lynch had to a collection of autographs and photos taken by Johnny Latoza, who as a young man sold newspapers at Midway Airport in the 1930s. He frequently charmed celebs into both signing his autograph book and allowing him to snap a photo. The famous folks in that collection included Henry Fonda, World War II flying ace Jimmy Doolittle, Katharine Hepburn, Clarence Darrow and Buster Keaton.

Samors laughed as he thought of how Latoza’s easy access to stars and other famous people contrasted so starkly with today’s world, “where a guy like Johnny would likely never have a chance to get close enough to today’s celebrities to ask for an autograph or snap a photo.”

As Samors explained the concept behind the book, he noted that this was not an attempt “to write a pure historical book about the airports, but to capture the experience of air travel in those days from a very personal perspective.” To further illustrate the experience of mid-20th Century travel to and from Midway and later O’Hare, Samors and Lynch reached out to a number of well-known people to write essays about those experiences, including Mary Frances Veeck, Jim Tilmon, Tom Dreesen and Paul Meincke.

“Reading those essays will give readers a very rich, personal insight into what air travel was like back then,” said Samors, who spent a great deal of time flying in and out of Chicago’s airports, back when he worked for the Educational Testing Service. As Samors talked about the years when O’Hare came to eclipse Midway as Chicago’s (and ultimately the nation’s) busiest airport, he also explained how the call letters for O’Hare came to be the somewhat unusual ORD.

“It comes from when the airport was called Orchard Field, before being renamed O’Hare,” said Samors. “Just the name Orchard Field sounds old-fashioned, doesn’t it?”

True indeed — a reference to a much simpler time, and not only for air travel.

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