‘The Walking Man’ hospitalized after Lower Wacker beating

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“The Walking Man” in downtown Chicago in 2005. | File photo

Few know him.

Thousands recognize him.

His tall frame, striking facial features, suit jacket, long flowing hair and bushy mustache turned heads as he walked in the Loop. For years he simply walked downtown. Intrigue followed.

The scion of a wealthy family? A vagabond who owns a few blazers?

He’s known as “The Walking Man.” Or “The Walking Dude.”

He was brutally beaten by a 41-year-old man wielding fists and a baseball bat about 11 a.m. Tuesday in the 400 block of East Lower Wacker Drive. Police said “a short conversation” preceded the attack. The two were struggling over the bat when police arrived.

Joseph Kromelis | Family photo

Joseph Kromelis | Family photo

He was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for treatment of cuts and other injuries to his head and legs. His assailant was arrested. Charges are pending, Chicago police said.

Social media lit up with shock. People wanted to offer support but didn’t know how. A GoFundMe page — created by a woman who didn’t know his identity or how to get him the money — raised more than $2,100 in several hours on Wednesday.

“The Walking Man is one of those fixtures in downtown life that makes our city special,” said Janice Riggs, the woman who created the account.

“The idea that someone as harmless as he is could be attacked spoils a little bit of what I love about this city,” she wrote.

The Walking Man’s name is Joseph Kromelis. And he is 69, his sister-in-law, Linda Kromelis, said Wednesday.

“I called the hospital and they said there was no Joseph Kromelis there. But they said it’s possible he used an alias. And that sounds like Joe,” she said.

“He’s always been very private and kept to himself,” she said.

He moved to Chicago with his family from Lithuania or Germany when he was a kid and grew up above the bar his parents ran on Halsted. “It was near a ballpark,” she said. “I don’t know which one.”

His parents sold the tavern and moved to Southwest Michigan when Joe was about 19. But Joe stuck around in Chicago. He tried a factory job but didn’t like it. So he got a peddlers license and sold jewelry on the street and began wandering the streets of the Loop. Always walking.

He lived in an “efficiency apartment or rooming house” in Lincoln Park for about 30 years, until he had to leave because it was turned into condos about three years ago, said Linda Kromelis, who wasn’t sure where he has been living since then.

“He’d call us from a pay phone once in a while. My husband, Pete, died last year in February and when Joe called in March or April, I told him,” she said.

“We always worried about something like this happening because he was on the street all the time,” she said. “If his injuries keep him from walking, that’s going to be real rough on him.”

Joe’s parents are dead. His three brothers have passed away, and so has one of his sisters. His other sister lives in Alaska, Linda Kromelis said.

For years, when he visited Linda and his brother in rural Michigan, he would walk the trails in the woods behind their home. And he would argue about politics with his brother.

“There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s not mentally ill. He just likes walking. It’s that simple. My husband couldn’t figure it out, but he accepted it. That’s Joe. He loves the city,” she said.

The constant motion kept him healthy and skinny. “That, and he ate a ton of baked beans. He just loved baked beans.”

“When he got kicked out of his place, Pete tried to get him to move here, but he wouldn’t,” she said.

He didn’t marry or have kids, she added.

She said a nephew of Joe’s was at the hospital late Wednesday trying locate him.

As for the outpouring of support, Linda was surprised.

“I guess in a big city when you see someone all the time you feel like you get to know him.”

Contributing: Andy Grimm

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