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Retired Chicago cop James Collins, who lived a love story, dead at 80

Even when he was having problems with his memory late in life, Jim Collins could still remember this:

“I have such a beautiful wife,” he’d say.

He talked about his Rosemarie to the nurses and doctors who took care of him, greeting them with, “Do you know how I met my wife?”

It was fate, he’d tell them. She called the police to report that vandals broke a window at her Northwest Side beauty salon. It was getting close to shift change, so Jim Collins told his partner he’d take care of it.

When Officer Collins walked in to Rosemarie’s Fashion Flair at Belmont and Central, it was instant attraction for both. They soon married, and their lifelong honeymoon began. Every year, during his December police furlough, they’d go to Florida. Beforehand, though, he always went with her to buy her bathing suit.

Jim Collins and his wife, Rosemarie. / Family photo
Jim Collins and his wife, Rosemarie. / Family photo

He’d look at Rosemarie, and, no matter how old, he looked young again.

Mr. Collins died Wednesday at Presence Resurrection Medical Center of Lewy body dementia, a degenerative brain disease. He was 80.

“One of the last things he said,” recalled their son, also named Jim, “is: ‘My wife is beautiful.’ ’’

The son of a police officer, Mr. Collins grew up on the North Side and went to St. Priscilla’s grade school on Addison Street. As a little boy, he had rheumatic fever, which can cause heart damage. He spent a bleak year or so in the boys’ ward of a hospital in an era when parental visits were restricted. The young patients were told to stay in bed, said Mr. Collins’ daughter, Karen Grabinski.

But she said every night, as bedtime neared, “The nurse would wink at them and say, ‘Lights will be out, boys, in a half hour. I’ll come back then.’ They would all jump out of bed and play.”

Mr. Collins graduated from DePaul Academy High School and later joined the police department, rising to lieutenant. He worked at the Shakespeare and Jefferson Park districts, O’Hare Airport and at Grand-Central. During the demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic national convention, “A protester dropped a pot on his head,” Karen Grabinski said. He retired in 1995.

He admired Supt. O.W. Wilson, the criminology academic brought in to overhaul the department in 1960 after a police burglary-ring scandal rocked the old Summerdale district.

“He used to talk about how fair he was and how he probably would never have been promoted” without Wilson’s reforms, Mr. Collins’ son said. Instead of clout, “It was about what kind of officer you were and how well you did on the test.”

“He was a tough Irish cop on the exterior,” Karen Grabinski said, “but he had a very, very soft side.”

When his little granddaughter, Melissa, fell into an artificial pond while exploring a restaurant, he rushed to the rescue of the soaking girl, said another daughter, Renee Lotts. “My dad came out, he took off his jacket, and he put it on her,” she said, cradling and soothing Melissa while drying her off.

He couldn’t pass a stray dog without trying to find it a home. Over the years, he had two Irish setters, both named Red; two American Eskimo dogs, both named Fluffy, and two Sparkys — one of them a mutt, the other a cocker spaniel that lived to be 18. His last dog, Daisy, was a black Lab.

Mr. Collins also felt sorry for stray cats, but he wanted to accommodate Rosemarie’s allergies. So he built a cat door for the garage and crafted a kitty complex: a heated utility room with food and beds and a second interior chamber with more padding for the cats, which he named Spotty and Gray Boy.

“Every night, he’d make sure the cats were in,” his son said.

He loved to read about history. When a schoolmate of his son was assigned to write about Napoleon, the boy asked Mr. Collins for information about him. “My friend said it was the only A he got in high school,” the son said.

Mr. Collins told his kids to work hard and be honest. “You gotta do what you gotta do and do it right,” he’d say.

jim and Rosemarie Collins at the Hotel del Coronado in California. / Family photo
jim and Rosemarie Collins at the Hotel del Coronado in California. / Family photo

He loved his wife’s ham and stuffed peppers. He also liked eating at the Palm Court restaurant and the Stage Stop steakhouse in Wilmot, Wisconsin, where he enjoyed skiing with his family.

Mr. Collins’s survivors also include his wife, Rosemarie, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday at Cumberland Chapels in Norridge. The funeral is at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Eugene Church, 7958 W. Foster, with burial at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside.

Jim and Rosemarie Collins and their extended family.
Jim and Rosemarie Collins and their extended family.