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Retired pilot Bob Russo - a member of the Midway Historians - shares old pictures of the Southwest Side airport Tuesday to mark its 90th birthday. Mitch Dudek / Sun-Times

Midway turns 90

If you forgot, it’s OK, but Midway International Airport turned 90 on Tuesday.

Belated wishes can be directed skyward, where you have about a one in four chance the next plane you see is coming from or going to the Southwest Side institution.

What’s a birthday for an airport look like? Free cupcakes, face painters, a man on stilts and live band at the food court.Free lanyards and squishy airplane toys were also handed out.

But the real goods were to be got by chewing the fat with the guys hovering over the blue binders full of old photos.

They were members of the Midway Historians, a mostly informal group of a few dozen guys who tend the flame of a place most tend to see as a simple way station.

Marilyn Monroe arrives at Midway Airport March 18, 1959. | Sun-Times library

Marilyn Monroe arrives at Midway Airport March 18, 1959. | Sun-Times library

Bob Russo and Pat Bukiri have a different view — they’re of a generation who grew up across the street from Midway in the 50s when it was the busiest airport in the world and air travel held a charmed place in the hearts of Americans.

Ceaseless shadows cast by descending airplanes fluttered across the roof of Bukiri’s childhood home seconds before touchdown. His house shook. At night, aircraft nose lights illuminated nearly every room while he watched, transfixed, from his bedroom window.

Besides, watching television stunk, he said. Hunks of flying steel screwed with television reception in the house.

“I once asked my dad, ‘Were you drunk when you bought this house?’ ” recalled Bukiri, 64, with a laugh. “But I loved it.”

Kids now are robbed of the experience of simply “hanging out” at the airport, Russo said.

“Imagine this: When I was 12 I rode my bike into a hangar here, parked it next to a DC-3 and asked the mechanics working on the plane ‘Do you mind if I have a look inside?’ and he said ‘Just don’t touch anything.’ — that’s how aviation was,” said Russo, 67, a retired pilot.

“And anyone who was anyone came through Midway. Presidents, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra.”

Richard M. Nixon The Nixons, their daughters, future son-in-law David Eisenhower and Sen. Edward Brooke at Midway airport, before motorcade to and through Loop in 1968. | Sun-Times library

Richard M. Nixon The Nixons, their daughters, future son-in-law David Eisenhower and Sen. Edward Brooke at Midway airport, before motorcade to and through Loop in 1968. | Sun-Times library

That changed however in 1962, when airlines flocked to the newer, more modern, O’Hare Airport, where larger runways could accommodate the advent of jet planes, Bukiri said.

“The lights were on, the doors were open, but Midway was a ghost town for while,” Bukiri said.

Mayor Washington and his fiancee, Mary Ella Smith, greet Prince Charles at Midway airport in 1986. | Sun-Times library

Mayor Washington and his fiancee, Mary Ella Smith, greet Prince Charles at Midway airport in 1986. | Sun-Times library

In the 70s, the airline industry opened up to new competition following government de-regulation and the bustle picked back up with smaller economy operations filling the void at Midway.

But skyjackings entered the vernacular. More fences went up. Security tightened.

Russo wishes kids could experience the airport and catch the aviation bug the way he did as a kid.

“Now it’s very sanitized. Kids are restricted. It’s a totally different deal,” he said.

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