Edward ‘Tonto’ Fornek dies at 89, started working at young age to help family

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Edward “Tonto” Fornek loved nothing better than fishing and teaching others to fish. | Provided photo

By the time he was 8 years old, Edward J. Fornek had a work ethic to rival an adult and the seasoned eye of a scavenger who knows the value of found things.

His eyes swept alleys for bits of scrap metal to sell. To help with the heat, he salvaged the coal that fell off train cars rumbling past the Forneks’ Brighton Park home. He even combed the dryer lint discarded by the neighborhood laundromat to check for stray coins.

Every penny counted when you were one of nine kids growing up in the Great Depression. After 8th grade, he left school to earn money and help his family.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, 13-year-old Eddie ran to a local candy store, bought up all the papers, and re-sold them on the street to swarms hungry for news of the surprise attack.

He worked as a pin setter at Archer Kedzie Bowl, where he’d perch on a seat above the lanes and jump down to set pins up between frames. If you were slow, you risked getting hit by a bowling ball.

At 15, he had a full-time job at the company that made Linco bleach, a product that so dominated the market, some older Chicagoans still refer to bleach as “Linco.” He was 5-feet 9 and broad-shouldered, but he marveled at the factory’s strong women, who were able to pick up multiple bottles of Linco and swing them around as if they weighed nothing.

As an adult, Mr. Fornek punched in five days a week at Midland screw company, where calluses hardened on on his big, strong hands. He rose to be foreman. For a time, he was the catcher on the factory softball team.

Edward J. Fornek. | Provided photo<span style="font-size:16px;">  </span>

Edward J. Fornek. | Provided photo

And almost every weekend from 1955 to 1997, he sold papers at the newsstand he owned at Archer and Kedzie. In addition to four Chicago newspapers, he offered the Brighton Park Life, the Southtown Economist, the Southwest News-Herald, the Bridgeport News, the Dziennik Zwiazkowy – the Polish Daily News – and other Polish and Lithuanian papers. He also sold the Racing Form and Illinois Sports News, known to horseplayers as “The Green Sheet.” By nightfall, his clothes would reek of kerosene from the newsstand heater.

Even during retirement, Mr. Fornek, who died last month at 89, was often out the door by 5 a.m.

“I’m going down to check on the lake,” he’d say.

He’d grab his tackle boxes and head for the waters of Lake Michigan around Adler Planetarium and Navy Pier. By the time other people were getting ready to go to work, his daughter Kimberly said, he’d already be back home at his backyard picnic table, cleaning and filleting his fresh-caught perch for a “shore lunch.”

He’d learned to enjoy angling as a youth, when a trip to Wisconsin was an adventure. In that pre-expressway era, the drive to the Northwoods could take 12 to 16 hours.

Edward and Patricia Fornek. | Provided photo

Edward and Patricia Fornek. | Provided photo

Mr. Fornek loved to take his kids fishing. He liked them to work hard, too. When they were young and he assigned them to wash the family cars, he’d urge, “Give it a little elbow grease.”

A son of Polish immigrants, young Eddie went to Davis grade school. Some thought he resembled actor Jay Silverheels, who starred as “Tonto” in the “Lone Ranger” TV series. It led to his life-long nickname “Tonto,” or just “Tonts.”

Drafted into the Army, he drove Jeeps in Germany during the Korean War. On his first 10-day pass after basic training in 1951, he came home and married the woman he loved, fellow Brighton Parker Patricia Skalecki.

On their honeymoon, he brought Patricia to Horsehead Lake in northern Wisconsin. It’s also where he later taught their children to fish during summer vacations.

“Uncle Tonts” often took his own and neighborhood youngsters to fishing derbies at Marquette Park. “He loved to teach kids how to fish,” said his son Scott, political editor for the Chicago Sun-Times.

For more than 50 years, he lived in a two-flat he owned in West Lawn. One of his prized catches, a walleye nearly 26 inches long, is still mounted on a basement wall.

Edward J. Fornek with daughter Robin (L) and wife Patricia (R). | Provided photo

Edward J. Fornek with daughter Robin (L) and wife Patricia (R). | Provided photo

Perhaps because of a childhood that included regular trips to the bakery to buy day-old bread, Mr. Fornek enjoyed fresh and tasty food. Lunch meat, he thought, shouldn’t be more than a day or two old. And he savored his wife’s mushroom and rice casserole.

He liked playing the ponies at Sportsman’s Park and Hawthorne Racecourse. “My dad could handicap races with the best of them,” his son said.

He loved the family’s dogs, but after her death, Sandy, a smart and sweet mixed-breed dog, was the one he missed most. He always donated money to groups that trained service dogs and helped disabled veterans, said Kimberly Fornek, a reporter for Pioneer Press.

“He was soft-hearted,” she said. “Whenever he would read a touching story in the paper, he would break down.”

His wife Patricia and his daughter Robin died before him. Mr. Fornek is also survived by his son David; sisters Kate Drozdz and Ann Depa, and daughter-in-law Angela Rodriguez. Services have been held. At his funeral luncheon, Kimberly Fornek arranged for apple strudel to be served from Weber’s in Garfield Ridge, his favorite dessert from his favorite bakery.

Edward “Tonto” Fornek. | Provided photo

Edward “Tonto” Fornek. | Provided photo

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