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Ed Kramer dead at 89; WBEZ volunteer, jeweler told Chicago stories

Ed Kramer's stories of growing up in Wicker Park were sometimes featured on the air at WBEZ, where he volunteered. | Provided photo

Ed Kramer was good at schmoozing (socializing and pressing flesh). But he never acted like a big macher (big shot). And he looked down on schnorrers (chiselers).

He always seemed to know the perfect word in Yiddish and a great story to go with it.

Mr. Kramer learned Yiddish from his dad Louie, who was from Russia, and his mother Mary Gerschater, who was from Vilnius, Lithuania. His father co-founded L&F barber shop on Damen Avenue in the shadow of the Blue Line El stop.

“They had customers who represented a cross-stream of Chicago, including ‘wise guys,’ ” said his son Randall Kramer. “They would come to get their hair cut with their machineguns in music cases.”

A dapper Ed Kramer worked for decades in the jewelry industry before becoming a longtime WBEZ volunteer. | Provided photo
A dapper Ed Kramer worked for decades in the jewelry industry before becoming a longtime WBEZ volunteer. | Provided photo

His father warned young Eddie not to pal around with the gangsters. But the draw was powerful, so when Eddie “was a kid or a teen in Wicker Park, he liked to go to Milwaukee and Division to a cafe where they hung out,” his son said.

That is, until his father found him. “Grandpa Louie grabbed him by the ear, pulled him off his feet” and ordered him home, Randall Kramer said.

Mr. Kramer, who sold diamonds for a living before retiring and volunteering at WBEZ and as an official greeter for the city of Chicago, died last month at 89 in Long Beach, California.

He grew up in Wicker Park and went to Crane Technical High School. He worked as an usher and projectionist in movie theaters before enlisting in the Army. He served in Germany, where he helped put together shows for the troops and served as an emcee.

Ed Kramer serving in the Army during the Korean War era. | Provided photo
Ed Kramer serving in the Army during the Korean War era. | Provided photo

In the early 1950s, Mr. Kramer filmed a USO show featuring Danny Kaye.

Months later, back in Chicago, he saw the star in the lobby of the Ambassador East hotel. Mr. Kramer wasn’t sure if Kaye would remember him.

But when he walked over to say hello, Kaye not only recognized Mr. Kramer – he remembered he forgot something during the filming. According to Mr. Kramer, Kaye greeted him with a good-natured shout: “You forgot to take the lens cover off the telephoto!”

Ed Kramer on a visit to Israel during the 1950s. | Provided photo
Ed Kramer on a visit to Israel during the 1950s. | Provided photo

Upon returning home, Mr. Kramer landed a job at a cousin’s jewelry business, S.A. Peck, in the Pittsfield Building. “It wasn’t like Tiffany,” his son said. “It was affordable, let’s say.”

After a divorce from his first wife Judith, he moved to Los Angeles for a job with a jewelry retailer and distributor, Jewelcor. An old friend from Wicker Park who’d also moved to California heard he was in town. LoriLei Vidibor “called every Ed Kramer in the phone book” to find him, his son said.

Ed Kramer. | Provided photo
Ed Kramer. | Provided photo

They reconnected and married. Mr. Kramer moved to New York to work for Jewelcor in Manhattan’s diamond district and later returned to S.A. Peck in Chicago.

After retiring in 1999, he decided to go to WBEZ “to offer his services,” according to his son. “He listened to ‘BEZ all the time. He loved the station.” Soon he was stuffing envelopes and giving tours.

“I used to interview the volunteers who came in to answer the phones during the pledge breaks,” said Jerome McDonnell, host of WBEZ’s Worldview program. “I asked Ed when he started listening to the station. He said, ‘In the ’40s during the polio outbreak.’ . . . he’d heard the first Board of Education broadcasts for schoolchildren forced to stay home during the polio epidemics!”

“When we were doing stories on the Union Stockyards, the demolition of Little Italy for UIC and the ‘Dime Fishing Pier’ next to Navy Pier, he offered up personal stories that often made it onto the air,” said WBEZ reporter Monica Eng. “His vivid, chilling account of watching a slaughter at the Union Stockyards as a CPS field trip won a (radio journalism) award.”

Ed Kramer was a beloved volunteer at WBEZ. | Photo provided by WBEZ and Curious City
Ed Kramer was a beloved volunteer at WBEZ. | Photo provided by WBEZ and Curious City

“Ed was a beloved part of the WBEZ team for nearly two decades, forming deep friendships with many of our staff members, journalists and listeners,” said WBEZ vice president Steve Edwards.

With his stories, “Ed had a way of making you fall in love with Chicago, all over again,” said Worldview producer Steve Bynum. “I loved giving Ed rides from Navy Pier to his apartment about a half mile away. Most times, he turned me down because he just wanted to walk, with that beautiful long stick I called his ‘Moses staff.’ ”

Mr. Kramer also volunteered as a greeter for the city of Chicago. “My dad could walk into any elevator in Chicago and know three people,” his son said.

In addition to his wife LoreLei and son Randall, he is survived by his former wife Judith; daughter Robyn; sons Michael and Aaron; stepdaughter Lynn Basson; stepson Steve Vidibor and three grandchildren. Services are pending.

Ed Kramer gave tours, stuffed envelopes and worked pledge drives at WBEZ. | Provided photo
Ed Kramer gave tours, stuffed envelopes and worked pledge drives at WBEZ. | Provided photo