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Dick Callahan, who joked he spent 30 years at the Cook County Jail (as a plumber), dead at 96

He learned Polish from the nuns at St. Stephen’s grade school and from his Polish American mom. That helped him as a GI serving in Europe in World War II.

Forty years after Dick Callahan supplied food and a dolly to a little Dutch girl and her family, they still remembered him, his children said.
Forty years after Dick Callahan supplied food and a dolly to a little Dutch girl and her family, they still remembered him, his children said.
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Richard “Dick” Callahan used to say he spent 30 years at the Cook County Jail.

He did — as a plumber.

Mr. Callahan, 96, who died Nov. 8 at Presence Resurrection Retirement Community on the Northwest Side, learned to disarm people with quips from the wise-cracking family he grew up in near the intersection of Grand Avenue, Halsted Street and Milwaukee Avenue.

He learned Polish from the nuns at St. Stephen’s grade school and from his Polish American mom Anna. That helped him as a GI serving in Europe in World War II. Even in a unit with soldiers whose last names ended in “-ski,” the call for a translator would often go out: “Callahan!”

At one point, he was billeted in a barn in the Netherlands. When word arrived at the farm that his father Edward had died in Chicago, the matriarch of the Dutch family who owned the place took him inside their home to console him. He was charmed by their little girl Toni, who’d been mourning her own loss — that of her dolly.

“When the Germans left, they threw hand grenades in the barn and killed all their animals,” Mr. Callahan’s son Rick said.

Things had gotten so bad in the Netherlands that some hungry people were turning to tulip bulbs for food. So Mr. Callahan loaded his Jeep with “appropriated” Army supplies and delivered them to the hungry family, Rick Callahan said.

Dick Callahan.
Dick Callahan.
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When his unit moved on to the next town, he spotted a doll in the rubble.

“So he swipes a bike from this guy in the Signal Corps,” said his son Pat, “and rides back eight miles to get her the doll.”

Little Toni was thrilled.

In 1983, Rick and his wife Bic visited the town outside Maastricht in the Netherlands and, using Mr. Callahan’s wartime photos, tried locating the farm. When they knocked on one door, he told the family that his dad was a GI who might have stayed there during the war.

From inside the home, he heard someone ask in Dutch, “Was that Dick?”

“I just choke up still,” Rick Callahan said. “Somebody out of the blue, 40 years later, said, ‘Was that Dick?’ ’’

The family welcomed them in, and they did so again when Mr. Callahan toured Europe with his sons in 1995.

Dick Callahan served with the Army in Europe in World War II. After enduring severe frostbite in the Battle of the Bulge, he never wanted to be cold again.
Dick Callahan served with the Army in Europe in World War II. After enduring severe frostbite in the Battle of the Bulge, he never wanted to be cold again.
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One time, he and another GI were stringing phone wire when, according to Pat Callahan, “Pop looks up a pathway, and he sees five Germans.”

He and the other American hid. When the German soldiers got within a few feet, the son said, his father popped out, brandishing his weapon. Mr. Callahan realized one of them was talking in Polish about trying to overpower the Americans and barked the Polish equivalent of “I’ll blow your head off.” The soldiers surrendered.

During the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Callahan suffered severe frostbite to his feet. He swore after that he’d never be that cold again. After the war, he turned down a PX job in Germany, according to Rick Callahan: “He said, ‘I just want to go home, get a house, be quiet and warm.’ ”

He returned to Chicago and married Marjorie Fleming, the girl he wrote letters to throughout the war. They were married for 71 years, till she died in 2019.

Dick and Marjorie Callahan at Chicago’s old Riverview Park.
Dick and Marjorie Callahan at Chicago’s old Riverview Park.
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“He loved that girl to death,” his friend Dave Ingram said.

Mr. Callahan “was into the ponies,” said the couple’s daughter Margie Crawford, and also loved cards, bingo and Las Vegas. The gambling tried his wife’s patience, so, once, while packing his bags for a trip to Las Vegas, she put sliced onions between his shirts.

From about 1960 to 1990, Mr. Callahan worked at the jail. During Chicago’s record blizzard of 1967, he couldn’t get home for nearly a week, and the jailhouse kitchen kept serving liver. So Mr. Callahan ate mashed potatoes for five days instead.

He never had problems because the inmates respected a man carrying a 24-inch wrench who could fix an overflowing toilet, according to Ingram, a fellow jailhouse plumber.

In his later years, he met then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he dropped by a Super Bowl party at St. Hilary parish. Pat Callahan said that even though he knew who Emanuel was, “Dad looks up at him and says, ‘Do I know you?’ ’’

Dick Callahan (front left) with his wife Marjorie and their children Rick (top left), Margie and Pat.
Dick Callahan (front left) with his wife Marjorie and their children Rick (top left), Margie and Pat.
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Mr. Callahan also is survived by two great-grandchildren and six grandchildren.

“He used to say, ‘I’m so glad I have six grandchildren,’ ’’ his daughter said, “ ‘because that’s what I need for pallbearers.’ ”

His daughter stayed away from his funeral Friday after being diagnosed with the coronavirus.

She had a message for others: “Wear a mask, and stay put. I can’t even go to my father’s funeral because of this disease.”