‘Walking Man’ dies months after being set on fire: ‘An absolute Chicago character’
Joseph Kromelis, 75, died Sunday afternoon, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Over a decade ago, David Jones began to make a documentary about the “Walking Man,” the homeless figure with striking long hair, famous for strolling, rain or shine, through downtown Chicago in a blazer.
But the Walking Man — whose name was Joseph Kromelis and who was known for being an enigma — never spoke openly with him.
“He wasn’t very forthcoming. He was very present, but the answers to our questions were all kind of fibs,” said Jones, who called him the “Walking Dude.”
Jones published a trailer, “The Walking Dude, A Dudementary,” in 2006 and never completed the project. But the trailer was enough, he said.
“It was a fun project to celebrate him,” Jones said. “He was an absolute Chicago character — one of the things that makes Chicago unique and exciting.”
The Walking Man died Sunday afternoon of what an autopsy determined were complications resulting from being set on fire and badly burned while he slept on Lower Wabash Avenue in May. He was 75.
Though his condition improved over several months, he died weeks after being discharged from Stroger Hospital to a Far North Side rehab facility. The autopsy Monday ruled his death a homicide.
Jones became fascinated with Kromelis after seeing him walking near the advertising agency he worked at near Michigan Avenue.
“Every time you’re on the street going to or from work, you would occasionally see him. And it would be a thing. People would come back to the office and say, ‘I saw him!’” Jones said.
When Jones gathered footage for the documentary, he staked out the Walking Man as if hunting a tornado.
“It was genuinely exciting. It had that feeling of nothing, nothing, nothing and then, ‘Oh, my gosh!’” Jones said.
Kromelis walked the streets in a “wild fashion,” Jones said.
“Nothing linear, almost like a moth fly. Up this street, across, diagonal and back and down. There didn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason, to us. But to him I think it made perfect sense,” Jones said.
Kromelis’ appeal also lay in his good nature.
“The streets of Chicago are full of characters, and some are more trouble than others. But the Walking Dude, as we called him, never meant harm to anyone. He just walked the streets,” Jones said.
Jones’ conversation with Kromelis never got beyond small talk. “We’d ask, ‘Where are you headed?’ And he said, ‘Back to work.’ ‘Oh where do you work?’ ‘I work in an office.’ They were the non-answers like that... When we got to bigger talk he’d clam up and have to go.”
They would chat about the city’s architecture and construction projects. “He was almost an amateur architectural tour guide,” Jones said.
Days after Kromelis was attacked in May, a man was charged with attempted murder. Prosecutors said Joseph Guardia, 27, stood silently over Kromelis and poured flammable liquid on him. Kromelis was burned alive for three minutes before help came.
The defendant provided no other motive than “being an angry person” and claimed he wanted to burn trash but did not realize there was a person there, according to prosecutors. He remains held without bail at Cook County Jail pending his case.
Prosecutors expect to upgrade the charge against him to first-degree murder, a spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said.
Six years earlier — on May 24, 2016 — Kromelis was attacked in a separate incident. Someone with a baseball bat beat him in the 400 block of East Lower Wacker Drive. The two were struggling over the bat when police arrived.
Scott Marvel, who heads up Daily Planet Productions, a River North video production company, raised $5,000 for Kromelis by printing and selling T-shirts after he was beaten in 2016. He sold another round of shirts after Kromelis was set ablaze that raised $8,000. He planned to give the money to Kromelis’ family to help fund his recovery.
Now Marvel wonders if the money will go toward covering funeral and burial expenses.
“People would see him and it would make their day,” said Marvel. “He had a spirit about him. I think he represented people who live outside the normal path of society. And how they deserve respect and dignity and compassion. And whatever helps bring us to that could be a lasting memory that turns a negative into a positive.”
Perhaps some sort of memorial or monument would help convey the sentiment, despite the fact that Kromelis eschewed attention, Marvel said.
Authorities have not said who Kromelis’ body will be released to — whether it is a family member or if he will be cremated in the county’s indigent burial program.
He moved to Chicago with his family from Lithuania or Germany when he was a kid and grew up above the bar his parents ran on Halsted, the Sun-Times reported in 2016.
His parents sold the tavern and moved to southwest Michigan when Kromelis was about 19. But he stuck around in Chicago. He tried a factory job but didn’t like it. So he got a peddlers license and sold jewelry on the street and began wandering the streets of the Loop.
“There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s not mentally ill. He just likes walking. It’s that simple,” his sister-in-law, Linda Kromelis, told the Sun-Times in 2016.
Jones, who made the documentary trailer, said he once snuck a homemade “Walking Man” Lego piece into a Chicago exhibit at the company’s Michigan Avenue storefront.
He said he did it “because I thought he was an iconic part of Chicago.”
“Him on the streets made the streets that much cooler and that much more interesting,” Jones said.