Paul Obis, who founded Vegetarian Times magazine, a cultural touchstone that helped demystify and popularize the practice of going meatless, has died at 66, according to his wife Janeen Obis.
The Melrose Park native befriended another famous vegetarian, Fred “Mister” Rogers, who at one point was a major investor in the magazine, which for many years was based in Oak Park.
“He wanted to make a difference in the world,” his wife said.
She said Mr. Obis died of Lewy body dementia on June 25 at their home in Los Angeles, where he’d lived the past couple of years.
He started Vegetarian Times in 1974 and saw it grow from a newsletter that he hand-delivered on his bicycle into an influential glossy with an estimated readership of 1.7 million.
In times before “meatless Mondays” and tofu hot dogs, “Vegetarianism was considered weird,” Mr. Obis once wrote.
He said he was inspired to give up meat in 1970 while eating at a Burger King on Broadway in Chicago. In an interview with the Chicago Reader, he said he asked himself, “How many cows will I eat in my lifetime? I don’t have to contribute to this — and I left without finishing that burger.”
His magazine featured cover stories about famous practitioners of vegetarianism, among them Mister Rogers, Michael Jackson, Annie Lennox, Madonna, Linda McCartney, horror hostess Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, River Phoenix, Richard Simmons and Dr. Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich maneuver.
The Michael Jackson issue “sold out in one day,” his wife said.
In 1979, Yoko and John Lennon “mailed in a check for a three-year subscription,” according to Vegetarian Times, which wrote: “In the early days of VT, there was no question over whether to save the check for posterity — bills had to be paid. The check was cashed.”
In addition to recipes, the publication started carrying dating ads and took on the causes of organic farming and animal research.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Obis and his first wife Mariclaire Barrett, who was the magazine’s food editor and book reviewer, appealed to columnist Mike Royko to let them enter their seitan “ribs” in his Ribfest competition. Royko agreed — and then said they tasted like “a sauce-covered eraser.”
Mr. Obis sold the magazine around 1992, according to his wife.
And, after about 20 years of vegetarianism, she said he had a change of heart while attending Taste of Chicago.
“He took his kids to the Taste of Chicago, and one of them was full and put his French beef au jus sandwich in the trash,” Janeen Obis said.
Mr. Obis told his kids it wasn’t good to waste food.
“He took it out of the trash and took a bite, and that was it,” she said. “He said, ‘Man, after 20 years of tofu, this is good.’ ”
Mr. Obis didn’t resume eating a lot of meat, his wife said: “He just liked a good steak now and then.”
The son of a pharmacist, young Paul went to Proviso East High School in Maywood. His mother Betty was a waitress.
Mr. Obis was attending the University of Illinois at Chicago when a can of beans fell on his head in a commissary, according to his son. When he woke up in a hospital, he was being tended to by a nurse who told him he loved his job. Mr. Obis decided to become a nurse himself.
While doing first aid at Montrose Beach, he started writing what would become Vegetarian Times. Today, it’s a digital site operated by AIM Media.
Nick Obis said his father loved the nooks and crannies of Chicago, introducing his kids to ethnic grocery stores, charming barber shops and off-the-beaten-path oddities.
And though at home the six Obis boys ate veggie hot dogs, “We’d go to my grandparents, and they’d serve us Cocoa Puffs and Count Chocula and chocolate soda or Faygo,” Nick Obis said.
In 2012, Mr. Obis met his future wife Janeen, a Californian, through a dating website. Two years later, they were married at the Arts Club of Chicago and initially lived in Oak Park.
She said she was attracted by his kindness, empathy and spontaneity.
“There was a woman at the grocery store asking for money because she had kids at home,” she said. “Paul took her in and bought her $400 of food.
“All of a sudden, he’d pack a picnic lunch for us, and we’d watch birds,” she said, or “put Bobby Darin on and dance in the middle of the day.”
Mr. Obis also is survived by sons Quentin, Paul W., Kevin, Timothy and Gregory and one grandchild. Funeral arrangements are pending.