Strangers on a train

COVID seclusion makes the random encounters we have in public even more valuable.

Geno Svast, of Barrington Hills, worked on technical drawings for the John Hancock Center, now 875 N. Michigan, when it was being designed in the late 1960s. Photographed on Metra train in February 2022.

Geno Svast, of Barrington Hills, worked on technical drawings for the John Hancock Center, now 875 N. Michigan, when it was being designed in the 1960s.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“Excuse me; is this the right track for the train going downtown?” an older man asked Tuesday, as we stood waiting in the Northbrook Metra station.

I told him it is, adding that he needn’t worry about missing his stop, Union Station.

“The train will empty out,” I said.

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The man explained he had not been downtown in a long time, since he is retired. I asked what he did when he was working. He said he was an engineer; he did architectural drawings on the first 40 floors of the John Hancock Center.

I asked him what was it like to work for Fazlur Khan, the great structural engineer who, along with architect Bruce Graham, conceived the building in the 1960s. Those Xs on the outside of the Hancock aren’t just cool-looking — they provide structural support, freeing up floor space. It made very tall buildings economically viable for the first time.

The John Hancock Center, under construction on August 30, 1967.

The John Hancock Center (right) under construction in August 1967.

Sun-Times file photo

“He was wonderful,” the man said, proceeding to tell a story about the large technical drawings they’d produce.

“The paper was thin, and there was only so many times you could erase it,” he said. An architect arrived with a mass of changes, and the man despaired at fitting them all on the existing drawings.

The train arrived. I entered first, took the double seat at the front of the car, and gestured him into the seat across from me.

The man told how he presented the situation to Khan.

“Whenever you bring someone a problem, you should also bring a solution,” he said, excellent general work advice.

He said he told Khan they should redo the drawings.

Khan replied, “How long will it take?” The man brightened at the memory. “I knew I had found someone who understood.”

Khan saw promise in the young man, and urged him to study computer programming at the Illinois Institute of Technology. So he did. He told me how he worked on his final programming project, then went to the IIT computer center to run it: back then, a college had one computer and students lined up to use it.

Structural engineer Fazlur Khan worked on the designes of both the Hancock Center and the Sears Tower.

Structural engineer Fazlur Khan worked on the designes of both the Hancock Center and the Sears Tower.

Sun-Times file photo

But his program wouldn’t run. He puzzled over the problem from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. In despair, he showed his work to a classmate.

“He pointed to a line and said, ‘You are missing a period.’” The man added the period. The program ran properly.

Years later, he was reading National Geographic.

“My favorite magazine,” the man explained. An article about the development of the fetus.

“For the first four days,” the man recalled the article saying, “the fetus is as a big as the period at the end of this sentence.”

Another period. The man had a revelation.

“Life,” he said, “...is a program.”

That makes sense. The world around us is just an elaborate code for DNA to replicate itself. Our sense of significance, merely a hardwired feature. Although that isn’t the conclusion the man drew.

“A program implies a programmer,” he said. “Do you believe in God?”

“No,” I replied. “Never. Not for a second.”

That seemed to disappoint him. But he recovered. “Well,” he said, “it’s good that two people with differing views can have a conversation.” I agreed. We introduced ourselves: he had me write down my name and phone number, and he wrote down his: Geno Svast.

He said he was born in the former Yugoslavia, his father Croatian, his mother, Russian. I asked him how old he is; 81. I did the math. Born in 1941. Imagine being parents of a baby born in Yugoslavia in 1941. They would be deeply concerned for the future of their child. It might be hard to imagine the war then raging would eventually end, that their son would leave his troubled country and come to a nation blessed with peace, relatively, and flowing with possibility, where he would get a job without speaking a word of English. Where he’d work in the heart of a beautiful city, with the “Einstein of Structural Engineering,” creating two of Chicago’s most enduring landmarks — Khan was also the engineer on the Sears Tower — and learn to operate the amazing technology that would transform the entire world, for good and ill. That he’d live to his 80s, and sit on a train and talk about God with another gray-haired gentleman, both on their way to doctor’s appointments downtown.

Something to keep in mind now that war has broken out in Europe, again, and troubled times grow even more fraught. We are still here, still safe, still able to talk to each other and, more importantly, to listen.

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