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Tribute to street musician fills in gaps for daughters

For Mark Brown column on Mick Wright

Tori Svoboda never knew her birth father.

She was an infant when her parents separated nearly four decades ago in Minnesota. Tori wound up in foster care and soon afterward was adopted.

Over the years, she re-established contact with her birth mother, Judy Sajka, but never could find the man she was told brought her into this world – a fiddle player named Joel Wright, last thought to be living homeless in Chicago.

“He was always just kind of a mystery to me,” Tori said.

Then last month, Tori’s birth mother died, and not a week later, a family friend came across a column by yours truly carrying the headline: “Friends drawn to Mick gather to bid him farewell.”

It was the February 2010 story of a homeless street musician, Joel Wright, nickname “Mick,” a mainstay of the Logan Square CTA station and a newspaper stand at Kimball and Diversey, whose passing so moved admirers of his music and his gift for conversation that they held a wake of sorts at a local tavern.

There wasn’t much detail about Mick’s background in the story, but there was just enough that Tori knew her search was over. For all intents and purposes, she had lost both her birth parents within the space of a week, a double blow to the heart.

But this isn’t a sad story about that loss so much as about what happened next.

Tori sent me an email asking if I had more information about Mick than I’d reported, or if I could put her in contact with those who gathered to memorialize him.

As a matter of fact, I did, and I could. Two women who knew Mick in his early Chicago days sent me letters after the column appeared that helped fill in some blanks. I hooked Tori up with them and with Bern Colleran, a retired television newsman who organized the wake. In the span of 48 hours, Tori learned more about Joel Wright than she had in a lifetime.

She learned about Mick, the voracious reader, the guy who polished off newspaper crossword puzzles in scant minutes, the brilliant musician whose fiddle playing was legendary among his peers but who switched to the pan flute later in life because he was always losing the fiddles.

She heard stories of him playing the North Side pubs with a band called the Irish Ramblers in the mid-’80s and with a trio called Nonesuch, that also went by the name Bawdy Beggars when they played the old King Richard’s Renaissance Faire in the summers, and of his earlier days bouncing around Europe. She learned about his succession of pet ferrets and his habit of setting his clothing – and his apartments – on fire with cigarette butts.

While not all the mystery was cleared up, Tori was left with a more complete and satisfying portrait of Mick (always known to her as Joel) than she’d ever expected.

Suddenly, she had been introduced to a world where people saw and appreciated Mick for who he was instead of judging him for mistakes he made 40 years ago.

On top of that, Tori, now 41 and associate dean of students at a small liberal arts university in St. Paul, passed along all the information to her biological sister, Mick’s other daughter, Shannon Willmeth.

Shannon, 42, who was raised by Mick’s mother until age 10, had at least some memories of her father until then, but she never saw him again either.

As sad as Tori and Shannon were to learn of Mick’s death, both told me how grateful they were not only to know what had happened to him but also to know that someone treated him with respect at the end.

“At least there were a lot of people around who loved him,” Shannon said.

Next up, Tori and Shannon plan to meet in Wisconsin with two of those old friends of Mick’s in hopes of learning even more.

The sisters tell me they’ve spoken more in the past month than in the two decades since they were first reunited.

Those acquaintances of Mick’s who gathered in his honor in that Logan Square bar two years ago accomplished more than they might ever have imagined.