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Alfred Hoekstra Jr. — WWII vet, meatpacking worker — dead at 94

WWII Staff Sgt. Alfred Hoekstra Jr. in Paris. | Provided phooto

Alfred Hoekstra Jr.’s stories about growing up in Logan Square were both tactile and dreamlike.

He could make you smell the stink of the stockyards or see the dazzling stars in the ceiling of the Aragon Ballroom, as perfectly formed as a Hollywood soundstage.

He told his son, former Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra, about watching the treacherous “Judas goat” at the Union Stockyards, where he worked as a messenger. The goat calmed the unsuspecting sheep, walking ahead of them on ramps that led to the killing floor.

“Don’t be like the sheep!” he’d warn.

He loved to feel the vibrations of the big organs that played in downtown movie palaces as he settled in for all-day vaudeville shows featuring stars like Burns and Allen, Jack Benny or Bob Hope.

Mr. Hoekstra, 94, died April 8 at JourneyCare hospice in Barrington. He had lung cancer.

With his playful sense of humor and laid-back temperament, he was a fun and patient father, and a devoted husband for 65 years to his wife, Irene.

Alfred and Irene Hoekstra enjoy a performance at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn in 2000. | Sun-Times library

His father, Al, was from the Netherlands. He supervised the Jefferson Park branch of Borden dairy until 1929, when he struck out and started Hoekstra Dairy.

The family lived at 2721 N. Albany. Young Alfred loved taking the Milwaukee Avenue streetcar to the grand theaters downtown. Later in life, he zipped into the shuttered Skylark Drive-in near Aurora and took a couple of the old movie speakers and donated them to the Theatre Historical Society of America.

“That’s the entire reason we exist, because of people like Al, who have collected things from their personal love of theaters and entrusted them to us,” said Rick Fosbrink, executive director of the Elmhurst society.

In 1939, Mr. Hoekstra landed an office job at the stockyards. “What he liked about the stockyards was the whole larger-than-life thing,” his son said. “They had their own restaurant. They had their own newspaper, their own radio station.”

Drafted into World War II, he became a staff sergeant. Stationed near the Battle of the Bulge, he attributed his survival to the Army’s use of his typing skills. “He always said typewriters saved his life,” said his son, host of “Nocturnal Journal” on WGN-AM 720.

Mr. Hoekstra wondered if his lung cancer was caused by the tobacco companies’ practice of distributing free cigarettes to soldiers during WWII. At about age 50, he quit smoking.

Back in the United States, he went to a Northwestern University dance and met Irene Brush, daughter of a downstate coal miner. “My dad won her over with his sense of humor,” their son said.

He started work as a purchasing agent for the meatpacking giant, Swift & Company. He had several job transfers, including a posting to Columbus, where Mr. Hoekstra took his son to the ornate Ohio Theatre to see widescreen versions of “How the West was Won” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

“And he took me to Captain Kangaroo in person,” Dave Hoekstra said. “He was up for anything. He took me to [Chicago’s] Old Town when I was 12 years old. At that time it was a bunch of head shops, like Haight-Ashbury.”

Swift moved him to Naperville, where the Hoekstras settled a week before the Big Snow of 1967. “We’d never seen snow like that in Columbus,” his son said.

When the company wanted Mr. Hoekstra to transfer to Omaha, he said he’d quit before he moved his family again. Swift kept him on, and he and Irene raised Dave and their younger son, Doug, in Naperville.

Mr. Hoekstra drank budget beers and didn’t understand why people tore down perfectly fine houses to build McMansions.

Late in life, he and his wife tooled around grocery stores together in matching scooters. Perhaps because of his career as a purchasing agent, those trips could stretch to three hours. “He would price everything and compare everything,” Dave Hoekstra said.

“He really wanted to make sure everything was done the right way,” his son said, “whether it was taking care of my mom, or going to the grocery store, or taking care of his kids.”

He said he will always remember his parents’ devotion, “their wheelchairs locked together, watching Turner Classic Movies.”

A true carnivore, Mr. Hoekstra savored ribs or a good steak. “Meat makes the meal,” he’d say.

He appreciated the wit and wordplay of TV hosts David Letterman, Johnny Carson and Jack Paar, and comic Jonathan Winters. He also liked talk show appearances by Jack Hanna, former director of the Columbus Zoo, whose introductions of exotic animals often devolved into chaos.

He always entered contests, and in his 70s, he won tickets to Hawaii. He, his wife and a cousin had the time of their lives. Usually, their modest vacations were Midwestern road trips to see family.

When his wife said she wanted to see Bob Dylan before she died, the Hoekstras went to the 1989 Illinois State Fair. Afterward, Mr. Hoekstra said, “That was good, but he was no Debbie Reynolds.”

In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Hoekstra is survived by a beloved grandson, Jude, whom he always called “the flower of my heart.”