To workers at his scrap-metal business, Lou Baron was more than a boss.
He was “Papa Lou.”
He bought dentures for an employee with bad teeth. When Cuban workers told him they had relatives from the 1980 Mariel Boatlift stuck in immigration limbo in Georgia, he traveled south, vouched to a judge that he would give them jobs, and brought the five newcomers back to Chicago. In 2006, when another staffer was paralyzed from the waist down in a drive-by shooting, Mr. Baron said, “He was a really good young kid. He can work at a table. All we have to do is get him a wheelchair.”
“I’m so thankful that he gave me an opportunity,” said Carlos Tenango-Dominguez, a native of Cuernavaca, Mexico, who was shot at a 7-Eleven near 29th and Laramie. Almost a decade later, at 37, he is still working for the company, removing silver from electronics for recycling. Asked where he would be without Mr. Baron, he said, “in Mexico.”
Mr. Baron started Acme Refining in 1973 with one truck and two employees. It grew into a company with 450 employees and $400 million in sales. Sold last year, it is now known as Pure Metal Recycling in Bridgeport.
“First I was a junk man; then I was a scrap man; now I’m a recycler,” Mr. Baron said when he won the “Illinois Recycler of the Year Award,” according to a 2008 article on www.amm.com, the website of the American Metal Market.
He died in Burr Ridge on May 19 at 97.
His early life wasn’t easy. His father abandoned his five children and his wife, a Ukrainian immigrant from Odessa. She worked as a seamstress but times were so lean, the two youngest children, Lou and Anne, had to go into a foster home, according to his children, Larry and Iris. Mr. Baron graduated from Manley High School in 1937.
Drafted into the Army in 1940, he was stationed briefly in Wyoming. He asked a fellow West Sider, Mary Waldman, to marry him. She took the train from Chicago to Cheyenne and borrowed a dress for their wedding. They were married 72 years.
Lou Baron sends a message to his bride while he is on duty in Europe in WWII.
After he shipped out to Europe, he sent her a photo with a Jeep he painted with the message, “Wait for Me Mary.”
“I thought it was cute,” his wife said. “But it probably got him into trouble.’’
“He just didn’t like to follow rules,” his daughter said.
But “he told me numerous times, this was the only country worth dying for,” his son said.
In the final days of the war, he and four other GIs were ordered to storm a shack in Germany with 25 enemy soldiers inside. “They all put their hands up,” his daughter said. At the Battle of the Bulge, he was blown out of a foxhole and hospitalized in France, his son said. He was awarded the Bronze Star.
After returning home, he knocked on doors at muffler and tool-and-die shops, offering to handle their discarded scrap metal. “He’d get up at 4 o’clock in the morning,” his son said. “He’d drive the trucks and load the trucks.”
The Barons raised their children in West Rogers Park and Skokie.
As the company expanded, its workforce included Cubans, Guatemalans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. He took Spanish classes to learn their language. He also paid to send some workers to mechanic school. “They became unbelievable diesel mechanics,” Larry Baron said.
Lou and Mary Baron.
Hilario Dominguez, of Michoacan, Mexico, said Mr. Baron gave him his first break when he completed a trucking course. “Nobody would give me an opportunity to drive because I did not have experience,” he said. After he interviewed with Mr. Baron, he said “Papa Lou” told him, “ ‘You may not have experience driving, but you know how to talk, so I will hire you and you start tomorrow.’ ” Twenty-eight years later, he is still with the company.
In his 90s, Mr. Baron was still showing up at the office one day a week. “He loved telling people what they’re doing wrong,” his daughter said with a laugh.
He also is survived by three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Services are at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday at Weinstein & Piser Funeral Home, 111 Skokie Blvd., Wilmette.
Tenango-Dominguez said through a translator that he will miss him. After he was shot, he and Mr. Baron used to talk philosophy, with Mr. Baron telling him, “La vida no es para siempre” — ‘‘Life is not forever.”