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A classic Dickens tale

The glue of the Sun-Times’ sports department was wise, witty, kind, learned and an impeccable dresser.

Albert Dickens relaxes at home.
Provided

On Sunday we lost Albert Dickens, the dependable rock of the Chicago Sun-Times sports department, and it hurts to ponder that.

Albert was 82 and had been in a rehabilitation facility for a while with complications from a number of ailments.

Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family. But our sympathy also goes to those who ever worked or still work in the Sun-Times sports department and have brought our readers the news and opinions they deserve for years and years.

Every editor, writer, reporter, delivery man, janitor — anybody who had anything to do with the long-gone Daily News or current Sun-Times sports department in the last half-century owes so much to Albert.

His title, I guess, was assistant to the sports department. But his role really was that of the glue and oil that kept the whole shebang running together and smoothly, without fanfare, without drama.

I can’t emphasize enough how much he did for all of us. You don’t notice a man like Albert from the outside. On the inside, you marvel, you smile in gratitude every day.

Can I just tell you how dapper Albert was?

He was sartorially impeccable.

He always wore a coat and tie, while so many of us dressed like slobs. He brought dignity to a chaotic barnyard of feather-rufflers.

One day I had to have my photo taken to go with my column heading. But I didn’t have a tie.

“Here, take mine,’’ Albert said.

I did. A lovely silk tie. Thank you, sir.

His late partner was a master tailor, and he sewed things for Albert that would have cost a fortune at a fine men’s store.

To look good made him proud. And when Albert was proud, we all felt good, secure in our work.

Albert Dickens enjoys himself at the last Sun-Times Christmas party.
Provided

I had planned to visit him once again at his rehab place back in mid-March — as former sportswriter Toni Ginnetti and sports editor Chris De Luca and many other Sun-Times workers, current and retired, had done. But the COVID-19 hit, so we just talked for a long time on the phone.

I complained about there really being nobody to replace him at the newspaper, and my job and everybody else’s was harder and less fun. So why didn’t he get out of there and come back?

He shrugged it off with his usual good humor and gave me instead a verbatim recitation of 19th century editor and poet William Cullen Bryant’s transcendentally influenced poem on death, “Thanatopsis.’’

“I gave that at Lacy Banks’ funeral,’’ Albert said proudly.

Banks, of course, was the veteran sportswriter for the Sun-Times who died in 2012.

Albert implied that he was not remotely afraid of death, which he seemed to know was coming fast. In fact, he kept messing with the 89-year-old Irish priest who visited his room occasionally for somber talks.

“‘Oh, the Potato Famine was a terrible thing!’ he’d tell me,’’ Albert would say, imitating him in a perfect Irish brogue.

He told the priest he wasn’t sure what he could do about that famine.

Albert could do almost any accent you wanted. He even spoke to Sun-Times office cleaning ladies in real Polish. How did he learn Polish? By watching Polish TV, he said.

A black man raised Catholic in small-town, all-white Iowa, Albert was full of gentle quirks and incongruity. His family ended up outside Des Moines after a relative came up from South Carolina to work on the railroad, he said. He owned a deep sense of the absurdity about his upbringing and the world in general, along with a playful cynicism for the twists of establishment mythology.

“I mean, we don’t know much about Jesus as a teenager, do we?’’ he asked, chuckling with his own hypothesis: “Maybe he broke into chariots.’’

Oh, we laughed.

Albert’s diction was precise and without inflection. He was from the center of the country, of course.

“The Southern whites in the Army wondered how I spoke the way I did. They said I seemed to have no accent. What do you mean, seemed?’’

Albert was a brilliant man, but he loved bawdy humor, civility-skewering jokes that bear no repeating here. He could do things that amazed you, like read upside-down pages fluently. He had a cane that had a teensy, laced-up gym shoe on it. He was unique.

And this is the verse he ended with from “Thanatopsis,” on how to transition from life:

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Sleep well, friend.