Lansing author revisits era of steel mills, taverns
BY STEVE METSCH email@example.com June 6, 2014 11:52PM
It took Rob Stanley three years to write "Once Upon a Time in South Chicago." | Steve Metsch/Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 10, 2014 6:17AM
Rob Stanley has told many a good story, be they to neighbors down at the local watering hole or to teammates at a football game.
After years of hearing from others that he should write a book, the Lansing resident finally has.
It took him three years, and his self-published “Once Upon a Time in South Chicago” is a rollicking good time. It tell stories about growing up in South Chicago and on the East Side, of the rough blue-collar neighborhoods and taverns, about guys who played hard and drank harder.
It’s about a generation sent off to fight for their country in Vietnam, who then came home to find the neighborhoods they loved were changing, with steel mills closing and many folks moving elsewhere.
But most of all, it’s a love letter from Stanley to the part of Chicago he knew growing up. It’s written like Stanley is sitting next to the reader at a bar, having a few cold ones, sharing stories.
Consider Page 111, in a chapter titled simply “The Tavern.” Stanley tells his stories simply and from the heart.
Here’s an excerpt: “In the South Chicago neighborhoods the tavern was not just a place to go to have a couple beers; it was like going to a family member’s house. Most of them served food; many of them had boarders living above and below them. If you needed to find someone, you always knew they’d eventually show up at the tavern, and everybody had a story to tell.”
That’s not bad writing for a guy who worked as a pipefitter and claims he is “no English major.”
“I’m a reader. I know what bores me, what makes me quit a book. If someone gets too wordy ... so I write sort of short, easy to read,” he said.
“My grandfather wrote his memoirs on World War I. My father was in D-Day in the Navy. And this guy, Kevin Murphy, knew my father, who organized the Chicago Southeast Side Historical Museum at Cal Park. Kevin said I should write a book,” he said.
Half the book is his story “and half is interviews with people in the neighborhood who I thought had good stories,” he said.
“There was always something happening. There was always a ballgame being played. You could go from one tavern to the next, you always knew somebody,” he said. “It was a patriotic, blue-collar neighborhood and almost everybody’s father served in World War II.”
At 66, Stanley is old enough to have worked at Wisconsin Steel before it closed in 1980. The photo of the padlocked gate is in his book. The closing sent shock waves through the area, and other steel mills soon closed.
“My father had 39 years at U.S. Steel. Everything revolved around the steel mills,” Stanley said.
Stanley played football until he was 47. Included were seven seasons with a tackle football team called the Bonivirs, followed by 12 years of flag football. Sometimes, the teams had to fight their way off the field. But the biggest battles he writes about were in Vietnam. Writing about his 13 months in Vietnam was not too difficult.
“I put down notes on what happened to me. People ask how you remember, and I say, ‘You remember when somebody shoots over your head.’ There were times I wasn’t sure I’d make it back. I’d say a lot had it worse, a lot had it better. I was in the middle,” he said.
He never understood the popularity of the movie and TV show “M*A*S*H” when he returned home.
“They were laughing while operating on guys. I had a hard time, thinking, ‘What’s funny here?’ after 140 guys from the 1st Calvary Division were killed,” he said. “I didn’t like the humor. I thought, ‘I could be on that gurney and they could be taking off my leg. What’s funny in that?’ ”
There’s a big collection of photos in the book, some taken by Stanley. A somber photo is of the mural at Our Lady of Guadalupe dedicated to the 12 men from the parish who died in Vietnam.
“I think that’s the most lost by one parish in the country,” he said.
There are also fun photos of parks, taverns, games, and plenty of smiling, happy faces.
There are amusing stories, too, like one from Ricky Marabelli, who writes about getting half a haircut from a barber who was a bookie and got arrested halfway through a haircut.
And there’s the photo of a raised bridge with the words “Ah, s---! The bridge is up. — Quote from anyone that ever went to the East Side.”
Stanley wrote fondly about swimming at the “rocks” at Cal Park: “You always felt like you were living on the edge by swimming there because, one, it was illegal and, two, there was a chance you could get hurt.”
Stanley has sold about 500 copies of the book, produced by Superior Copies in Roselle, to people around the country, most transplants from Chicago.
“A lot of people say I should write another book. We just bought a new printer. I haven’t been retired that long, but it seems like I’ve always got something to do,” said Stanley, who hinted there may be more stories to share.
“Once Upon a Time in South Chicago” sells for $15. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.