The Kid From Woodlawn

Tom Crane grew up a few blocks south of the Midway in the 1930s, and the University seemed to exist in another world.

By Michael Lipkin

/ The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

November 30, 2010

Tom Crane was three when he caught lobar pneumonia: practically a death sentence in 1936, the year he fell ill. Tom remembers his sister dragging him through the December slush in their Woodlawn backyard. Their mother yelled at her for getting Tom soaked.

Soon, Tom got chills, spiked a fever of 106, and was put up in his parent’s four-poster bed. He fell into a coma for a week, and Dr. Frank Wall, from the University of Chicago Hospitals, tried to open his sinuses to let him breathe. It was the first of two times before Tom reached age seven that the University Hospitals saved his life.

Dr. Wall pulled out Tom’s eyelashes and stuck a hypodermic needle through Tom’s eye socket, beneath his eye—the doctors had to hold Tom down as he struggled and kicked through his nightmares. Tom’s mother was usually ushered out of the rooms during the procedures, but she provided her own remedy.

Vapo-Cresolene lamps, a kind of quack cure from the Great Depression, were a popular all-purpose fix. A kerosene lamp would heat a platter of liquid; the instructions directed users to burn cresolene, a coal tar derivative, to kill spasmodic croup, scarlet fever, or diphtheria. It could even be used for animals, the box said, for “the distemper and pneumonia in horses and does; gapes and roup in fowls.”

Mrs. Crane didn’t trust cresolene and instead burned liquid eucalyptus in the lamps. That’s one of the few things Tom clearly remembers from his recovery. “In the height of my pneumonia, I’d come out of the coma, or a fitful sleep, and I’d ask her, ‘Light the lamp. Light the lamp,’” Tom said.

When the fever finally broke, Tom was nursed on pineapple juice. On Christmas morning, he was so excited at the prospect of seeing the tree that he ventured out of bed on his own. His legs weak, Tom stumbled and crawled down the hall, leaning against the wall for support. His sister and cousin downstairs laughed at the toddler desperately grasping towards the Christmas tree, falling over and over, but when his mother asked, they carried Tom to the tree. “It was a delight, just to see things,” he said.

*****

This is the story Tom told me over a year ago when he called the campus newspaper, the Chicago Maroon. Maybe his memory was sparked by something we had written about his old neighborhood, or about some new research grant at the Medical Center, his former employer. In surprising detail, he told me about growing up on 61st and Drexel in the 1930s, and his pneumonia. He went on about other visits to the hospital, his time in the Army, and his eventual job at the University’s nuclear cyclotron during its heyday.

Tom came from a blue-collar background and lived in a two-story greystone just south of the Midway—still there at 959 East 61st Street. Growing up around the University, he saw frat houses fly banners with hammers and sickles on May Day and read yellow stencils on mailboxes: “Ban the A-Bomb, Support the Communist Party.” And now, decades since he’d left, Tom wanted to see Woodlawn again.

*****

Three years after his pneumonia, Tom was back in the hospital. He had gone with his father on a fishing trip to Kankakee, IL, to get away from the city and his father’s backbreaking work as a roofer. When his father wasn’t looking, Tom climbed a tree and fell, breaking his arm in a compound fracture above the elbow. The local county hospital set the arm in a metal cast so tight it cut off Tom’s circulation. The trip back to Chicago was torturous, each bump on the road sending Tom into another fit of pain.

Tom’s family couldn’t get him an appointment at the Medical Center until the next morning, so his father cradled him in a rocking chair at home, singing lullabies to soothe Tom’s moans.

Once admitted, Tom passed through the Billings Hospital’s marble rotunda on his way to see Dr. Howard Hatcher, the University’s first orthopedic resident. Hatcher took one look at the metal cast, loosened the wing nuts holding it together, and flung it into a trashcan. “That cast is an instrument of torture and that county hospital will never see it again,” Hatcher said. He then pricked each of Tom’s fingers looking for any sign of feeling. With each finger that failed to twitch, the odds of saving Tom’s arm from amputation shrank. Finally, Tom’s pinky jerked.

Tom was sent to the children’s ward, still screaming in pain. From his bed in the middle of the room, Tom could see that the other children in the room were in worse shape than he was. One girl, maybe four or five years old, had broken her pelvis and had a cast from her waist to her ankles; she cried constantly as the nurse turned her every which way to try and make her comfortable. A boy about Tom’s age had the bed next to the window, which let in the soft spring breeze carrying the smell of newly cut grass from the Midway. The boy was despondent and would only stare out the window singing: “Bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonnie to me.”

Tom was awoken that first night by flashlights and ghostly figures moving about the room. The figures spoke in low whispers and gently lifted him onto a litter with wheels. He was whisked to a room with equipment that glowed with a bluish-white light; he was brought back to this room night after night. This, Tom would realize years later when he worked at the Medical Center, was the operating room Dr. Hatcher used to work on his arm. Tom’s family couldn’t afford surgery, so Hatcher stole hours after his shift to work pro bono.

*****

Tom had a stroke several years ago, but his childhood memories are still remarkably sharp. His stories are full of vivid but seemingly trivial details. He can rattle off the first and last names of people he met 50 years ago or important addresses: Ira Null, U of C Human Resources; DeForest Training School, 4242 North Ashland Avenue; Tom Skelling, high-school friend; 808 East 63rd Street, his father’s childhood home.

Perhaps that’s because Tom surrounds himself with his past. He and his wife still sleep on the same four-poster bed he slept in during his pneumonia. He owns two Vapo-Cresolene lamps and eucalyptus extract—a dollar each on eBay. He knows, and has written drafts of, the life story of Dr. Wall, details culled from working with his protégés at the Medical Center and research done on his own time. Tom wrote letters to Wall’s son, a doctor himself, and tracked both the careers of father and son.

Whenever Tom tells his own story, he starts with the 1893 Columbian Exposition. He likes to start at the beginning, he said, and the World’s Fair and the University of Chicago are tied together in his mind. “The University was like a giant medieval castle, in that the populace was drawn in around it,” he said. But the seemingly stuffy subjects and the lack of a football team kept Tom and his family from respecting the University. “People from Woodlawn used to look at the University as being a little out of the mainstream,” he said. “Being in a working-class family, you couldn’t understand the intellectual concepts. It was above you.”

Woodlawn was tough in the 1940s, and Tom and his friends were no exception. University graduate students often visited the neighborhood to study people like Tom. “You know, gangs, urban people,” he said. Two students—a slender, Swedish couple on thin-wheeled bicycles—often hung out with Tom and his friends. “One day, he didn’t show up, but she did. She was lucky to get out of there,” Tom said. “‘You’re a Communist. You believe in sharing things,’ my friends said. ‘How would you like to share some of that with us?’” Tom grimaces as he remembers his friends closing in on the woman before she ran off. “When I say the guys I hung around with had a different perspective—what we saw around the University was a little removed.”

Tom’s perception changed when he was delivering pizzas as a teenager in Hyde Park. Without a football team on campus, Tom was taken aback to see a hulking grad student answer the door on one delivery. When he found out the student played football in college, Tom asked how a football player managed to get into such a rigorous graduate program. “He gave me such a lecture on being scholarly,” Tom said. He began dreaming of getting out of Woodlawn and going to college. “I don’t know if he knows to this day what an impact he had on my life.”

Around the same time, Tom’s father, a pinochle and three-cushion billiard champ, opened a gas station near their house. His father’s connections to organized crime ensured that runners of the “policy rackets” visited the station to pay their respects and keep it afloat.

One alleged hit man, “a typical Humphrey Bogart type,” would often tell Tom to appreciate what a great father he had. “He had left all that. My father counseled me against gambling. ‘Tom, you can only lose. Stay away from it.’” Tom returns to his father often, comparing him to his supervisers at the University, or Dr. Hatcher, whom Tom practically deifies. “They were exactly like my father. Their word was law.”

*****

The advice from his father and the football-player-turned-student pushed Tom into technical training. Drafted into the Army towards the end of the Korean War, Tom chose to build and repair electrical devices: infrared sniper scopes, mine detectors, and searchlights. When he came back to Woodlawn, his technical expertise made him think work at the University was the natural next step.

His first job was a bit of shock: assisting professors at the Fermi Institute’s underground cyclotron. The cyclotron, one of the most complex pieces of equipment on campus, was used to study radioactive particles. “And here I was, with only seven college credits,” Tom said. “I went to night school under the G.I. Bill. Only seven college credits so far, and I was working around nuclear physicists.”

Tom took Geiger readings throughout the complex and assisted researchers in dozens of experiments. The self-styled “kid from Woodlawn” was soon a part of the University community. Grad students shared their latest findings with him, and during their downtime, tutored Tom in the college math classes he was taking. “They were such a giving bunch of people,” he said.

The lab’s work soon turned to radioactive material’s medical applications, and Tom was transferred to the Medical Center. As cancer patients elected to receive radioactive implants, Tom prepared the materials and watched in the operating room. “For any isotopes that were put into patients, we had to be there,” he said.

But the methods used at the Medical Center weren’t initially successful, and Tom had to attend dozens of postmortems. After being saved twice by the hospital himself, he now saw patients who weren’t as lucky. “I saw a lot of death and dying,” he said. “It made me appreciate things more.”

*****

Tom suggested we visit his old house together, but his wife, Madeline, was initially against the plan. Even though his memory of the distant past is clear, Tom’s stroke makes him easily confused about the present. He can forget what train he’s supposed to catch or where he’s going. Tom was insistent though. His wife relented, as long as she could come along—so my girlfriend and I picked both of them up from the train station.

This was Tom and Madeline’s first train ride together, and they talk about the novelty as they get into my minivan. They’re clearly a devoted couple—they remember the Woodlawn bowling alley where they first met and argue about insignificant details. “They had the most delicious pizzas there,” Tom says. “I never had them,” Madeline replies. “They did.” “I had the burgers.”

We drive through Tom’s old haunts, past where his father’s gas station once stood, and pull up on the house he lived in when he was three. While my girlfriend and Madeline talk about the colleges her grandkids attend, Tom stands in the yard and points to the room where his father used to sit on the floor and read the Sunday funnies.Tom walks around to the back, and points to a window. When his father stormed out of an argument, his mother threw hot tea out the window, trying to scald him.

He points to another window—this is the one he looked out of while he was sick with pneumonia, and his voice weakens. His eyes water, and I begin to get uncomfortable. Tom pulls me aside and gives me a speech that doesn'’t help. “Sometimes, you feel like you’re forgotten in life. You’ve not only honored me, you’ve honored my family,” he says. “Basically, I’m a commoner. And you’ve taken this occasion to really take an interest in myself. What I’m saying is, you’ve taken this story of a commoner, and you have done a great honor to me.”

The four of us pile back into the van and drive over to the Medical Center to find Tom’s old office, which, in a strange coincidence, was the room he stayed in after breaking his arm in 1939. Madeline is tired from the day’s walking, so only Tom and I get out of the car. Like little boys, we hold our hands up to the windows and peer into the main hall, looking at the rotunda Tom was carried through almost 75 years ago. The memories don’t come flooding back, Tom says, because he’s blocked out most of the bad ones, and he’s already told me most of the good ones. We take a few steps back and look at the building’s façade until we see the window of his old office. Tom is uncommonly silent.