There is always something going on in this vibrant, vital city, and though every calendar day marks events worth remembering, only a few hundred have found their way into John Schmidt's delightful and engaging new book, "On This Day in Chicago History."
Arranged in daily chronological order and written in very straightforward fashion without any effort to connect the dots or offer grand themes, some of the events will be familiar to those with even a bit of local historical knowledge: Feb. 14, 1929, to my mind being the most prominent — Valentine's Day and bullets and all.
March 4, 1834? The day Chicago became a city.
Oct. 3, 1967? The day Riverview Park closed.
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Most important historical events are duly noted, but the book's real joy comes from Schmidt's ability to find interesting items in history's dust, dating back to 1779. And so we visit Maxwell Street and Lincoln Towing, encounter Sam Insull and Sally Rand. Some of the more recent stories will evoke memories, others will enlighten and entertain.
There are all manner of oddities, such as the invention of the zipper, and odd characters, few more so than Fred Walcher, who was found — alive! — nailed to a cross near the corner of North Avenue and Halsted Street on March 9, 1945, or the "auto vamp," a comely 21-year-old female hitchhiker/blackmailer arrested on Jan. 17, 1923.
Schmidt's passion is palpable; his knowledge deep. His book does not offer, as he writes, "a grand overview of Chicago history. Rather it is 366 snapshots, taken at different times" (the extra one is for leap-year days).
He is not limited by geography, writing that by "Chicago," he means "the city and the suburbs and the exurbs." Good thing, too, for how else could we learn (or remember) that on April 15, 1955, the first McDonald's opened in Des Plaines? Or that Mr. T used a chain saw to cut down dozens of trees on his Lake Forest estate on May 22, 1987?
Schmidt is a fifth-generation Chicagoan, raised in the Portage Park neighborhood on the Northwest Side. He has a bachelor's degree in history and education and a master's degree in history from Loyola University. His doctorate in history came in 1983 from the University of Chicago; his first and only other book was an outgrowth of his dissertation, "The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever," published in 1989.
A lifelong and avid bowler, Schmidt has long been and continues to be a senior writer and blogger at Bowlers Journal. Before retiring in 2007, he taught history in Chicago public schools for three decades. He has written for many magazines and newspapers, and once created and wrote Chicago history-related blogs for the Chicago Tribune and WBEZ-FM 91.5, where he remains a frequent guest. His latest blog is chicagohistorytoday.com.
"I think of myself as a storyteller," he says.
Only once or twice was he forced to choose between momentous events for his new book. Aug. 15 was such a day: In 1812, Fort Dearborn was burned to the ground, and in 1967 the Picasso sculpture was unveiled in what is now Daley Plaza.
"I went with the more positive event," Schmidt says. "I was always after a balance in this book between the positive and the negative. There have been a lot of tragic and violent events in the city's history, and I wanted to include things whimsical and upbeat for balance."
And so we have the first night game at Wrigley Field (Aug. 8, 1988) and the Beatles famous press conference — "I'm sorry for the mess I made," said John Lennon — at the Astor Tower Hotel (Aug. 11, 1966) balancing out the assassination of mob boss Sam Giancana (June 19, 1975) and, of course, the Great Chicago Fire (Oct. 8, 1871).
Wild and wonderful we are, Chicago.
OK, so now think about today, Jan. 26. Will something that happens this day ever be deserving of Schmidt's attention or worthy of inclusion in his next book? It will certainly have to be something extraordinary to top his entry in this book: Jan. 26 in 1986.
That was, in case you may have forgotten, the day the Bears won the Super Bowl.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
"On This Day in Chicago History"
By John R. Schmidt, Historic, 384 pages, $14.99Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun