Rest in Peace Paul Thomas McGrath
why the administration of former Mayor Jane M. Byrne will live at Roosevelt and State forever
07/28/2012 3:05 PM
A lot of my South Loop girlfriends are really mad at me because my beautiful Dearborn Park basement is, well…for lack of a better word…a mess. They've tried everything to help. It's my ex-husband Paul McGrath's stuff that overlays and clutters a roomy and versatile space that contains two offices, a huge living area, an exercise area with all the equipment, a guest bedroom, an enormous closet and a lovely bath. They've been willing through the past 11 years--since the divorce--to carry the junk out themselves and bring it over to his small high-rise apartment about a mile-and-a-half away. They've offered to hire trucks and pay for movers out of their own pockets, or rent a dumpster and go to town. But I always said, "Wait!"
They have said over and over that they'd do whatever it takes to free up the space down there--if, for nothing else, than to make room for my own junk, which in recent years has crept steadily through the rest of the house, from the living room to the family room, from the bedrooms to…yes…even the kitchen. They've hurled accusations and insults at me, too: "You're stuck in the past!" "You can't disconnect from him." "You're a hoarder!"
But stay it has, pretty much where it's been; I disturb it not. A few times over the years, I'd fill up a bag with a few odds and ends he might be able to use--and I'd hand it to him when our autistic daughter Molly met up with him for a visit, which she did at least once a week. She was always welcome in his world. His door was always open to her, as were her ideas as to where to eat, what to do, where to go.
Paul McGrath died July 18 at the age of 75, from an aortic rupture. I was his last (out of four) spouse--and he was my second (out of two). I was the wife who was married to him the longest. To put it all in perspective, the man was, to one degree or another, a huge part of my life for almost 32 years. His death shocked me--and shook me--and that's why I've been away from this blog recently. Twenty of those years--for better or worse--we spent married. And like many couples, although the marriage was most certainly over, the relationship wasn't. For Molly's sake, if nothing else. Paul wanted to remain friends. And we were.
He was an award-winning journalist, columnist, editorial writer, labor reporter, feature writer and investigative reporter. His tenure spanned the Sun-Times, the Tribune and Chicago Magazine. Not to mention City News Bureau. He wrote the longest piece that ever ran in the Chicago Reader. I think it was about Harold Washington, but there's no time to count words today; he had many political stories in the Reader.
No one in Chicago wrote like he did. And no one ever will. I saw him years ago craft op-eds on a typewriter with no opportunity to make corrections, and they would come out perfect. He was also a magnificent photographer--and he made a nice living doing it; he taught at Northwestern University and at Columbia College. He was the funniest man I ever met, except perhaps, my own dad. Had he been younger, he could have been Jon Stewart or Bill Maher; his politics were the same, as was his style. He was a very good dad to Molly and her half-sister Kelly. There was absolutely nothing he wouldn't do for either of them.
But his greatest claim to fame, the one that garnered him a slew of notable obits that not many Chicagoans get when they pass away--please read them here and here and here and here and here; you won't be sorry--was that he was responsible for Jane Byrne, Chicago's first and only female mayor, an independent whirlwind, who broke the machine, buried it, only to see it rear its ugly head and come back stronger than ever.
He met her when he was a reporter, liked her and spearheaded her campaign. He changed Chicago history--at least for a while. She made him her Deputy Mayor. He left City Hall after a few months to be a political columnist at Chicago Magazine. But he came back as a political consultant, and was shrewd enough to ask for his salary in 1980 for the next three years in advance, which she agreed to give him--and which gave us a comfortable and secure lifestyle in spite of the fact that he left her again after only a few months.
Those two stints with Jane (and being a columnist surveying and evaluating her in between) are what make up a bulk of the boxes and detritus in my basement. Even much of the stuff that came post-Jane related to that moment in history. And now, there's really nowhere for the stuff to go. He has "new" stuff at his new place which his two daughters and his dear friend Anita Lynn have to wade through (and perhaps end up hoarding themselves).
When we split up for the last time in May of 2001, he pretty much left with only some clothes, a computer and his cameras. He left everything else behind. And maybe that was deliberate--because he knew well my sentimental and altar-like tendencies with stuff. (Right, girlfriends?)
"We have a relationship like 'A Star is Born,'" he said more than once during the last and final and horrendous days of tumult that ended our life as a married couple. Paul always had this romantic notion that he'd picked me up out of the gutter and made me who I was, in spite of the fact that I was from a semi-classy family, and had a BS (University of Illinois), an MS (University of Missouri), a past career as the only woman in Illinois who was a telephone installer--not to mention some modicum of success writing for the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications when he met me.
He chose to go out there and "find Paul again" instead of wading into the water until it covered his head, however. (Thank goodness.) But I kind of saw what he meant. During our marriage, I ironically emerged with many of the kinds of things he used to get--and then some: the Peter J. Lisagor Award for Excellence in Journalism; a wonderful and prolific role as a contributing writer for the Chicago Reader; a column in the Chicago Tribune; even a law degree--and a law license with all the trappings. I was perversely proud of this "Star is Born" reference to me, because what he was saying was that he saw me as a success, which I never really saw about myself.
But one thing is eminently true: I don't think I could have garnered what I now have in my life if he hadn't been there for me, if I had never known him. He alone taught me almost everything I know about the way the world works.
I do believe Paul found Paul again and that he was happy. Now that he's gone forever, that's a question I plan to ask those who may be in a better position to know--in the coming weeks and months. And I think I found Bonnie again, too. I've had the chance to manage without him. And things have been OK.
Which brings me to one last Paul McGrath South Loop story.
It began a few years ago when I visited the Adler Planetarium with my dear friend Ann Moltz. She encouraged me to buy a really good pair of binoculars so I could view the North Star on those nice clear nights from the Roosevelt Road bridge. I followed her advice--but paid no attention to the saleswoman who told me the pair I was buying was really too good--and that I'd have an awful time focusing them without a tripod. ("She has no idea what a steady hand I have," I told Ann.) But the saleswoman was right--and I haven't gotten much use out of them.
But here's the rest of the story: The last time Paul and I were together in the outside world we were in front of the Wrigley Building, after he and Molly had spent a nice July day together and he had taken her to the play "Pinkalicious," which she'd been begging me to take her to for months. He had a new walking stick that day (he used one due to bad leg pain in recent years which I now believe was due to his faltering aorta--that's one of the symptoms of aortic disease). And this walking stick was quite something. We sat there among the Sunday bridal parties on Michigan Avenue getting their pictures snapped. And I asked him if he ever takes a photo job for a wedding anymore, to which he replied, "NO!" And then he took the entire walking stick apart, showing me that you could not only fold it up and put it in a bag, but that it contained a compass, among a whole bunch of other interesting gadgets. Including a tripod. Maybe something I should invest in, I thought, for those gosh-darned binoculars.
Three days later he'd be at Northwestern Memorial--where Molly and I visited him one night, after he called to tell me he was dying. Molly and I traipsed over to find out exactly what was going on, not believing such ridiculous talk. We'd talk to him several times a day and he seemed to be getting better. The nurse said no one there told him any such thing about dying. In fact, there were plans for his going home. I figured he was exaggerating or trying to get our attention or something. He took my hand that night and wouldn't let it go. He spoke in a raspy voice. (Also a symptom of aortic disease.) I told him his heartbeat was the best on his floor--after I checked the hallway monitor of everyone's heartbeats. And it was.
But he was dead less than 30 hours later.
Which brings me back to the walking stick. I told Molly and Kelly a few days ago that I would like to have it. As a symbol of so much of our life together. His showing me, teaching me, letting me in on the little secrets that only he knew.
When I get it, I promise to use it--and not just add it to the "shrine" that is already in place in the basement. When I go out on the Roosevelt Road bridge on some clear night sometime soon with those binoculars, I really would like to set up the tripod and look through the lenses. And get a good view of the North Star. And beyond. Hoping against hope forever, that somewhere out there, Paul is ensconced--and will keep teaching me how the world works.