11/30/2010 11:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chicago Literary Hall of Fame's First Induction Ceremony Honors Our Greatest Writers

We were still fussing with flower arrangements, loading beer bottles into coolers. Somebody had to go on an ice run. Gary Houston popped into the lobby and wanted to know where to park. Art Shay was curious to see how his photos displayed, and then Mamie Hansberry came strolling through the doors with her daughter Nantille and granddaughter Taye on either arm. Fred Sasaki was in search of Marc Smith, and Valya Dudycz Lupescu was meeting with the volunteers--appropriately called The Saints. Randy Richardson and Rich Sims showed up together and soon were scouting the Auditorium for the best place to set up video cameras.

I thought it was a good time to have my first beer, or maybe I should pick another lane: there was a whiskey tasting table and wine, some vodka concoctions that looked innocent enough. Audrey Niffenegger said she was supposed to find Elysabeth Alfano for an interview. The caterer introduced herself--it wasn't Kim, the woman with whom I'd exchanged a bunch of emails and phone calls, but somebody else, somebody named Natalie or maybe it was Ingrid. Julie? I don't know but she had meatballs, and we needed meatballs, I was sure of that. Mark Lupescu informed me that the coat racks were all filled and that there were no more coat racks available and we needed coat racks. What do I know about coat racks?

Kathy Wolter was apologizing for being late and when she asked what she could do I pointed vaguely toward a bar, other people: I don't know, HAVE FUN. I looked up. Sara Paretsky was signing some commemorative programs, and Nora Blakely Brooks was huddled with Dana Smith and what I assumed were other members of the Wright clan. Margot McMahon lovingly held one of the statues she'd created. It was no longer pre-whatnot, it was the actual whatnot, and I was surprised that people were everywhere, and whatever control we'd had had been handed over to people wanting a drink or food; people wanting to meet other people; people fiddling with piles of notes; people snapping pictures.

It was like any party, I guess, except this was a party for dead people. Six dead people.

Six dead writers.

Chicago Literary Hall of Fame First Induction Ceremony Slideshow

In their own way, whether we'd lived with them, been friends with them, met them briefly, or had read their books in some pre-adolescent moment when we were just discovering the power of words....they meant a great deal to us.

Us, I suppose, was the collective spirit of Chicago's creative community, or at least a sampling of us, maybe 300 in all, ranging from librarians to booksellers to professors to students to small publishers to reading series hosts to writers.

Lots of writers.

We were gathered Nov. 20 at Northeastern Illinois University for the inaugural induction ceremony of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright and Lorraine Hansberry were the first group to be honored, and Rick Kogan, the emcee for the evening, said that when his girlfriend heard the names she said, "Jesus! Who got in last year?"

The Auditorium was crowded. I hoped the Brooks family was seated together, and the Bellow family, and that everybody would stop eating sausages and share in this grand ceremony. None of that mattered anymore. The Neo-Futurists were wrapping up a routine at once funny and inspiring, and then Kogan was doing his magic--he was telling about all the inductees who'd been in his living room (his father was the legendary journalist Herman Kogan), bounced him on his knee, drank with him--and then we were laughing with Nora Brooks Blakely about her mom's soap opera addiction (General Hospital's on! -- click), and relishing Haki Madhubuti's recollections of the transformative powers of Wrights's Black Boy, and marveling at Bill Savage's bottomless Algren insight (and oohing at his signed first editions), and enjoying Greg Bellow's memories of his father, and watching Jackie Taylor's mesmerizing Raisin in the Sun monologue, and singing along with Lori Lippitz to Jacob's Ladder. We watched the Young Chicago Authors and the Teen Poets & Writers Project give us a glimpse at the future, all balled up with the glorious past and impressive present. Stuart Dybek began his brilliant presentation by wondering how many of us had walked down the street with Studs, his point being that Terkel was such a beloved personality that we were all only just discovering the magnitude and force that his oeuvre represented. By the time Shay, a considerable armload of notes in hand, settled onto a stool, we knew all time limits were a mockery.

Nobody seemed to care. Well, maybe they did--some people were hungry, and some were eager for the bar to reopen, and some had kids with sitters. Nobody complained, at least, since we all, I think, knew that this was a special occasion, and that now, as much as ever, our past was not merely a dim fading bulb, but a bright guiding light.

The crowd lingered. In the lobby outside NEIU's Auditorium, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a gifted contributor to our great literary heritage. There were desserts and coffee and more booze, that was part of it, but mostly it seemed there was an instinct to share stories. It's what we all believe in, after all.