"Chicago Eddie" Signs Off

03/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Back in the early 1990s, I got a call at the Sun-Times, where I was the medical reporter. On the other end was a familiar squeaky voice.

"I've been following your stories for years in the Sun-Times," the caller said. "Are you the same Howard Wolinsky who went to Bowen High School and Luella Elementary."

Like there are two Howard Wolinskys. I'm stuck with my name, but the caller wasn't making any assumptions. That was Eddie.

He might well have asked if I was the same Howard Wolinsky he knew from Cub Scouts and Hebrew School at Congregation Kehilath Israel on the Southeast Side.

I was one and the same. "Eddie. How many Howard Wolinskys could there be?" I asked.

I was talking to a legend of Chicago radio: Eddie Schwartz, my old friend from school and Cub Scouts and so on.

Frankly, we hadn't kept in touch over the years.

I moved away and worked mainly as a newspaper reporter in Florida before coming back home to Chicago in 1979.

Eddie had staked a giant claim on Chicago and established himself as a major figure in Chicago radio on WIND and then WGN.

He was "Chicago Eddie," beloved by insomniacs like my late mother-in-law, cabbies and other denizens of the night. He also had his share of detractors who mocked his voice and style.

Eddie was calling to invite me to appear on his show on WLUP to discuss AIDS.

It was a unique experience.

Eddie was a maestro, playing callers off one another, weaving a rich tapestry of radio patter. When he was in the zone, Eddie was great. Even on off days, he was good, albeit a bit schmaltzy.

Off air, during commercial breaks, we had a private conversation about our years in Jeffery Manor and the Southeast Side. He wondered what people thought of him in high school. He craved the connection to people. He was obsessed with that. He needed to be loved and did many good works to serve the public as a paramedic and campaigner.

He didn't have the traditional radio pipes. But he won over a huge audience over the years. He had a great heart.

Our memories of the old hood couldn't been more different.

I recalled all the murders:

--Richard Speck killed the seven nurses across from Luella, our old grade school.
--A neighborhood lady, a young Jewish woman and her lover, was convicted of killing her husband.
--The father --and as I recall brother--of another of our chums, was convicted of murdering a "Vegas showgirl" and burying her in a shallow grave on his Indiana farm, where he raised frogs to be sold for dissections in the public schools.

Another of our classmates was Jon Burge, who would become the notorious Chicago Police commander charged with using torture tactics. (After years of allegations of human rights abuses, Burge was indicted last fall for allegedly lying about whether he and other officers under his command participated in torture and physical abuse of one or more suspects in police custody dating back to the 1980s.)

My memories were filled with strange and dangerous characters. I was like a crime reporter in training.

I remembered the polluted air from the nearby steel mills that streaked our windows and cars after they were washed. I remembered the stench of a nearby landfill. You could always tell which way the wind was blowing from the smell in the air. I remembered the slag in the soil, waste from the mills, used to fill the swamp our homes were built on. I remembered the orange glow of the night from slag being dumped.

I remembered the racism and the riots that occurred in nearby Trumbull Park after a black family moved into public housing.

Generally, Eddie had different memories. He remembered a happy community with post-World War II opportunities. He remembered the achievements of those who lived among us.

Still, Eddie remembered Burge, whose actions would be condemned by Amnesty International, among others, from the grade school AV Club where Burge, according to Eddie, had a special penchant for electrical wires and and applying electricity to people.

But Eddie exuded more sunshine than darkness. He was a cup half full to my cup half empty. He thought our neighborhood was the best in the world, not one in which murderers, grifters, freaks and thieves cast large shadows.

We both agreed that Charles Scott, our fifth grade teacher, was an inspiration. Scott wrote a note to my parents that they held on to for years, predicting I would be a famous scientist one day. I became a science writer. And like Eddie, I was grateful to the boost this rare and wonderful Chicago public school teacher gave us.

Over the years, Eddie had had me on his show when I had a book to promote or a health subject he wanted to cover. Once you were in his studio, he wouldn't let you go.

As his health and career were in decline, he would call me and exchange e-mails as he sought advice in writing a newspaper column. He wanted to be more than a columnist for the Lerner papers. He wanted to be more than a writer of letters to the editor to the major dailies. Fighting illness for years, he wanted to be the next Royko. That was Eddie.

I heard Wednesday from a friend who works in radio, a guy who does an eerie Eddie imitation, that Chicago Eddie had signed off for the last time.

Even the people who made fun of Eddie had to recognize that he was a force of nature, a guy from the hood, who made the big city seem more like a small town where people cared for each other.

There was only one Chicago Eddie.