Bill Torpy at large: How long-ago Chicago lessons forged my Atlanta future

My first thought after running into a stream of classmates from 40 years past was, “Boy, did these guys get old!”

Seeing the occasional high school bud through the years doesn’t prepare one for the impact of mass and sudden immersion into the past-turned-present.

Last week, the Class of ‘76 from St. Ignatius College Prep met again at the old school on the West Side of Chicago. Forty years is half a lifetime if you live to be an old man. So it was surreal to see lean, pimply faced, long-haired kids in jean jackets reappear from the mist of time as eminent white-haired gentlemen in blazers.

Such a fond re-acquaintance in the mid-autumn of our lives has left many of us buzzing for days.

Welby Beck, a classmate known back in the day for a magnificent Afro, experienced some of that same friendly jolt. In the parking lot he spotted a fellow facing the other way and thought, “Who’s this bald-headed cat?”

Then the “cat” turned around and Beck recognized him immediately — it was Mike Wilbon, sans Afro, a face now well-known to American sports fans as the guy forever pontificating on ESPN.

St. Ignatius in the early 1970s was a place in history, geography and even sociology that would be hard to re-create today: An all-boys school whose students from tight-knit, ethnic neighborhoods traveled far distances to a rough inner-city environment to study in a century-old building resembling a debtor’s prison, where they were taught by a religious order known for its hard-nosed, free-thinking ways.

It was diversity, before diversity was cool.

“It was just a bunch of kids from all over the city together here; but it wasn’t strange to meet everybody,” recalled Beck, who later became a doctor. The Class of ‘76 produced eight doctors, six of them who are black. Beck noticed that fact, too, and didn’t know what to make of it other than high expectations and aspirations.

Students took a while to figure each other out, and we weren’t always nice to each other. But amid the daily grind came a growing respect and even a shared empathy.

Our plunge into this environment didn’t necessarily seem all that strange, but it was a revolution to many of us. I came from a South Side neighborhood made up of Irish Catholics, many who moved from other Irish communities that had, as they say, “changed,” meaning become black.

Most of my classmates came from similarly insulated backgrounds. Chicago has always been a segregated city, and back then it was still separated by neighborhoods of nationalities.

The names represented the neighborhoods. Our class had a Ludwig, a Borys, a Nara, a Konstanty, a Vytas, a Jesus and three Valentinos.

To the north was Taylor Street, an Italian neighborhood known in the past for a Mafioso undercurrent, and at the time for inventive double-parking outside popular eateries.

To the south was Pilsen, an Eastern European neighborhood then becoming the Chicago’s Mexican heart.

Across the street from the school and to the west were public housing facilities with black residents.

When the TV show “Hill Street Blues” wanted to capture a gritty urban landscape, they brought their cameras a couple of blocks south and let them roll. Negotiating those streets became a rite of passage that gave one a sixth sense of how to act in public, of knowing where to go (and not go) and how to convey yourself while getting there.

At the time, the 1960s had just ended and the smoke from some of the riots on the West Side had barely cleared. Initially, it seemed to many of us that that part of town was forlorn.

But, we found, it wasn’t. Each area was buzzing with real people, restaurants and shops. Downtown was a quick “L” ride away. We learned how to handle street people or to haggle down the price of (almost) Dingo boots in the old Maxwell Street market nearby, an area later made famous by Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker in “The Blues Brothers.”

It was like having the keys to the backstreets of Chicago at age 15. We memorized bus routes and even hitch-hiked home from school down the Dan Ryan Expressway (Chicago’s Downtown Connector). People say, “Yeah, you did all those things back then, but now things are dangerous.”

Actually, Chicago set the record in 1974 with 970 murders. This year, Chicago, seen as the Bad Boy of American Cities, may end up with 700. But the parents back then were not yet seated in helicopters hovering above their offspring.

But the best of all was the intellectual foundation imparted by the Jesuits, the religious order sometimes called “the Pope’s Marines.” In freshman year, we read “Boss,” the bitingly mean and funny biography of Mayor Richard Daley by Chicago columnist Mike Royko, even though Daley had sent a son there. We took four years of languages and math. We learned in a building that was a dump, but that didn’t matter. We were taught by (mostly) men who went on missions, worked in tough environments and were not afraid to tell the truth even when it was unpopular.

Do things right, they told us. And don’t be afraid.

Not a bad way to think when heading into life.

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