A tale of two un­for­get­table Chicago Jims

Shi­flett of Body Politic and jour­nal­ist Tuohy, who died ear­lier this month

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - Rick Ko­gan rko­[email protected]­bune .com

St. Clement Church, which sits un­ob­tru­sively in the Lin­coln Park neigh­bor­hood, is not far from what was once a thriv­ing store­front the­ater strip on Lin­coln Av­enue.

So it was im­pos­si­ble not to also think of Jim Shi­flett while sit­ting in that church Mon­day morn­ing and lis­ten­ing to peo­ple re­mem­ber and cel­e­brate a man named Jim Tuohy.

These two Jims were of an era that seems fur­ther past that it ac­tu­ally is, both part of a breed of charis­matic in­di­vid­u­als who helped de­fine their times and this town. If you don’t rec­og­nize their names, know that they were among the most tal­ented and col­or­ful peo­ple to ever call Chicago home.

James Allen Shi­flett died Dec. 16 in South Carolina. He hadn’t been around for a few years, but when he was he made a pro­found mark as one of the co-founders of the Body Politic The­ater, which former Tri­bune the­ater critic Richard Chris­tiansen called, in his 2004 book “A The­ater of Our Own,” “the cra­dle of Chicago The­ater.”

Shi­flett was born Sept. 20, 1930, in Dal­las and came to Chicago to at­tend the McCormick The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing he started his Pres­by­te­rian min­istry, serv­ing at sev­eral churches in the city and sub­urbs. Very ac­tive in the civil rights move­ment, he was among more than 40 North­ern cler­gy­men who joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Albany, Ge­or­gia, to protest dis­crim­i­na­tory Jim Crow laws in 1962.

He was a so­cial jus­tice war­rior and so taken with some of the city’s ex­per­i­men­tal artis­tic en­deav­ors that in 1969 he cre­ated the non­profit Com­mu­nity Arts Foun­da­tion in a build­ing at 2257-59 N. Lin­coln Ave. It had been home to the U.S. Slic­ing Ma­chine Co. and the up­stairs Monte Carlo Bowl­ing Al­ley. It would soon be home to all man­ner of land­mark the­atri­cal pro­duc­tions.

The first was “Ovid’s Meta­mor­phoses,” from the leg­endary Paul Sills and his Story The­ater. There fol­lowed a steady stream.

Per­haps you saw in the space such shows as “Warp!,” from the wildly creative Stu­art Gor­don and his Or­ganic The­atre Com­pany in 1971; David Mamet’s first Chicago pro­duc­tion, “The Duck Vari­a­tions”; the ir­re­sistible Stephen Wade and his “Banjo Danc­ing” in 1978; and pro­duc­tions by Shi­flett’s own Dream The­atre.

He and his wife, Betty, lived nearby. They raised two daugh­ters, vis­ual artist Drew and com­poser/lyri­cist Melissa, both now based in New York. Son Shawn is a Columbia Col­lege pro­fes­sor and a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist.

“My fa­ther was also heav­ily in­volved in the pol­i­tics of the neigh­bor­hood dur­ing the ’60s and ’70s,” Shawn said. “To me, he was just one hell of a good fa­ther who, in spite of the many hats he wore, still man­aged to find the time to coach a cou­ple of my Lit­tle League teams.”

Shi­flett left the the­ater world in the late 1970s and re­turned to the min­istry, again serv­ing as pas­tor at many area churches. He mar­ried his se­cond wife, Jean, in 1980. (The Body Politic was run for a time by James O’Reilly and be­came home to Vic­tory Gar­dens The­ater in 1995 and then, since 2008, the Green­house The­ater Cen­ter.)

The Shi­fletts moved to Greenville, South Carolina, in 2011 to be closer to Jean’s adult chil­dren, Terri Likowski, Steven Dopp and Daniel Dopp. He died there at 89.

There is to be a me­mo­rial for Shi­flett on the night of Feb. 5 at the Green­house. It is be­ing or­ches­trated by Mark Lar­son, whose 2019 book, “En­sem­ble: An Oral His­tory of Chicago The­ater” (Agate Mid­way) col­or­fully charts Shi­flett’s ac­com­plish­ments. Lar­son also wrote a re­cent story for the Reader, in which he noted Shi­flett’s “spe­cial place in the chron­i­cles of Chicago the­ater his­tory.”

A few steps north of the Green­house is a tav­ern named Kelsey’s, which is where Jim Tuohy would or­ches­trate quar­terly gath­er­ings in honor of, and for, former pa­trons of the by­gone Sterch’s, a tav­ern which was once just to the south and across Lin­coln Av­enue. It was a fa­vorite of Tuohy’s, who died Jan. 8 at St. Joseph Hos­pi­tal. Suf­fer­ing from pneu­mo­nia and kid­ney fail­ure, he was 85.

He had been liv­ing at the Ju­gan Ter­race se­nior apart­ments in the Lin­coln Park neigh­bor­hood with his long­time com­pan­ion Kris Jones. Fel­low res­i­dent Carol Iwata, who once worked as an as­sis­tant to Roger Ebert, said, “When he learned that I had worked for Roger, we had quite a few laughs to­gether. His apart­ment was like walk­ing through a his­tory of the ’50s and the ’60s.”

Mon­day morn­ing the mood was sub­dued at a tra­di­tional Catholic ser­vice at St. Cle­ments. Iwata was there, as were many who had been to the wake the day be­fore.

“It was so crowded at the wake you couldn’t move,” said Vicki Quade, the play­wright and ac­tress best known for her “Late Nite Cat­e­chism.” “That’s un­der­stand­able be­cause he was one of the smartest and kin­d­est men I’ve ever met, and al­ways funny, cu­ri­ous, gra­cious.”

A long­time friend of Tuohy’s and a reg­u­lar at his gath­er­ings at Kelsey’s, Quade said, “The last one was on Dec. 17. I told him how won­der­ful it was for him to have these get-to­geth­ers. He told me, ‘I got tired of al­ways see­ing peo­ple at fu­ner­als. I fig­ured I would in­vite peo­ple to just come out and have a drink. We didn’t have to say good­bye to any­body.’ ”

Jeff Mag­ill tended bar at the Billy Goat Tav­ern, that long­time hang­out for jour­nal­ists, for 35 years be­fore re­tir­ing in 2015. He knew Tuohy.

“Few peo­ple achieve an in­sti­tu­tional pres­ence in the bars and tav­erns they choose to fre­quent, and to do so in a man­ner that con­sis­tently el­e­vates the mi­lieu,” Mag­ill wrote. “We all know that Jim was one of the few. Ad­mit­tedly, there were times when I’d see Jim com­ing down the stairs and I wasn’t sure I could en­dure an­other long story. Be­fore you knew it, as al­ways, I was fully en­gaged.

“Jim just had a way of mak­ing you feel es­sen­tial to the process, im­part­ing a re­gard for you as the lis­tener like no­body I’ve ever known.”

Among his other prom­i­nent haunts were Ric­cardo’s, O’Rourke’s and the Old Town Ale House, the lat­ter the only one still stand­ing and serv­ing. Its pro­pri­etor, Bruce El­liott, knew Tuohy for more than a half-cen­tury. He has writ­ten about Tuohy on his forth­right blog and fea­tured him in two in­stall­ments (20 and 22) of the pod­cast he hosts with Liz Garibay.

Many lively tav­ern sto­ries tend to over­shadow Tuohy’s ac­com­plish­ments and some de­tails of his life, even for the many peo­ple who knew him for years and con­sid­ered him a pal.

Did they know, for in­stance, that he was born on May 29, 1934, and spent most of his child­hood in Bar­ring­ton, the son of Illi­nois ap­pel­late court judge John Tuohy? His mid­dle name was Sars­field.

He joined the Marines and later at­tended col­lege, for a very short time. He then be­gan a ca­reer dur­ing which he worked for the City News Bureau, SunTimes and a cou­ple of tele­vi­sion sta­tions.

He was mar­ried to the inim­itable Michaela, a jour­nal­ist and staff mem­ber in the Mayor’s Of­fice of Spe­cial Events. Known as “Mike” to her friends, when she died at 61 of a heart at­tack in 1997, Mayor Richard M. Da­ley said, “She was an ex­cel­lent writer. Her tal­ent and cre­ativ­ity were an as­set to the city, and her sense of hu­mor, quick wit and hu­man­i­tar­ian spirit were in­spir­ing.”

The cou­ple had three kids, now grown: daugh­ter, Michaela, a Chicago po­lice of­fi­cer; John, a re­porter for the Indianapol­is Star; and Don­ald, who is known to every­one as Don and who has worked for nearly three decades for Fed­eral Ex­press at O’Hare. They were at the church Mon­day, as were two sis­ters and a step­brother.

Some re­mem­bered that Jim Tuohy wrote, with Tom McCo­mas, a se­ries of very suc­cess­ful books about trains. In the wake of Tuohy’s death, Al­lan Miller, the editor-in-chief of O Gauge Rail­road­ing mag­a­zine, wrote, “When in­ter­est in col­lect­ing toy trains mush­roomed in the 1970s [these books] were among the pi­o­neers in pop­u­lar­iz­ing the col­lect­ing seg­ment, and par­tic­u­larly the seg­ment de­voted to col­lect­ing Lionel Trains.”

Tuohy wrote some fine sto­ries for the Reader but much of his best work was done for the Chicago Lawyer and In­jus­tice Watch. The man who hired him for those jobs was Rob War­den, once the editor and pub­lisher of Chicago Lawyer and cur­rently the codi­rec­tor of In­jus­tice Watch.

On that site War­den wrote a lov­ing and lively tribute to Tuohy in which he called him “a ver­i­ta­ble leg­end in the le­gal com­mu­nity [and an] icon in the jour­nal­ism com­mu­nity.”

He amus­ingly de­tailed the ways in which Tuohy em­bel­lished his mod­est aca­demic cre­den­tials when­ever ap­ply­ing for a job, once even award­ing him­self a Ph.D. in an­thro­pol­ogy from Har­vard Univer­sity. He also wrote of his col­lab­o­rat­ing with Tuohy on the cap­ti­vat­ing 1989 book “Grey­lord: Jus­tice, Chicago Style” (G.P. Put­nam Sons), and gave many ex­am­ples of Tuohy’s stylish way with words.

War­den also wrote that “un­til days be­fore he died, Tuohy had been work­ing on a his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant ar­ti­cle” for the web site. Oh well, once a writer…

No one seems to know whether Tuohy and Shi­flett ever met. If they did, I wish I had been there.


Jim Tuohy, seen here in 2018, was a long­time jour­nal­ist and tav­ern talker.


Jim Shi­flett stands on Lin­coln Av­enue in the 1970s in front of the Body Politic The­ater that he co­founded.

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