A tale of two unforgettable Chicago Jims
Shiflett of Body Politic and journalist Tuohy, who died earlier this month
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.