Sam Guard

Sam Guard on his back patio in August 2021. 

Sam Guard, a retired engineer technician, who worked on building projects throughout Chicago, has lived most of his 95 years in Hyde Park.

Having briefly attended the University of Chicago following World War II, he now lives in the back of a six-flat on Woodlawn Avenue, in a building he describes as a “a good place for middle-class people.”

The Herald archives record Sam in 2011, on the architectural tours that he used to lead down Woodlawn Avenue from 55th Street to 58th Street, emphasizing the middle-class character of the housing there as well. 

"Most of these buildings, which were built in the 1920s, are wonderful time capsules into the past showing us the prosperity of the middle class," he had said. "The homes are a hallmark of the comfortable lifestyle they were able to live, and I want to keep it that way."

Former Herald reporter Sam Rappaport wrote a brief profile of Sam in 2016 on the occasion of his 90th birthday. At the time, he was adjusting to life without his late wife.

Now Sam seems more forward-facing, and in conversation, he stopped himself several times from discussing memories he deemed too frivolous to explain: “No, I don’t want to talk about this. I need to tell you something else.”

Sam invited me to speak with him on a warm afternoon in August. He poured Special Export beer into glasses decorated with flowers, and we sat outside on his back patio in green deck chairs. He wore red suspenders and a blue button-up shirt, carrying a pen and black notebook in his breast pocket.

Sam's training as an engineer permits him to recall, in abundant and precise detail, the structural components of the settings of his memories. Knowledgeable in local history, he also connected events of global importance with the history of Chicago, and the people he’s known here.

After the end of World War II, Guard worked for the U.S. Army, righting telegraph poles in Hiroshima.

He recalled in depth the angle of the poles and their location: “The poles were about half as high as street lamps. They ran alongside the Hiroshima train track. The poles were all leaning away from the bomb. If you need to climb poles, the thing you hate more than anything is a leaning pole. You climb up with your wooden spurs, but it’s practically impossible to get to the low side.”

Recalling his time fighting in the Philippines, he remembered how Chicago's Daniel Burnham had constructed many of the buildings in Baguio, called “the summertime capital of the Philippines”.

He recalled how Richard Speck had murdered a group of nurses on the South Side of Chicago, and the poor reception General Douglas MacArthur (who had led the U.S. Army in combating the Japanese invasion of the Philippines) received in Hyde Park in an otherwise triumphant homecoming tour of Chicago: “U. of C. students threw rotten eggs and tomatoes at him. Of course the Tribune was very upset — they were gonna run him for president.” (The Herald has not been able to confirm either the tomato throwing or the Tribune endorsement of his potential candidacy.)

Of the time when he was caught sneaking off to buy beer outside of the Stoneman Military base in California, he recounted the measurements of the ditch, beside the hole-ridden fence that soldiers would escape from.

Sam said, “There were holes in the fence (at Camp Stoneman) that allowed you to get through, and then you could go into town. You went into town to get liquor, see. On the other side was a dirt ditch that went down six to eight feet, full of brushes, and it was maybe 15 feet across at the top. You needed passes but we didn’t bother to get them.”

Recalling his time at the U. of C., he mentioned that his first wife’s friends claimed they could see former University President Robert Maynard Hutchins being painted in the nude by his own first wife, the writer and painter Maude Hutchins.

Sam said he then conducted a detailed investigation into where, at what angle, in what room of the building, they might have been able to glance the president so exposed.

He described other events that now have about them a mythic luminosity and strangeness.

Before attending college, Sam was fixated on the dangers and potential benefits of atomic energy, and took a bus to Auburn, Alabama, to attend a conference on the topic. Here, he recalled a remarkable demonstration of atomic potential.

“They had a beautiful German shepherd dog out on display. He jumped right on to the table, and they gave him a shot of radioactive iodine,” Sam said. “The crowd then watched as it traveled around the dog’s veins. It congregated in his thyroid.”

As part of his research, Sam also posed a question to Hutchins, who was visiting Louisville, Kentucky.

“I was living at the Seelbach Hotel and Robert Hutchins came to town to give a speech there. Afterwards you could go up and ask questions. I went up and said to him, ‘I put the telegraph poles back at Hiroshima. What’s the answer to the atom bomb?’ And he said, without flinching, ‘The Great Books.’ ”

Upon his saying this, I asked Sam again about Hutchins being painted in the nude. But here was one of those memories that Guard wished not to dwell on. He said, “Wait, can we talk about what I need to talk about?”

In recent months, he has been fixated on environmental destruction. He can’t understand how there is any debate over how much to pay for in averting climate change. He said it is “a duty, not a decision” to pay for all necessary changes.

He recalled how, in Hyde Park, he, his first wife, and his children would look out from their back porch near 48th and Dorchester at the smokestacks around the city.

Sam said, “There were 1,200 smokestacks. I found that figure. The Chicago Tribune had thousands of ad men, and they told them, everywhere you find a smokestack, get them to buy an ad.

“My wife and I were given a set of cards by the city, with varying shades of blackness. The city would give out these cards, of varied shades of blackness. And they told us, ‘When your kids start coughing, hold up the card and compare it to the color of the smoke.’ There was then an agency you could call, and if a smokestack was making black enough smoke, they would incur a penalty.”

Sam continued, “These decisions were made. They were made by my generation. They were made in the American way. They contributed immensely to the wealth of the city …. You buy a car, you pay for it on time. We bought all that, and now we have to pay, just as you would pay for anything else. Pay the goddamn money.”

Sam continues to read up on global warming, and hopes to spend the next two years of his life, which is about as long as he expects to live, writing vignettes concerning life in Hyde Park.

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