A World War II veteran, ardent progressive and beloved family man, Eugene (Gene) Krell built community wherever he went. He was an Illinois boy who went to Japan for the war and decided to bring a bit of the world back with him to Hyde Park, where he lived for over six decades. Gene died on Sunday, Dec. 6, at the age of 94.
The cause was complications of COVID-19, according to family.
Gene was born on June 29, 1926 in Fairbury, Illinois, to Carl and Verna Krell. He had one younger brother, Harland. His father was a pastor; during Gene’s youth, the family moved around various small towns in rural Illinois. Gene was drafted into the army after high school in 1944, initially training for the tank corps due to his small stature. He shipped out to Japan as part of the occupying force following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Gene’s childhood spent traveling around the state and meeting new people with his progressive-minded father helped prepare him for the novel circumstances he encountered in the military, including exposure to people from different walks of life.
Good-natured and helpful as he was, he was the type to make friends everywhere he went. He developed life-long friendships with fellow servicemen from diverse backgrounds including a New Yorker, a southerner and a farmer.
He was discharged in 1946 and attended North Central College in Illinois with Harland, graduating with a double major in sociology and economics. He went on to the University of Wisconsin for a graduate degree in Urban Planning, though he did not complete the program after the professor he was working with left.
After school, Gene moved to Chicago and lived briefly on the North Side, but his neighbors disapproved of his Black friends when they came around to visit. He sought a more diverse neighborhood and was impressed by Hyde Park, settling here in the late 1950s.
Gene worked for the city of Chicago before moving to the Real Estate Research Corporation. Once, consulted about building low-income housing in the middle of several highways, he is said to have responded, “Why would you build it surrounded by highways? How would you get in and out?”
On May 6, 1961 he married Barbara Wylie Stocks, who was the sister of his brother’s wife and widowed the year before. They had three children, including two he adopted. According to his daughters, June Krell and Ruth Wernis, he was a caring and loving father. “Mom always said he was more careful than her when changing diapers, and that he never stuck us with the safety pins like she occasionally did,” June said.
The Krells became very active in the neighborhood, garnering the nickname Mr. and Mrs. Hyde Park. They hosted numerous international students over the years, including one who taught Becca, his granddaughter, origami.
Gene helped with housework and supported Barbara in her various community leadership activities, including providing much of the transportation and hosting many of the meetings. The family campaigned for liberal candidates, and brought the children to marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. during the Chicago Freedom Movement of the mid-sixties.
In addition, Gene was a dedicated member of the Hyde Park Union Church, the Hyde Park Historical Society and Chicago Hyde Park Village.
Gene loved music, from the church choir and opera to the Grant Park Music Festival and classical music. He was a big fan of Rachel Maddow and NPR. He could be argumentative. Political debate was a favorite pastime, especially with Harland. He got his green thumb from his father, and his garden included two apple trees, lettuce, carrots, radishes, asparagus and sunflowers.
When the children were still young, the family would pile into the car and take long camping trips, meeting Gene’s army buddies and extended family. He continued to travel and see the world until the end, visiting China, France, Hawaii and Alaska, and assuming the task of location scouting for family reunions with son Craig.
Gene was preceded by his wife, Barbara and Craig. He is survived by his two daughters, June Krell and Ruth Wernis, four grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and eight nieces and four nephews.
Those who wish to make a donation in Eugene Krell's name may make them to Chicago Hyde Park Village at 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL 60637. (Tax ID 90-0798416) or online at https://www.chpv.org/content.aspx?page_id=22&club_id=339585&module_id=396003. The organization was important to both Gene and Craig and would be a great remembrance of both.