As I (Steve) write this, it’s the wee hours of the morning of January 26, 2021, and snow is falling over the Chicago area. The forecast is for around 8 inches over the next 24 hours thanks to a major winter storm that is offering up a bunch of the white stuff along with dangerous driving conditions to a broad section of the Plains and Midwest.
Of course we’ll survive, but not without the requisite trips to, or “safer at home” orders from, the grocery store for milk and bread.
As the Chicago area buckles up and prepares for whatever Mother Nature has in store for us over the next couple of days, my mind went back to a similar, but much more intense event that happened on this same date 54 years ago.
It was January 26, 1967 when a record setting 23 inches of snow began falling, paralyzing the Chicago area. The snow fell so quickly and brought everything to such a complete stop that although my Dad, who worked at South Works Steel on Chicago’s South side, just a little over a 10 minute drive from where we lived, did his best to navigate the snow drifts, he was forced to leave his car about 2 blocks from our house and only made it home with the help of a neighbor.
I was working at my first radio station, WJOB, in Hammond, IN. It normally took 25 min. to get to the station. That first night of the blizzard there was no way I could dig my car out and, even if I was somehow able to, there was no way I could drive down the block let alone make the trip to Hammond.
The next day, I still couldn’t get my 59 Chevy out of the snow drifts and public transportation was also still trying to dig out. A phone call to my friend, WJOB newsman, Larry Peterson, who also lived on Chicago’s South Side, confirmed my thought that Larry’s Volkswagen Beetle might be an easier car to dig out and try making our way to the station.
So, I started walking over to Larry’s house. That walk turned out to be one of those “I really should have thought it through” moments … or rather hours. I hadn’t made the calculation that the walk from our house at 8039 Manistee to Larry’s house around 77th and South Chicago Avenue would be about 25 blocks.
25 BLOCKS OF STREETS THAT WERE MOSTLY STILL FILLED WITH SNOW!!!
Go ahead … Google it … I’ll wait.
Probably good exercise in good weather but, in 23 inches of snow, … not so much.
Once I got to Larry’s we dug out his Beetle and started on our mission. By this time, some of the main streets were being cleared so we decided to stick with one of the big main streets (Stony Island) and take it to the Calumet expressway (Now known as the Bishop Ford expressway). What seemed like a good idea turned out not to be because the expressway hadn’t been cleared and was still impassible. So, we turned around and headed to the Chicago Skyway. When we got there, we found that it, also, had not been cleared, but the plows were on the way.
So … we waited.
Finally a plow or two arrived and we were able to follow them across the Skyway bridge into Indiana and to the exit closest to the radio station.
I’ll spare you the details of the rest of our trip but, suffice it to say that, what was normally a 25 minute trip took us 8 HOURS!
Once we got to WJOB, since hardly anyone else had made it to the station, Larry and I wound up being on the air for over 24 hours. During that time we broadcast information about what stores in the region were open, who needed help, where to get help and anything else that was needed to help that area survive the storm and get back up and running.
THAT was a radio baptism by fire and taught me just how important LOCAL radio is in times of emergency.
To this day, that 1967 snowstorm remains the greatest snowfall in one storm in Chicago history.
Would I ever want to go through that again? Nope! Would I trade that experience for anything? Nope!
Of course, that “baptism by fire” (or snow) experience was to prove itself an invaluable preamble to my adventures in broadcasting. For example, years later, at WGN, Johnnie and I had days and nights when we battled the conditions getting to and from the station. One of the most memorable was during the blizzard of 2011. No, it didn’t take us 8 hours, but that trip was a nail biter, too. We archived some of that experience in this video from our YouTube channel.
Additionally, Roger Badesch writes about his experience in the snow and on the air with us during the blizzard of 2011 in his book, “The Unplanned Life.”
I just stepped away from this computer for a moment and walked to the living room to take a look outside. That, predicted, 8 inches of snow is still accumulating but, this time, I can just enjoy the snow globe like beauty I’m seeing through our living room window.
We don’t have to go out in it.
And, we still have our Christmas tree up!