Some things-the good and bad-will never be forgotten if Gene Schulter has his way
By Patrick Butler
Oct. 9, 1989 will never be just a date on the calendar for former 47th Ward Ald. Gene Schulter. He was there in Berlin on 10/9/89 when “the people forced their (East German) government” to start tearing down the infamous Wall the Russians made them put up back in 1961 to stem the flow of captive citizens fleeing to the West.
Mr. Schulter had been in Germany at the time, working with the West German government on an urban studies program focusing on how families had been separated for years. “It was wonderful, seeing so many families being reunited,” he said.
Another far less cheerful thing Mr. Schulter said he’ll never forget was how numerous Russian soldiers were “just abandoned” by their overlords, eventually left to beg for food and small change from the very people they’d been tyrannizing only days before. “Many of those Russian soldiers just assimilated into German society,” Mr. Schulter said, adding that others turned to crime.
But assimilation didn’t come easy for anyone, German or Russian, he added, recalling how the unified German government took extraordinary measures to reunite the country as quickly as possible, including handing out West German money to help their Eastern fellow countrymen get a fresh start.
Not surprisingly, there were a lot of grumbles from the more prosperous Westerners. But the new government firmly reminded everyone that Germany was now one nation where everyone had to live with big changes like reconnecting the railroads and highways, cleaning up the industrial pollution in the East, and regaining Germany’s legendary work ethic.
Under the Communist regime, a lot of people were used to working only a few hours a day, if that, Mr. Schulter said.
“Even today, many in the elder generation prefer the old way,” he said, “but things are changing as that older generation passes.”
The old work ethic is back with a roar, “especially in engineering, IT,” beamed Mr. Schulter, who sees Germany becoming “one of the premier leaders of Europe, promoting understanding, making sure Europe remains viable.”
Naturally, when the German Consul asked Mr. Schulter if he thought Chicago would like a piece of the Wall, he gave a resounding jawohl!
After learning Chicago’s piece of the rock weighed three tons, posing a “logistical nightmare, I called some friends at Lufthansa (airlines) who paid the shipping costs, then got other friends at Basic Wire and Cable (3900 N. Rockwell) to store it until a hastily organized committee decided the Western Avenue CTA station would be the most visible location.
“We knew it would be a good way to educate the younger generation about the Cold War” and the estimated 200 people who died trying to escape from the East into West Berlin.
And the sooner that education began, the better, Mr. Schulter said, noting that many who weren’t even alive when the Wall want down and the commemorative plaque on the Wall’s fragment had become barely visible.
Ironically, that same day that Wall fragment was rededicated, a new plaque honoring 19th District Police Officer Richard Clark was unveiled a few miles away at a city park.
It was Mr. Schulter who helped get the site changed from River’s Edge Park to honor Officer Clark, who was killed April 3, 1986, attempting to defuse a hostage situation on the 1400 block of Lill St.
Ironically, it was also Mr. Schulter’s brother-in-law, Jim Beibel, who served as chief negotiator during the 36-hour standoff.
Some persons and events you just don’t forget – and don’t want future generations to forget either.
Which is why Gene Schulter has for some time been gearing up for his next effort-rescuing “The Glory of Germany” mural given by the German government to Chicago for the 1892 Columbian Exposition.
After that World’s Fair closed, the giant canvas depicting German notables down through the ages hung in a place of honor in the Germania Club’s great hall. When the club disbanded in 1986, the tapestry was put in storage, still awaiting its next permanent home.
If Gene Schulter and others have their way, that probably won’t be far from Chicago’s piece of the Berlin Wall – in the heart of what was once one of America’s largest German neighborhoods.
Photos with captions:
Gene Schulter makes opening remarks during the rededication of the Berlin Wall monument at the Western Avenue Brown Line station. Some things we can’t afford to forget, he warned several times. Photo by Patrick Butler.
“It’s important to remember the past in order to deal with the present and future,” said Illinois State Senate President John Cullerton. Photo by Patrick Butler.
For German Consul Gen. Herbert Quille, remember the fall of the Wall had a familiar ring. “Not many European were glad to see it go down and have all those refugees streaming all over Europe. Although there may be many people going in the wrong direction today, I’m an optimist. I think we shall overcome (today’s crises)” he said.