Steve Stories

I had the idea for this page a few weeks ago. Where it came from, I don't know. I haven't even thought about Steve for a long time. For years I had no contact with him. In those days, when you went away you lost contact and that was that. The only way to communicate was by letter and not everyone writes letters.

Steve knew how to write, of course. But the only thing I ever read of his was an attack on the apartheid regime of South Africa.

When Steve left, we lost touch; went on to different lives. That's what happened when you go to a national university.

Things are different now; distance is dead, you can easily stay in touch through the Internet and it is no longer easy to escape your past.

The Platform

Steve was on his way to a punk rock club and was dressed wearing a black leather jacket. Steve was large, beefy, as they say, not very tall, but with the feeling of mass. Not really fat, but flabby, if you could see him sans shirt, but in the leather jacket he looked like a guy who worked out in the gym everyday. He took a bus to the elevated station at 55th Street. It was late at night; there were few people around. The University told us to exercise caution in the surrounding neighborhoods. Sometimes they could be dangerous.

There was no one on the platform when Steve climbed up the stairs. In the cold, he waited under the heat lamps. The CTA platforms can be freezing in the winter and the black leather jacket was not made for arctic temperatures. As he waited for the train, another man came onto the platform. This man had a gun. He pointed it at Steve and told him to hand over his wallet.

Steve thought a minute.

“You may get my wallet," Steve said, “but you won't leave this platform alive."

The thug looked at Steve then down at his own gun. He put his gun into his pocket.

“You should turn to Jesus," Steve said. “Get yourself right with the Lord."

He asked Steve if he could spare a dollar.

Steve said no.

The train arrived. Steve got on.

The New Name

Jim and Cathy Ipser were the adults to our adolescents in the dorm. Our dorm was called Lower Flint. On the other side of the U-shaped building across the street from Rockefeller Cathedral, there was another dorm called Wallace, which was housed women only, and between them Richter, which housed men. Lower Flint though, was co-ed. Graduate students once called the building the “New Dorms" but by the time we were living there no one used that name and was referred to by the name of its three residences. It had a numbered street address though, 5824 S. Kimbark, unlike the houses in Cairo, even though everyone referred to it as “Flint” or “Lower Flint.”

At the beginning of the year Jim and Cathy had us sit in a circle and introduce ourselves. She circulated a clipboard and asked us to write our names. I didn't know anyone. I was a year older than everyone else, but so what? I didn't even know what I was going to be studying. I wrote my name on the paper like everyone else. Then we went around the room and introduced ourselves and said where we were from.

“Where are you from?" was not the loaded question it is today. It was Steve's turn. Steve said that his name was Steve Thompson and that he was from Cairo, Illinois. Cairo was as far south as you can get from Chicago without leaving Illinois. There had been race riots in the 1960s. At the beginning of the Civil War, a newly-mobilized Ulysses S. Grant helped recruits fill out their enlistment forms.

Steve said that houses in Cairo had names; you didn't really go by a numbered street address. He lived at Ginger House. That was the only address needed to send a letter. I knew nothing about Cairo.

It never occurred to anyone to lie at Jim and Cathy's meeting. We all had secrets, but we were all eager university students and beginning a great adventure with a falsehood never occurred to anyone, except Steve.

After the meeting, Cathy Ipser huddled with Steve for a few minutes. We didn't know why. Later, Steve explained that on the spur of the moment he realized that he did not want to be known by his real name, Wayne. He chose Steve, instead. He didn't explain why.

Lillian Yovovich immediately nicknamed him “WCMS" for “Wayne call me Steve." But none of us had ever known him as Wayne and Lillian's nickname for him died out after a while, so for the rest of us he was always just Steve.

Lillian had worked summers at a hardware store in Chicago's southwest and had an impressive encylopedic knowledge of the price of the items in the store. It wasn't a small store, either. She had two brothers who were upperclassmen, one of them worked on the Maroon, the student newspaper, but Lillian only stayed one year.

Student Loans

It was very easy to get a student loan; the bursar's office would disburse them upon request. Just by enrolling we all had good credit and since we were all going to be successful, we didn't worry too much about paying the money back. The bursar's office would even give you cash if you wanted it. University tuition had not become the onerous burden it is today.

Steve took out student loans himself but knew that repayment could be a problem. He explained that his older brother had never paid back his student loans. After graduation, he had gone to Jordan and enlisted in the Jordanian Army. Because of his university degree, he was commissioned as an officer. He learned Arabic and was eventually sent to the Jordanian Embassy in Ottawa. As a diplomat, Steve's brother enjoyed diplomatic immunity and so could not be sued for failure to pay back his student loans or for any other reason.

When we started school South Vietnam had not yet surrendered. Saigon had loomed for all of us, but the draft had gone to a lottery system. 1973 was the last year anyone was drafted. But all during high school the draft was a threat: perhaps we had not been eligible but that does not mean we weren't paying attention.

The idea that someone would join a foreign, Middle Eastern Army--Israel had been dragged into war in October, 1974--was a radical notion indeed. Steve said that his brother was a luft, which he said meant “lieutenant" in Arabic. There was an Israeli student in the dorm--her name was Tal Tammari--and I do not recall ever participating in a conversation with her about Israel or what she thought about Steve's brother. Peace between Jordan and Israel had not yet been made.

There were several Jewish students who had visited Israel and a few had studied Hebrew, but I don't recall anyone ever questioning the story of Steve's brother. I do remember Tal making fun of their Hebrew pronunciation. When one of them spoke a phrase he knew, Tal started to laugh. The phrase was “lasteen hamad" or at least sounded like that to my untrained ears. She laughed so hard tears ran down her cheeks and she had to leave the room. She never said what was so funny and in all the years since I have never met a Hebrew speaker who could clear up the mystery.

The word for the rank of lieutenant in the Jordanian Army is mozalim, not luft. Steve did correctly know the Arabic for the Muslim call to prayer. Perhaps his brother taught him the Arabic.

Shoes

There came a time when Steve decided that he was not going to wear shoes. To walk the gantlet of the streets on the South Side of Chicago is to avoid glass and other hazards. The university and its grounds are kept relatively clean, but Steve walked everywhere, developing calluses and hardened soles. I remember on one occasion we walked to the Museum of Science and Industry; we didn't go inside but some of us climbed the stone lions and we looked at the captured German U-505 that was still kept outside.

Fortunately, Steve's decision about footwear was not made in winter. In winter he wore shoes or boots like everyone else.

High Scores

Steve had a perfect score on the verbal SAT's. I do not remember if he told us his math score. He could have gone to school anywhere in the country.

There were those among the group who spoke mathematics fluently. I did not understand a word. One of the classes was titled Analysis in Rn. I still don't know what it means. The students dropped out because the TA spoke with a heavy accent and no one understood him.

Mead

In the winter thoughts turn to self-harm so the University sent us to a retreat in Ripon, Wisconsin. Rumors were that there had once been a group who had made a suicide pact that had been carried out. To avoid a repeat, the University packed us off in buses for a weekend where, presumably, in the cold, unfamiliar lands of Wisconsin with nothing to do the thought of a final exit would be suppressed. I had a car.

The retreat campus was a place of many rules run by strict Baptists. Alcohol was prohibited. There had yet to be imposed a national drinking age in the United States and Wisconsin, home of German farmers and breweries, had stubbornly refused to force eighteen year-olds to wait three more years before they could legally imbibe. It was settled, we would go by car.

Mead is a beverage made of fermented honey, once popular in the Middle Ages. Steve had been reading Boethius and decided that he wanted mead. There was much discussion about this. I could not imagine bottles of mead flying off the shelf. We decided to stop in Milwaukee before continuing on to Ripon. None of us knew Milwaukee other than the location of Lake Michigan to the east. Off the Interstate, late in the evening on a Friday in a gritty neighborhood, I did not expect that we would find any mead. Steve was the first one out of the car, after a brief conversation in the liquor store, he was directed to the mead section.

“Something like that, if we have it, it will be over there,” the clerk motioned.

The clerk had never heard of it; Steve's assurance that mead had been popular in the Middle Ages was not helpful. There were two bottles in the store. Steve purchased one and the rest of us purchased supplies for the rest of the weekend. My grandfather used to pour a teaspoon--sometimes a tablespoon--of whisky in his morning tea. He didn’t drink coffee. My plan was to imitate him that weekend. After all, I wasn’t a Baptist. None of us really believed that rules applied to us. Especially Steve.

Steve opened the bottle of mead in the car. I remember that it tasted like cough medicine. We continued on to Ripon.

Privacy

If your door was open people could come in and often did. Steve kept his door closed. If you knocked on the door he would open it a sliver and ask, “Yes?" He would not let you come inside. Privacy was important for Steve.

During his first year, Steve had a roommate; he didn't get a single room until his second year. One time the first year, I dropped by to visit Steve and his roommate. There were a few people already there, sitting on the pillows on Steve's bed and his chair, listening to music. His roommate ignored the noise and was studying under a high-intensity lamp. Steve was nowhere to be seen. “Where's Steve?" I asked, but no one knew.

All of a sudden, there was a commotion because the pillows on Steve's bed started to move. Those on the bed jumped up, startled; only realizing that the pillows weren't pillows at all but Steve.

Common Core

I did have to take a few common core classes, but Steve and I never had a class together.

Exam Week

Exam week was hectic as papers were due and tests taken. Punishment for any inattention that quarter had to be endured. Steve wasn't worried. His plan was to forego sleep so he could catch up. I told him this was unrealistic. “You don't know what you're talking about," he answered. I was in the laundry room reading Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow when Steve walked by. Presumably I had to write a paper on the book, though I do not remember which professor had assigned this penance. The load was finished, I dumped the clothes into the dryer, put in the quarters and returned to the book. Steve walked by again.

He had no book in hand. His studying seemed to consist of walking up and down the halls.

Exam week over, Steve showed up in the halls. “Hi," he said, opening his palm and waving it from left to right in slow motion. He spoke very, very slowly too. I asked him if he had finished his assignments. “No-o prob-le-ehmm," he said, drawing out the words. He showed me a tiny pill, the size of the aspirins they used to feed to babies. “It's a Black Beauty," he said. I learned later that this was the name of an amphetamine, just the kind of chemical assist you would need were you flying night bombing missions over Germany in WWII or trying to finish course deadlines in Hyde Park.

Cork Board, Dart Board

At the entrance of Lower Flint there was a cork board on which public notices were placed. The board was an object of much attention so it was only a question of time before it was put to another use. A dart board was drawn by hand or copied and placed on the board. Later, darts materialized. Perhaps it wasn't the safest venue for a dart board with people walking in and out, but darts were thrown anyway.

Steve put his hand over the dartboard and challenged Morris Jacobs to throw a dart at his hand. “I bet you won't do it," Steve said. The challenge was silly, but Steve refused to remove his hand from the board. He insisted that Morrie throw the dart, “come on, do it!" he ordered. We sat on the couches watching the show, drinking 16 ounce Coca Cola bottles that the Ipsers made sure filled the refrigerator. This was not a normal game of darts. Morrie shrugged and threw the dart. The projectile hit Steve's hand and bounced off.

“There," Steve said. He seemed satisfied.

Pets

Steve had a pet cat he named Sasha. Sasha was a black and white cat that was always getting into places he wasn't supposed to go. No one knew where Sasha had come from or where Steve had gotten Sasha. One day Steve showed up with Sasha and that was that.

Pets weren't allowed in the dorms. A few of us had moved out, but not for that reason. Steve came along. We were now living at 1347 E. Hyde Park Boulevard on the third floor. There was no elevator. Steve decided to take advantage of the situation by getting Sasha. We enjoyed the freedom of the apartment and not having to move every twelve weeks but we missed our friends who still lived in Flint. As non-residents, we couldn't simply show up. Someone had to escort us in.

Steve had odd notions about what Sasha liked or didn't like and there was no point in contradicting him. Nor was there any point in arguing about the cat. Cats just are; they do what they want. Once Sasha was established in the apartment, there was no point in complaining about its behavior. Sasha was a cat and did cat things. Steve did clean Sasha's litter box, more or less to everyone's satisfaction. Sasha didn't care one way or the other.

Morrie was the only one who owned a television. The set had a small screen by today's standards and Morrie had put it on top of a dresser. If you sat in a chair in front of the dresser you hand to tilt your head back to see the screen. Steve sat this way to watch television. He liked to watch Star Trek reruns though perhaps I only noticed this because that was the only time I showed up to watch television too.

Sasha would come by, stick his head in the room and leave. Sasha was not supposed to go into Morrie's room but he did so anyway if Morrie wasn't there. If Sasha thought that Morrie might be there he wouldn't go in even if he didn't see Morrie. Sasha was similarly prohibited from going into my room as well, but Sasha ignored the prohibition. He especially liked to jump onto the arms of the sofa bed and rest there.

When we graduated, lost the lease and moved out, Sasha went with Steve to what passed for a frat house. There, Steve didn't bother so much with Sasha anymore. I only visited them at their new place once or twice; it was there during lunch that the news broke of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. I saw Sasha roaming around in their yard. Steve had let Sasha go feral; he belonged to no one.

Later Steve turned up with a full-grown Samoyed, a beautiful dog with snow-white fur. I don't remember what he named the dog. His story concerning its acquisition was somewhat less than clear. After a while, the Samoyed was gone. Steve claimed that he had given the dog away and we were happy that it had found a good home. We had misunderstood, by “giving it away" Steve meant that he had returned it to the pound. He had left the receipt for the Samoyed on the dining room table. There was no point in confronting him about this; no one wanted to take responsibility for the Samoyed.

Byzantine History

David Oates:

“I remember Steve had a Byzantine History class that he said attended for only the first session, to pick up the reading list, did the reading, and claimed that he got an A. I wasn't surprised. Steve was the first person I met who had an 800 on the SAT Verbal, which impressed this English major.

Steve seemed to try out many religions, often ones well outside the mainstream. When he was trying on Rev. Moon's Unification Church, he told us about its prediction that Jesus would come again, from Korea, and be born in the year that Moon was. I also remember a phase of witchcraft (perhaps voodoo?) when he told me about a spell he wanted to do. He said it required the blood of a live but unconscious human. He said he considered substituting chicken blood, but wasn't sure if that would work.

I remember he commented on the racial divide by saying that, after graduation, he would be "back behind the veil."

He told us that due to race riots in the '60's, the Cairo police dept. had a cannon on the roof. That part of Southern Illinois had a lot of Southern settlers, so it was proslavery, and I suspect the racism was more in the style of the South than the North. I remember hearing that Lincoln didn't say much about Abolition when he campaigned for Senate in "Little Egypt." How different that offhand remarks by candidates are now available to the world.

I believe it was Greek Steve said he learned by reading a book in the language with a dictionary in hand. Steve was actually one of his names--wasn't it Steven Wayne Edward Fox Thompson? So I think he was shedding his Cairo name, though, being Steve, the Steven may have been moved up when he explained it. :

I'd forgotten about the Cokes—Mike Haederle pointed out that my Coke addiction was why I was a night owl; apparently, caffeine after 4 PM is slow to get out of my system. Thanks, 23andme and Michael H.

Steve was part of the night owls club, along with John Mac and Lillian. Many hours chewing the fat on those Lower Flint couches. Remember the conflict over having he piano in our lounge? And we eventually got a real dartboard, I believe.

I have fond memories of college, and particularly of Lower Flint. It was so great after high school to be in a place where the average person was very smart and there was such a variety of interests and abilities! Of course, I sometimes thought of dropping out when deadlines loomed at the end of a quarter.

I often mention how common it was, when first going into someone's room to start by seeing which books were in the shelf. Reminds me of my UIC professor who couldn't keep us straight until she's read our first papers and of tweenage visits with friends that involved reading many comic books before getting down to visiting."

—David Oates

A Trip to the Suburbs

Because I was a year older than everyone else, I finished one year early. I had to write a thesis which resisted my efforts to finish it, so I moved back with my parents in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to write about a subject I barely remember. I missed my friends and the future looked anything but promising. I started each day with a pitcher of Jack Daniel’s and Dr. Pepper. This did not facilitate completion of the work. Steve said he would take the train, come by and cheer me up.

By the time he arrived around noon, I was well into the pitcher. My sister Nancy had a few minutes before decided that the living-room needed vacuuming; I watched her and sipped my drink. The vacuum cleaner was loud so neither of us heard Steve at the front door ringing the doorbell. But he could hear the noise inside, so he walked around the back to the sliding glass patio door. My sister looked up at an unfamiliar black man in those white suburbs and screamed.

“Hi Steve,” I said.

Boris

The poor Samoyed's name was Boris, I believe. None of us living in the Phi Delta Theta house had the foggiest idea how to care for a large, energetic dog, and I'm ashamed to recall that he was often disciplined for perfectly normal canine behaviors. I seem to remember Steve returned him to the pound after he lunged at a passerby on the sidewalk.

Thanks to his eclectic reading, Steve had somehow determined that a naked human could survive in subzero temperatures, as long as he/she was sufficiently active to generate body heat. That seemed improbable, but I wonder now whether he was referring to the indigenous Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, who indeed lived in harsh conditions while wearing scant clothing.

At another point, Steve heard that humans naturally undergo in 90-minute sleep cycles, so he resolved to sleep 90 minutes at a time. I don't think that experiment lasted too long.

Steve was prone to enthusiasms. Later in his UC years he became enamored of some sort of pyramid scheme, the details of which I no longer recall. He also had an energetic stint as a crew member at the McDonald's on 53 Street.

Through M. Cheak Yee, the Phi Delta Theta alumnus who shepherded the effort to restore the Illinois Beta chapter to the good graces of the national organization, Steve met Michael Marshall, a strange, charismatic fellow who, in retrospect, was likely leading a minor-league cult. Marshall introduced Steve to Janice, who was to become his wife.

I talked to him a couple times by phone after we all dispersed from Hyde Park. The last occasion was a few years before his death, when he was living in Milwaukee with his family and -- my memory might be faulty -- working in a juvenile detention facility? The conversation was a bit awkward, and I was surprised when he confused NPR business correspondent Jim Zerroli with John Zerolis from Lower Flint. That seemed out of character.

That we're still talking about him after all this years testifies to the indelible impression he made on everyone he met.

—Michael Haederle

A Mental Hike

Steve Thompson stories, yes. He was such a bright flame: so bright that I guess it just couldn't burn that long. I'm glad to have been prompted to bring memories of Steve into my mind; I'm just sorry, now--and have been--that I never saw him again, post-Hyde Park days. But oh Steve was a brilliant soul. Talking to him was to be ushered, on lucky late-night talks, into a 'zone' where the intellectual achievements of thousands of years of philosophy, and of theology were available. It was like entering, spiritually or mentally, into a monk's cell, or experiencing a magical Chautauqua, or a mental hike with Thoreau....

Steve was so spiritually receptive. And Mike Haederle and I had the joy (how lucky we were, we didn't realize at the time, being 19 or 20 years old)--to share with Steve the experience of taking (or auditing, maybe?) a seminar course with Professor Karl F. Morrison, on the Mimetic Tradition of Reform in the West, a kind of thematic survey of Western history beginning with Plato, and moving through Neo-Platonism and the days of Humanism, of the Enlightenment, into the Reformation. An amazing experience, in a seminar room in the Harper Tower (if memory serves), among a small number of graduate students. The reading, the conversations that we had, late into the night, over dinners at Woodward Court! It was, in fact, the most glorious experience I ever had, and probably ever will have, of what we all believed we were at Chicago for: the life of the mind.

But Steve helped me learn in other ways, too, of course. His personality and his race--(I wonder what percentage of our class was African-American?)--his experiences growing up in Cairo: all were apertures to worlds of experience I had never encountered before. In this post George Floyd-world, in this America still grappling with the original sin of racism, Steve brought to me awareness of these issues.

I remember one Sunday evening when Steve and I decided (since the dorm didn't feed us on Sunday nights) to go to a nearby restaurant. It was a Greek place, if memory serves, on 57th. We sat down, looked at menus for a bit, ordered. As usual, we were living much more in our minds than our bodies in those moments, talking of common core readings, of ideas. So it took me awhile (longer than I'd care to admit) to notice that although my food had been delivered, his hadn't. I immediately reacted; called a waiter over, who mouthed something about, 'it's just about ready.' Steve, though, had pulled into himself; didn't look at the waiter, didn't add his voice to the request for his meal. I was amazed; after another minute or so, I asked Steve if he wanted to leave, that I would simply walk out with him. He refused, insisted that I finish my meal. (His was never delivered, either...). What struck me at the time, what still strikes me, was the dignity and--well, stoical grace is one way to say it--to the way that he reacted. I gleaned so much in those moments, so much of it unspoken: that it wasn't the first time that it had happened; that it was part of the world that he had to live in. We were sitting at the same restaurant in Hyde Park, but in a sense we were sitting in different worlds. That was a lesson that I have never forgotten.

—Jerry Dyer '79 (should have been '78)

The 101st Flavor

Bresler’s 33 Flavors was--and might still be--an ice cream chain that boasted a wide selection of ice cream for every taste. An ice cream shop on Sheridan Avenue in Rogers Park boasted that not only did they have thirty-three flavors, they had over one hundred flavors. They were known for their sales promotion: if you asked for a flavor they didn’t have, you got your ice cream for free.

There was a white sign that consumed a wall of the ice cream shop, naming every flavor of ice cream imaginable. Steve entered the shop, read the promotion and quickly scanned the list of flavors on the wall. He asked for a double milk shake, 24 ounces.

“And the flavor?” the counterman asked.

“Fish,” Steve said.

Steve got his milk shake for free.

He liked Boston-style milk shakes, which were mostly vanilla with a light chocolate flavor, not too overpowering. That is what they served him that day.

For free.

Quotes

“Life is not worth living unless you do as you please.”

Stacks Image 5

That's Steve on the right, Michael Haederle on the left in the Lower Flint dorms.