It seems like everyone in McHenry has a story about Ray Brookhouse, the elderly man who has been limping along the streets there for as long as anyone can remember. While working at the family business in high school, I’d see him hobble across the road several times a day.

McHenry has three main downtown areas, and he’d do odd jobs for businesses in all of them. Our tire shop was on his main route, Highway 120, and he’d often stop and talk to the guys in back. Sometimes he’d pull weeds and mow the lawn. He had difficulty walking and speaking–his voice was hoarse and guttural–and while others were able to understand him, I never could. (He was also famous for his false teeth, which would fall out when he spoke.) There was no lack of stories about how he got the limp and strange speech. I heard he’d smashed up a Harley-Davidson when he was in his 20s.

“I think he got hurt on a motorcycle–or a motor scooter,” says Eddie Pieroni, who with his brothers used to own Bimbo’s restaurant on Riverside Drive. Brookhouse worked there, washing floors and stocking coolers, from the early 1960s until about 1985. “He’d come in the morning, get his work done, and didn’t stay around,” says Pieroni.

“I heard he was walking one time and was hit,” says Tom Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Foods. Brookhouse has been collecting carts and pulling weeds there in exchange for food since Sullivan took over the supermarket 19 years ago. “He’s sown a few oats–they say he was a partyer years ago. But he never touches anything now.”

Brookhouse never married and doesn’t have any family in town–as far as anyone knows, anyway. No one’s really sure why–or when–he landed there. That includes Frances Larsen, who’s known him for more than 40 years.

“He did have a motorcycle,” says Larsen, who used to own Bill’s Town Club, a bar near Bimbo’s. “It was an Indian. He used to go to Lake Geneva on it. But he never had an accident with it.”

He told Larsen that he and his brother had been bricklayers in Chicago. “The only thing I could figure out is that he was the guy who carries the mortar up to the bricklayer,” she says. “I don’t know if something happened to him there or not. I do know his brother was supposed to have gotten shot driving a cab, and that he lingered for years before he died.”

Larsen’s husband, Otto, used to give Brookhouse rides home to his apartment above a bar on Main Street; when Otto died it became her responsibility. Her duties have expanded to the point where she is one of his many unofficial caregivers, doing everything from keeping track of his money to driving him to the social security office in Woodstock and taking him shopping for clothes. Others, including former state Republican party head Al Jourdan, former mayor Don Doherty, and former bank presidents Tom Bolger and Ormel Proust, have also gone to bat for Brookhouse over the years. “Someone said the other day that he came in the 1930s,” she says. “I came here in 1954 and he was already here.”

“He’s just always been here,” says Elaine Graf, who works at Conway Insurance on 120. She started working in McHenry in 1962. In those days Brookhouse worked as a dishwasher at the long gone Mi Place on Green Street, which was owned by Pieroni’s mother-in-law, Carolyn Justen.

There are stories about that period of his life, too. “One time Carol wanted him to stay longer,” says Larsen. “I think it was Marine Days or something like that. But he didn’t want to. So the waitresses set the clock back. When it came the time he usually left, he walked out. It didn’t make any difference to him. He knew what time it was.”

“A lot of people in town think he’s rich,” she says. “One lady was trying to tell me he owns apartment buildings and everything else. He doesn’t spend a lot of money, so people think he has a lot. I told them he’s never had a job that was more than minimum wage, and when he was working years ago they didn’t have a minimum wage.” A few years ago, Larsen and Doherty set up a direct deposit for Brookhouse’s social security check. They co-sign checks for him when he wants money. “I did catch him with too much money in his pockets,” Larsen says. “I was afraid somebody would knock him on the head to get it.”

After Mi Place changed hands, Brookhouse moved down 120 to Bimbo’s, on the Fox River. When that ended, he moved a few doors north to the Little Chef restaurant, where he still works. Each morning at 4:30 he meets owner Shirley Klapperich at the door. Once inside, he helps her open, turning on the lights, scouring the sink and bathroom, and filling water pitchers. He returns a couple of hours later for breakfast.

“He used to bring us boxes from the bakery, and cookies, every morning,” says my brother Bill, who used to run our tire shop. “He’d get beer flats from the bars and bring them to Bernie [at the bakery], who would line them with foil and use them to deliver doughnuts. Bernie would give him cookies, which he’d share with his friends. But after a while he didn’t have any cookies, and he’d always say, ‘Can’t get ’em no more.’

“When there were too many tires in front, he’d put his hands on his hips and say, ‘You’re blocking the sidewalk.’ He was joking, but we’d move some anyway. He’d also come in and say, ‘Get to work.'”

In later years he’d come by and pretend to box with my nephew. “He’d always have gossip about someone who wouldn’t pay him,” my nephew says. He helped sharpen the blade on Brookhouse’s lawn mower, which he used on the lawns of several businesses. “I never made it too sharp,” he says. “I didn’t want him to hurt himself.”

“I don’t know how long he’s been mowing lawns,” says Jeff Rudge, owner of McHenry Paint, Glass & Wallpaper, where Brookhouse stores his mower. “He’s been coming in since I opened in 1976. He’d come in every day to say hello and give the weather report. He’d get his numbers mixed up. But sometimes he was right.”

“He used to tell me he knows how to cook and do his own laundry, so he doesn’t need a woman,” says my sister-in-law, Monica, who also did time at Jepsen Tire.

“He doesn’t cook,” says Larsen. “If you mention ‘kitchen’ to him he starts yelling at you that he doesn’t cook.”

Sullivan says he was always trying to keep busy. “If he saw a piece of paper on the floor, he’d pick it up. He’d also let us know. He’d say, ‘I’m going to tell the boss.’ He wanted to be part of the operation.

“Some people think he’s grumpy. It’s just his demeanor.”

He used to come into Conway Insurance every day, says Graf, who holds on to some of Brookhouse’s papers and helps him out from time to time. “He’d come in and rest. He’d say, ‘I used to walk 100 miles a day.’ He was wrong. But he used to make six trips a day to Main Street. That’s probably why his heart is so good. We should all walk that much.”

Many of those trips were made in the early morning, before it was light, on unshoveled sidewalks. A couple of winters ago Brookhouse was hit by a car backing out of a driveway. His collarbone was broken, and he was taken to the emergency room.

“I called the hospital,” says Larsen. “I said, ‘Whatever you do, do not release him after dark. He has no way to get home and I’ll come and get him in the morning. But don’t release him on the street.’ I called the next morning, and they said he was released last night–that they took him to the nursing home for the night. I called over and got him out right away….It was fine. He got a good bath.

“After he was in the accident, the county and everybody wanted him evaluated mentally. I said, ‘You’re not going to put him away. He may be the village idiot, but he’s our village idiot.’ I always said that if anyone tries to put him away, I won’t let them.”

She and Doherty set Brookhouse up with a reflective vest and yellow hard hat so cars could see him. They also got someone to attach a flashlight to his cane. They contacted a cousin of his who lives near Chicago. “I said I wish you would come out and sign some papers here, so that we have somebody if something needs to be done for Ray,” says Larsen. “But he really didn’t want to. He kept telling me to put my name on everything. I said legally I can’t.”

When Larsen co-signs checks for Brookhouse to cash, she’s careful to put “Ray requested” in the memo, and has him keep his receipts in a large plastic box. “I get mad at him sometimes,” she admits. “Sometimes Ray will get upset. He’ll tell the pharmacist at the drugstore that Don Doherty and I are taking all of his money. And he gets mad at Shirley if she doesn’t get to the restaurant on time.”

On a few occasions Larsen and Doherty have applied for subsidized housing for Brookhouse, but the county wanted to relocate him away from downtown. “Someone told him that if you live out there you have to be in by 11 at night,” says Larsen. “That drove him nuts. He’s always been in by 8 at night. But the thought that someone would tell him when to go made him crazy. I told him it wasn’t true. He told me it was. I just don’t argue with him.”

Last year she and Bolger moved Brookhouse to a one-room apartment behind her old bar. It’s catty-corner from the Little Chef. “I wanted to get him in there because it’s close to Shirley,” says Larsen. “I thought we could keep him from running around in the streets. But he still wanders all over town.”

The place is spotless. “He scrubbed the rug so much I told him to stop, that he’d wear it out,” she says. Larsen sees him almost every day, and the guy next door keeps an eye on him, too. Doherty sees him about once a week; when Brookhouse wants to talk to him, he makes a call from the drugstore across the street. On holidays, Sullivan brings him meals.

“He’s a unique character,” says Larsen. “He’s never asked for any help or relief that wasn’t really necessary. He’s always tried to work for himself.”

Each year Brookhouse gives Christmas cards to all of his friends. His funeral and burial plot are paid for, and Larsen plans to help him pick out a headstone one of these days. “I think he does enjoy himself,” she says. “He told me he’s real happy where he lives now. It’s quiet and nobody picks on him.”

One thing everyone agrees on is that the accident has taken its toll. “He’s really slowed down in the last year,” says Sullivan. “I’ll be surprised if I see him trucking around town like he used to. But if he comes in and wants something I’ll give it to him. He’s earned it.”

“You used to honk at him and he’d wave and lift his cane way up,” says my nephew. “Now he just lifts it up a few inches.”

“In the past he’d shovel snow,” says Graf. “This winter he was unsteady on his feet, so we had someone else do it.”

“He needs a hearing aid,” says Rudge. “Someone finally got him some [new] teeth.” Strangely, it was easier to understand Brookhouse when his dentures used to fall out. “Now it’s much harder,” says Rudge. “Everything comes out garbled.”

Everyone’s wondering if he’ll be able to mow lawns and pull weeds this summer. “He’s champing at the bit to do it again,” says Rudge.

“People say to me, ‘Why don’t you stop him from walking downtown in winter?'” says Larsen. “I said if you take his freedom away, what does he got left? If he dropped over from pushing a lawn mower, it’d probably be the happiest way he could go.”

After a few days of negotiating, I get a chance to talk to Brookhouse myself. Well, sort of. Shirley Klapperich, who set up the visit, has agreed to act as translator. I stand across the counter from Brookhouse, who sits at his stool by the window, eating eggs and drinking coffee. In his light gray stocking cap and oversize glasses, he looks much older than he used to.

“I don’t want my name in the paper,” he says. Earlier in the day he told Klapperich he wasn’t interested in doing an interview. (“He thinks he’s done something wrong,” says Klapperich.) But he showed up at the appointed time. In answer to my questions, he tells Klapperich he’s 78 (though his birth certificate says he’s almost 86). When I assure him I’m not there to smear him, he says, “I’m no better’n nobody else.”

I ask him about his long-ago accident, and he tells me the same thing he told Frances Larsen: that he was a bricklayer in Chicago. “I was on a ladder, and the ladder fell over,” he says. I also learn that he lived in the Riverside Hotel in McHenry until they accused him of using the river for a toilet, and that his brother used to live in nearby Lily Lake. He used to clean the oven hood at Mi Place every Wednesday. “It was greasy.”

He remembers my nephew, who worked at Jepsen Tire until last year. “He quit because he wanted more money,” Brookhouse says, which is true. (When my brother, who hasn’t worked in town in years, asks to take his picture a week later, he remembers him, too: “You’re the tire man.”)

He tells me–or Shirley does–how he still pulls weeds at Conway Insurance, sweeps the sidewalk at McHenry Glass & Paint, and collects carts at Sullivan’s.

“I do not go out with women,” he says firmly.

I finally learn that he lived on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. When I ask where on Milwaukee he waves his hand at me–enough–and starts to talk about how many miles he used to walk, and how no one would give him a ride.

Later he leaves the restaurant slowly. He takes tiny steps in his work boots as he crosses the street to his apartment behind the Town Club, which offers “Tables for Ladies.” His wide-legged shuffle looks almost like a dance.

In the long minutes it takes to cross, he has several near misses with SUVs. Later he’ll cross back over to the bakery, where he’ll pick up a couple of sweet rolls.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Jepsen.