Back in the days when I wrote a weekly column about Chicago neighborhoods, Peter Donoghue used to call me all the time.
He was one of those characters who loved to get involved in his community: president of the Lake View Citizen’s Council, head of the block club, and all-around neighborhood yenta. The man knew all the local gossip.
A typical phone call from Donoghue went like this: Phone rings. I pick it up, say hello, and he says: “Donoghue!” Then he launches into whatever is on his mind. No hellos, how are yous, how’s the wife, the kids. Just “Donoghue!”
Generally, he had a beef. Usually, it was with the Park District. Donoghue loved the parks, open space, and public recreation. He was really big on ice skating–he used to take his kids skating all the time. I think he knew more about the McFetridge indoor ice skating rink than anyone alive. He was particularly peeved about some of how the place was managed under former Park District superintendent Forrest Claypool. Oh, lord–don’t get Donoghue started on Claypool and McFetridge.
Sometimes his beef was with me.: He didn’t like the tone I took in a story or thought I missed the point. We’d start off arguing and wind up talking about something else. The man didn’t hold a grudge. Both of us liked to crack wise. He had great comedic timing and he was quick on his feet. One time he was talking to me from his cell phone when an old friend and his daughter walked by. He interrupted our phone conversation to call out: “Hey, Kevin, is that Bridget? My God, she got tall! What are you feeding her, fertilizer?”
I loved that crack. I think I’ve used it a hundred times since.
As far as I’m concerned, Donoghue’s greatest triumph as a neighborhood activist came in 1994, after the city, in its infinite wisdom, turned the field behind Lane Tech’s football stadium into a dumping ground for debris from the Kennedy Expressway rebuilding project, which forced high school kids on their way to and from school to dodge incoming dump trucks. I think that may have been the single dumbest idea ever devised by the Daley administration–and that’s saying a lot. Still, it took a local insurrection–led by Donoghue–to get the city to back down. Which just goes to show you that when Mayor Daley gets something in his head, he clings to it like a dog with a bone.
In 1999, Donoghue ran for alderman of the 32nd Ward against Ted Matlak, Congressman Dan Rostenkowski’s guy. I told Donoghue he was out of his mind–you can’t beat Rosty’s machine. He ran anyway. And lost.
In time, Donoghue made his peace with Matlak. In 2007, he was calling me to tout Matlak as a man of vision. “What, are you hoping he gives you a job?” I teased him. I didn’t hold it against him, though–after years of banging heads against the machine, even the strongest among us get a little woozy at times.
Donoghue died last week of a heart attack. He was 57. To celebrate his life, I think they should rename the field behind Lane Tech’s football stadium: Donoghue Field. They should put up a plaque that tells the story of Donoghue’s fight against the dump. It would remind people of what their government’s capable of doing and let them know that every once in awhile the good guys actually win.