What strikes you first about Bill Tomes is the look of the man. He is 55 and overweight. He wears glasses with clear plastic frames. His sandy hair is graying, and it’s thinning at the temples and the crown. This spring he was sporting a Band Aid on his brow, covering the spot where a skin cancer had been removed. “Too much sunshine, too little moonshine,” Tomes told anyone who asked.
His clothing consists of dark pants, a blue oxford cloth shirt, and black tie shoes that he shines almost every day. But these are merely undergarments to a hooded cassock made entirely of blue-jeans patches. The original cassock was fashioned of ten worn pairs of jeans, “but there’s almost nothing left of the original,” he says. “I’ve patched up my habit a whole number of times.” The cassock is cinched at the waist with a rope belt from which a rosary and a crucifix hang.
Tomes’s manner makes him seem to regret that he’s taking up your time. He speaks haltingly. “Sor-ree,” he is apt to say before saying anything else. He burdens his conversation with “oh-oh”s and “oo-ees”s–little notes of self- effacement. Occasionally, from out of nowhere, a spate of oaths will issue. “Hah-hah,” Tomes usually laughs after swearing. “Sor-ree.”
People who first encounter Tomes don’t quite know what to make of him. Is he a fugitive from a halfway house? A madman attempting to resurrect the Middle Ages?
No, Tomes–or “Brother Bill,” as he is invariably called–is a youth worker employed by Catholic Charities. He is assigned to work among street-gang members in housing projects and poor neighborhoods, and where you’d expect the young toughs of the city to treat him with derision, what he receives, instead, is reverence.
He’s earned it. Since 1983, when Tomes first ventured out among project kids, he has become their accepted friend. Every afternoon and evening he travels the city in his ’82 LeSabre, engaging in brief chats with kid after kid. He exchanges gang handshakes, finds out if killings are going down, takes youngsters for rides, and–sometimes against his better judgment–loans them money from his paltry salary. He never tells the kids that they’re bad, only that they’re good. When violence breaks out, Tomes stands between warring factions. When someone is wounded, Tomes speeds to the scene; later he’ll take up a vigil at the hospital. When someone dies, Tomes goes to the funeral and to the burial.
He never proselytizes. “I treat the kids with respect, that’s all, and that gives them self-respect.”
“The history of the Catholic church is a history of exotics and eccentrics,” reflects Father Tom O’Gorman, pastor of Saint Malachy’s, the west-side church that is Tomes’s base. “These are figures impassioned to meet God in other people, and in every culture people emerge to do this in lavish proportions. Bill is one of them.”
“Oh no, oh no,” says Tomes. “I’m just a regular guy, a simple shit.”
The black LeSabre lumbered through the streets of Cabrini-Green one afternoon in April. The windows were down, despite the cool weather. The radio was punched to WFMT. The Buick’s radio has five buttons: two are tuned to classical stations; the center button is keyed to an easy-listening channel that Tomes’s mother likes; the last two buttons punch up black rock stations.
“Brother Bill, hey Brother Bill,” came a cry, and Tomes curbed his sedan. Five boys in their early teens rushed the car, and Bill offered to give them a ride. A really skinny kid got in the front seat. The other four climbed in back, wedging in alongside Tom Garner, a Jesuit seminarian who frequently works with Bill. A boy in a windbreaker took his time getting in; he was on crutches–he’d been shot recently in the leg.
These were Vice Lords riding with him now, and Tomes carefully navigated the Buick through territory occupied by rival gangs, Disciples and Cobra Stones. He headed east on Division Street.
“I don’t know if you’d like to stop for a second and say hello to the seals at the Lincoln Park Zoo?” Tomes wondered.
One boy grunted.
“Are things peaceful for you?” Tomes asked.
“Nope,” said a kid in the backseat.
“But is anybody shooting?” inquired Tomes.
“No, it’s cool,” said the same boy.
The Buick wound through Lincoln Park, nearing the zoo. When Tomes asked if anyone had summer plans, there was silence. “I was in the zoo for a while,” Tomes said, “but I was eating too many bananas, so they threw me out.” The boy in front chortled, and Tomes pulled into a parking space. “Is this all right, to go in and see the seals?” he wondered. “Maybe you can feed me to the seals.”
Everyone got out of the car and walked over to the seal tank. Rocking up and down on their Nikes, the boys took a long look at the animals. Tomes asked if he could take a group shot. “Fine by me,” said a youngster in a white cap, and Tomes pulled an Instamatic from the pocket of his cassock and made Garner and the boys move in tight. “Smile,” he said, and pressed the shutter.
The kid in the white cap wanted to visit the reptile house, but it was closed. Soon the Buick was rumbling toward Cabrini. Tomes punched up WGCI-FM, and the boys hooted to the music. “If the other gangs are bothering you, I’ll be around,” said Tomes before the boys got out. “Bye, Brother Bill,” they said in unison.
Tomes admitted that he didn’t know the boys’ names–he seldom does. “But I know their faces,” he said. “They are my friends.”
Tomes did know the name of the kid sporting a Bulls cap who now approached him. “Floyd [the name’s been changed] and I are old friends,” Tomes said. “We’ve known each other since he’s been 13.” Once Floyd, who’s now 18, gave Tomes a school picture of himself inscribed “To my good friend.” Floyd wanted a ride to the Logan Square nursing home where his mother works. “My grandmother died,” Floyd said. “Oe-oe, sor-ree bud-dee,” said Brother Bill, reaching a hand into the backseat and gripping Floyd’s.
Tomes detoured to a car wash on the edge of Humboldt Park. The car wash was recently opened by two brothers, Ralph and Juan “Papito” Rios, who named the place in memory of their slain brother, Edgar. Edgar died last December 28. Police said he was sitting in a car at midnight with three other men and one of them began firing. Nicola Incandela, a cook, was charged with triple homicide. Police told reporters a drug deal apparently had gone sour.
At the time, Tomes didn’t know any of the Rioses. “Brother Bill just showed up at our house the day after Edgar died,” said Ralph Rios, who lives with his relatives, including Edgar’s pregnant girlfriend, in a Logan Square two-flat. “Bill rang the doorbell, and, believe me, when we looked out we didn’t know who the hell this was. We just gaped–we were shocked. But he came to the funeral, and he spoke there. Afterwards we all went to the auto show together. Our family likes to rent videos–we’re real couch potatoes–and Bill comes by all the time and just hangs out. He has been our strength. He’s been especially good for Papito, ’cause he took Edgar’s death real hard. Bill keeps telling him Edgar is in a better place.”
At the car wash Tomes shook hands with Ralph and Papito and asked how business was going. “Well, it’s OK,” reported Ralph, “but it’s not great. It should pick up with summer coming.” Tomes nodded and said he had to go–Floyd needed to get to his mother.
Conversation in the car drifted here and there. Tom Garner explained that it will take him eight more years to become a priest. Tomes talked about a 20-year-old woman with two children who’d been shot to death a couple weeks earlier outside a public-housing building on South Prairie. “They were trying to shoot her boyfriend,” Tomes said, “except they shot her three times in the head.” The next night Tomes returned to the building and stood guard there until after midnight. Some time after nine o’clock a van drove slowly past, Tomes said, putting him on edge but doing no harm.
The story reminded Floyd of something. “One day my auntie was going to visit us from Saint Louis,” he said. “She was telling a friend about coming, and she was shot in the head. She was my favorite auntie.”
Floyd said, “You remember ‘Poodle,’ Brother Bill?”
“Yeah, sure,” Tomes said.
“He’s dead,” Floyd said.
“How’d he die?” Tomes asked.
“They say somebody strangled him.”
Before Floyd got out, Tomes loaned him $12 to buy shoes for his grandmother’s funeral. Later, Floyd would confess that his grandmother never died at all. Floyd used the $12 to help settle a drug debt.
In 1983, when Bill Tomes showed up at Saint Malachy’s, a onetime Irish parish now serving the Henry Horner Homes, the church was converting its gymnasium and garage into a shelter and soup kitchen. A year earlier, Mother Teresa had sent Saint Malachy’s six nuns from the Missionaries of Charity. “Bill told me he wanted to work among the poor, too,” remembers Father Stephen Mangan, pastor of Saint Malachy’s at the time. Tomes volunteered at Saint Malachy’s a couple of days a week, staying in the gym at night to keep it safe.
Soon he became a pastoral associate at the church; he received room and board and, eventually, pay. He took over a room on the third floor of the rectory. The small room contained a chair, a bed, and a television, but Tomes removed them. “I wanted to participate with the poor,” he explains. “I wanted to give up material things as a sacrifice.” Over the four years Tomes called the room home, it was bare except for a telephone and a rug, on which he slept.
Tomes did odd jobs for the church, like helping to restore the stained glass and pink marble in the sanctuary, but in time “he started working the neighborhood,” says Father Mangan.
One day Tomes came downstairs to find Mangan completing the church bulletin. “I’m going to call you ‘Brother Bill’ because you need some form of religious identification,” Mangan said. When Tomes pointed out that he wasn’t a member of any religious order, Mangan replied that he was a brother in the sense that “everybody in the world are brothers and sisters,” Tomes remembers.
He assumed the blue-jeans cassock as a tribute to Francis of Assisi, who was wellborn but took a vow of poverty, cared for the destitute, and in Egypt during the Crusades moved between warring armies. Mangan encouraged Tomes to wear his cassock constantly. “That might save you,” Mangan told him. “People will perceive you as the salt of the earth. They are victims, too.”
Tomes wears the habit whenever he’s on the streets–in rain and snow, during the hottest days of summer and the coldest of winter. When it’s soaked, so be it. Claiming the cassock’s sleeves are long enough to protect his hands from the cold, he never wears gloves. He also never wears a hat. “Can you think of a proper hat to go with this outfit?” Tomes says.
His first day at Henry Horner, Tomes strode the length of the project. The teenage boys there had never seen anybody like him, and the next day, according to Tomes, the council of the Disciples gang took a vote on whether he should be killed. “But they thought I was a good guy and agreed to protect me,” Tomes says. Whatever verdict the council rendered, the run-of-the-mill gang members had their own opinion. “We thought he was crazy,” says Demetrius Ford, a Disciple who has since gone to work at Saint Malachy’s. “What the fuck would you think?”
Gradually, Tomes established an identity as a welcome piece of landscape. He recalls an early game of basketball behind Saint Malachy’s in which he confounded his own highest expectations. “It was like a miracle,” he says. “I made five free throws in a row. One shot I watched as it went up to the left and then curved into the basket.” Odd as Tomes seemed, it became clear to the kids that here was a nonjudgmental, friendly, even helpful presence. “Brother Bill hung around,” says Demetrius Ford, “talking to people, taking ’em to McDonald’s or out to the sand dunes. He became just Brother Bill. He’s cool, a nice man of God who is out for peace.”
Tomes is ignorant of the gang hierarchies that newsmen like to display in charts on television, but he knows all the insignia and handshakes; he says hello with them. “For me they [the handshakes] are a matter of reality,” Tomes says.
“Other people might want to change these kids,” Tomes says, “but I recognize them for who they are, and for how great they are as children of God. They need to respect themselves; it’s when they don’t that they shoot at each other.” Tomes never issues advice except when asked. “I give information, is all,” he explains. “I don’t make a recommendation except if I think the person is ready to follow my bullshit anyway.” If he overhears some lethal plan he will intervene in his way. “Once I overheard some guys plotting to kill somebody,” says Tomes, “and so when the hit was supposed to go down I went back and just stood with them. It was 12:30 in the morning. The boys involved went off in separate directions.”
Passive intervention has become, more than anything, Tomes’s signature. When gangs are fighting, he stands between them to still the violence. One summer afternoon a half-dozen years ago, Demetrius Ford recalls, some Disciples and Vice Lords were shooting it out on the blacktop behind two buildings at Henry Horner. “Bill just came right up through the middle,” says Ford, who was standing on the periphery. “Nobody wanted to hit a white-man priest and go to jail for any murder, so there was a cease-fire.”
In 1984, Cardinal Bernardin asked to meet Bill Tomes. Tomes made such an impression that Bernardin put him on Catholic Charities’ payroll as a consultant. The agency allowed him to expand his turf to include Cabrini- Green as well as Henry Horner.
“I went to a Cobra Stones building, then a Disciples building, and I got . . . um . . . a cold reaction,” says Tomes, recalling the first day at Cabrini. “Some drug dealers gave me the silent treatment.” The one bright spot was an encounter with a young man named Elbert O’Neal, a Cobra Stone who lived with his mother and siblings on the 15th f loor of 1150 N. Sedgwick. “You are a sign from God,” O’Neal told Tomes. No, Tomes said. “Yes, you are,” said O’Neal. “God sent you as a sign so I’d change my life.”
O’Neal became Tomes’s protector. “Elbert was the only kid who welcomed Brother Bill to Cabrini,” says the boy’s mother, Bessie O’Neal. “Elbert would take him into our building and keep the other young men from doing anything to him.” At the outset the gang members took Tomes “for a crank out to get their money,” says Darryl Webster, a Disciple. But in time, Tomes was again accepted.
Consider his relationship with Webster. Webster dropped out of school in the 12th grade, not for academic reasons but “’cause I got shot in the stomach and legs.” At 24, he’s been a cook and a salesman in a video store. “Currently I’m looking for a job,” he says. His nickname is “Doorknob,” which, he says, stems from the fact that “all the ladies get a turn.” Webster, a Disciple, has been shot twice in the last two years; each time, Tomes visited him in the hospital. “He holds my hand and prays with me,” says Webster. “He is my homey.” “Homey” is gang lingo for friend.
“Other times Brother Bill’ll ride us around, and we’ll say a prayer together,” says Webster. “He’ll say it with the Cobra Stones or the Vice Lords, it don’t make no difference. He treats everybody the same.” (Tomes even used to drop by the El Rukn’s south-side headquarters to wish the ruffians a happy new year.)
Sometimes, gang members don’t want Tomes around, particularly when he positions himself in the middle of their gun battles. Having kept count, he says bullets have whizzed by in his vicinity a total of 28 times. Mostly they shoot at him to force him out of harm’s way, Tomes figures, but the tactic doesn’t work–he keeps coming. “That’s my vocation,” he says, “to love people and to be in conflict situations to prevent violence. Only if I’m willing to die for these kids can I change attitudes. If I do die in this way, it’s God’s pleasure.” He says he isn’t afraid when violence erupts; on the contrary, he feels immense joy, since he’s convinced he’s doing the Lord’s bidding.
The most dangerous turf at Cabrini-Green was long said to be Hobbie Field, an expanse of blacktop near adjoining buildings ruled by three separate gangs–the Disciples, the Vice Lords, and the Cobra Stones. On warm-weather afternoons and evenings, battles would break out there with bottles, pipes, and sometimes guns. In 1986, Jerry Drolshagen, a Jesuit seminarian, was skinned on the arm by a bullet while with Tomes at Hobbie Field. “We were with Vice Lords,” says Tomes, “and some Disciples ambushed us. We went back that same night to show we weren’t afraid.”
Tomes’s mission is not just to stop violence but also to minister to its victims. Since 1983, he says he has lost 75 “bud-dees” to murder, kids under 25 years whose violent deaths rarely made the papers. Tomes keeps a thick stack of funeral programs. Sometimes he is listed; when asked, he takes a part, usually reciting from the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they . . .”
Tomes remembers all the dead, the troublemakers as well as the blameless. Laketa Rodgers, for example, perished on August 5, 1985, at Cabrini-Green. She was nine years old. “She used to run out to us; she was so sweet,” says Tomes. “She was killed out on the blacktop. Some gang members were shooting at each other, and she got hit. Afterwards, I went to see the boy that killed her. He didn’t mean to do it. He got 80 years.”
In August of 1986, Johnny Bates, who was 21, was shot on a seventh-floor balcony at Henry Horner. He tumbled into the stairwell, crumbling on the landing a half-floor down. “He gave out the most horrible scream you ever heard in your life,” says Tomes. “I got to him five minutes before he died. I tried to prepare him for death. ‘God loves you,’ I told him.”
In December of 1988 a 25-year-old named Sammy Hatcher was gunned down in an entranceway at Cabrini. Tomes baptized him with a handful of snow before Hatcher was hauled away to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, brain dead on arrival.
Aron Buckles, a Disciple, used to call to Tomes across Hobbie Field. “Brother Bill, give me some love,” he’d say, and Tomes would respond by putting one fist on top of another, which is the gang symbol for love. “Aron was a tough guy, but we were close friends,” Tomes remembers. “He wanted to go straight. They killed him for trying to leave.” He was shot to death on a Thursday; the next day he would have started a job with the city. Buckles was 20.
Two deaths hold special meaning for Tomes.
Dwayne “Chico” Harris was a resident of Henry Horner. “Everybody knew him,” says Demetrius Ford. “He would get high and freak around a lot, but he wouldn’t hurt nobody.” At four o’clock one August morning in 1987 someone shot Harris, 25, as he slept on a park bench yards away from Tomes’s room at the rectory.
“Bill felt terrible about Chico,” recalls Father O’Gorman. “Chico wasn’t Catholic and, to be honest, he wasn’t my favorite. When Bill asked me about burying him at Saint Malachy’s I found it a bit unorthodox, but I said, ‘By all means.’ It was important, I felt, to placate the neighborhood grief. So Chico was waked here, and I said the funeral mass. The church was jam-packed. Chico got the same send-off that Mayor Daley or Cardinal Cody would get.”
The other was Elbert O’Neal. In the spring of 1985 Tomes’s protector told him he expected to die soon. “Oh no, Elbert,” Tomes sighed, but O’Neal was convinced. O’Neal was trying to keep his distance from the Cobra Stones, and various Stones were leaning on him. It was a bad situation, that concerned Tomes all the more when he found out that O’Neal had received a college grant. One afternoon, O’Neal interfered with some toughs beating up another young man in the lobby of O’Neal’s building. One tough, Washington “Snake” Green, pulled a gun and shot O’Neal in the mouth, chest, and stomach.
Tomes rushed to Henrotin Hospital and found his friend in a coma. For two weeks Tomes stayed with O’Neal, passing the nights on the floor by his side. Tomes insists that O’Neal knew he was there, for whenever Brother Bill walked away from Elbert’s bed the boy would squeeze his hand. Because he thought O’Neal would want it, Tomes baptized him using a rag and water from the sink. O’Gorman delivered the last rites, and after O’Neal died the funeral was held at Saint Malachy’s.
Washington Green remained at large. After he was finally apprehended in Wisconsin and charged with O’Neal’s murder, Tomes went to visit him at the Cook County Jail. Green, 21, entered the visitors’ room, saw Tomes across the bullet-proof glass, and turned on his heel. Eventually Green was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
Tomes and Bessie O’Neal bought Elbert a tombstone. “Beloved son and brother,” it says, “never be afraid to die.” O’Neal is buried at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside. Every year on his birthday–June 6–Tomes takes some of O’Neal’s friends to the grave and throws a party. They say a prayer, reminisce, have pop and Burger King hamburgers, share a cake, and sing “Happy Birthday” to the gravestone. “It’s a mixed-bag event,” Tomes explains. “There are tears on some people’s part.”
For all this Tomes earns $14,000 a year, plus mileage. He figures he spends more than $4,000 a year on his kids. He takes them to his alma maters–the University of Notre Dame and Loyola Academy in Wilmette–to speak on gang life, buys them meals at McDonald’s, and–as hard as he resists it–lends them money that is seldom repaid.
A couple of years ago, Tomes and a fellow youth worker, Jim Fogarty, founded a two-man religious community they called the Brothers and Sisters of Love. Fogarty, 32, a thin man who doubles as chaplain at Saint Bernard Hospital, wears the same kind of habit as Tomes and patrols mostly in the Rockwell Gardens project. To fund the Brothers and Sisters of Love, Tomes set up a not-for-profit foundation that raises money by sending out a newsletter twice a year. But contributions are small–about $2,000 raised per newsletter–and Father Larry Reuter, the president of Loyola Academy and the head of Tomes’s foundation, is after Brother Bill to come up with a more productive approach. Or at least to print more newsletters.
Tomes feels he has better things to do. From 2 PM until after midnight every day but Sunday, he can be found wheeling his Buick through the city’s poorest neighborhoods, sniffing out friendships and trouble. Since his father died in 1988, he has lived in Evanston with his 84-year-old mother. He hasn’t taken a real vacation since 1977. “He has no down time, no personal life,” says Walter Ousley, Tomes’s supervisor at Catholic Charities. Tomes’s universe now encompasses the Henry Horner, Cabrini-Green, Stateway Gardens, and Robert Taylor projects, plus Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and anywhere else he’s of a mind to go. These fields of his grow even more fertile with the night.
A squad car’s Mars lights ripped through the dwindling light of day on Pershing Road. Cruising Stateway Gardens at dusk, Tomes saw the flashing lights and gave chase–as much chase as a Buick with 139,000 miles on it can muster.
The cop car stopped in front of some four-story buildings at the Ida B. Wells project. The cops got out and went inside. Tomes, who keeps his distance from police officers, waited on the sidewalk out front in case he was needed.
“Who you? Jesus?” asked a ten-year-old boy looking up at Tomes.
Tomes told the lad he was with Saint Elizabeth’s Church on 41st Street, and this was partly true. For the last couple of years Tomes has joined Father Donald Ehr, the pastor of Saint Elizabeth’s, in a walk through Stateway Gardens and Robert Taylor each Tuesday afternoon.
“You got no gym shoes on,” the boy pointed out.
Tomes stuck out a black shoe. The boy smirked.
It turned out that nothing much was going on at Ida Wells. Tomes fired up the Buick, and a teenager on the sidewalk gave him the finger. Tomes jammed on the brakes. “I never accept an insult,” he explains. “I always try to make friends.” The teen and his friends, whose hats were pitched to the right, Disciple style, greeted Tomes suspiciously, but within minutes everyone was gabbing. Tomes promised to return another night.
Minutes later, Tomes pulled up in front of a high rise in Stateway Gardens. The night before, a 25-year-old woman had fallen to her death from a 12th-story apartment, and now Tomes wanted to be of service to the survivors. But the people gathered in the darkened building’s entryway told him none of the family was home. Tomes managed to find out the time and place of the funeral.
A few minutes later, Tomes ran into Debra Jones, the youth minister of Saint Elizabeth’s, and found her musing on the death. “In two years she’s the fourth person who jumped out the window at Stateway,” said Jones, an outgoing woman with large loop earrings. “People were shocked that such a young woman–with children, too–would fly right out. She had six kids, and now who’s going to raise them?
“Kids are going crazy. They get in gangs because there’s no one to guide them. They don’t have father figures, so you can’t expect them to have pride. Drugs are flowing. It hasn’t even begun to get really hot yet, and already the kids are going crazy. Girls are out prostituting. I don’t know, Brother Bill, I don’t know . . .”
“I’ll be around,” promised Bill. And now he was headed north, to Cabrini- Green.
The news there was grim. A reputed Cobra Stone nicknamed “June” had been gunned down by Disciples two days earlier in a project parking lot. “This is going to increase my business,” Tomes remarked darkly, and he set off in search of more information. The man on duty at Johnson’s Funeral Home on North Avenue was not much help–the name “June” was nowhere on the register–but later a Cabrini kid told Tomes that the full name was Lugene Tanner and that the funeral was scheduled for the coming Saturday.
Rounding a corner, Tomes spotted one youth giving a karate kick to another. He bounded from the car, the flaps of his habit flying in the lamplight. He needn’t have bothered–the kids were only goofing off–and Tomes went on. He spent another 20 minutes giving four Cabrini kids a lift to a house in Lincoln Park, the home of one boy’s grandmother.
It was after ten o’clock when Tomes tapped on the door of the flat belonging to Lugene Tanner’s mother. It was dark inside. The little boy who opened the door agreed to summon Mrs. Tanner. “I’m sure June is fine,” said Brother Bill, who could not recall ever meeting Lugene Tanner, but nevertheless believed him now safe in heaven. The woman nodded wearily.
His next stop was the Logan Square two-flat occupied by Edgar Rios’s family. Brothers Ralph and Juan were standing in the backyard when Tomes arrived, working on cars under floodlights set on the porch. Ralph pointed out the motorcycle that had belonged to his late brother. “Jeez, I feel like I knew Edgar, even though I didn’t,” offered Tomes. “I love him, especially when we all go out to the grave to visit him.”
Brother Bill directed the conversation toward which gangs were operating in the area. “Don’t know,” said Ralph, “except they killed a kid over on Drake Street over a damn dog.” Tomes nodded evenly, like he’d just been told tomorrow’s weather.
“Bye-bye,” Tomes said finally, and he moved off to his car, chatting for a moment with Edgar’s girlfriend, who was sitting on the front stoop.
Then Tomes drove over to the building where Johnny Bates had died in 1986. He climbed to the seventh- floor landing. “Here’s where I talked to him about God for the last four minutes of his life,” he said. On the cement wall, surrounded by graffiti, were the initials “BT JB,” which Tomes had written there. “Sometimes I just come here to pray,” said Tomes. “It’s a holy place–maybe not for you, but it has meaning for me.” He bowed his head.
Bill Tomes was born in Akron, Ohio. Growing up, he moved to Cleveland, to Philadelphia, and finally to Chicago as his father, an industrial engineer named W. Wylie Tomes, changed jobs. Bill’s given name is William Wylie Tomes, Jr. “My father was a man of great integrity,” he says. “I’ll never be able to be as good as my father. All businessmen held him in high esteem. When he went golfing, no one would use a bad word in front of him.”
Tomes graduated from Saint Athanasius Catholic School in Evanston and entered Loyola Academy. As a boy Bill was “quiet, always neatly dressed, and rather studious,” recalls Dan Cotter, a childhood friend who’s now a businessman. “He was a nerd,” says a woman who knew him as a boy, “and the last person you’d ever think would be doing what he’s doing today.”
Tomes studied English and philosophy at Notre Dame, later returned there to earn a master’s in counseling, and then began a 16-year tour as a counselor for Catholic Charities. Once a year he’d travel to Europe for a month at a time, preparing a doctoral thesis on psychotherapeutic services in 18 countries. Ultimately, he abandoned the project. “I thought, is this going to make a difference in helping people?” says Tomes. “I figured no.”
Tomes never married. He was briefly engaged in college, but his true heartbreak came in 1966, when Bill was 31 and fell in love with a nurse from Minnesota. They dated for a year and a half and were to the point of looking at rings and furniture when Tomes left on one of his European excursions. When he returned, the nurse had married somebody else. “Oo-ee, I went into a real depression,” Tomes says. “It made me distrust people for quite a while.” There has been no one since to compare with the nurse–“except Jesus.” Tomes realizes that his present life-style is not what every woman dreams of.
Painting had been Tomes’s longtime avocation–three of his oils of Paris hang in the Snite Museum of Art at Notre Dame–and in 1978 he gave up his job at Catholic Charities to try his hand at doing portraits. It didn’t work out financially, and by February of 1980 he was looking for work. His options came down to an airline job out at O’Hare Field and a counselor’s slot at Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital. On the way back from an interview at O’Hare he stopped at Saint Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church to think matters over.
“When I knelt down,” Tomes said in a 1988 interview with the religious periodical Witness, “everything in the church that was in color went black, and everything that was white stayed white. Everything was sort of fuzzy except a picture of Christ which hung by the altar. Christ began speaking from the picture and said, ‘Love. You are forbidden to do anything other than that.’
“It was such a surprise. I had never experienced anything like that. I started to write down what He was saying. I asked Him if I should take the job at the hospital. He said, ‘I’ll lead, you follow.’ I asked Him again and He said, ‘I’ll lead, you follow.’ Even though I thought I might anger Him I asked, ‘Should I take another job?’ Deliberately but not angrily He said, ‘I’ll lead, you follow.’ Several times He told me not to be afraid. At that time I didn’t understand what there was to fear. I do now.
“The conversation lasted 40 minutes. Somewhere during that time I told Christ that I had to go because I was expected at my sister’s house for dinner. He responded by saying, ‘Stay with Me. Rest with Me.'”
Tomes was not a devout person (he had even considered himself an atheist briefly in the 60s), but now he started to experience what he felt were messages. One day he picked up a Bible and opened it to a passage that read, “Take nothing with you for the journey.” Twice more he opened the Bible and found the same command in other places. What does this mean? he eventually asked the pastor at Saint Athanasius, Father Tom Ventura, and Ventura said it meant Tomes was being told to rid himself of his belongings. Later, Tomes opened a picture book on Francis of Assisi. The caption before him read, “Take nothing with you for the journey.” Tomes concluded that Ventura was correct.
First went Tomes’s possessions, then his Evanston apartment. He accepted food as payment for odd jobs and lived in the basement of a sympathetic neighbor, sleeping on cardboard. “The spiders were really getting to me,” he told Witness, “and one night as I was about to kill one it jumped across the room. So I got down on my hands and knees and decided to love him. I looked at him real hard, and he didn’t jump away. From then on, spiders and I lived at peace with one another.”
Tomes was still finding messages in the Bible and conversing with pictures in churches the day he read a Tribune article about Saint Malachy’s. The story described it as the poorest parish in Chicago, and this appealed to Tomes–he felt that’s where he should be. He was employed part-time at a White Hen in Schiller Park when he started volunteering at the parish.
Over time, Tomes has enjoyed a higher and higher profile. Go to a project now–especially Henry Horner or Cabrini-Green–and everyone knows him. Each Good Friday, Tomes and other clerics lead a march through Cabrini-Green; carrying a cross, they stop at each of 14 stations for responsive readings. This year’s Good Friday dawned cold and drizzly, and only two dozen or so people joined the march. At least that number of spectators hung from their windows watching the parade. “Hey, Brother Bill,” some yelled. “Come down and walk!” he shouted back, though none did.
Tomes’s moment of greatest public recognition came in November of 1985, when he was honored with the Daniel A. Lord Award by Loyola Academy. A $100-a-plate, black-tie dinner drew 700 people to the Conrad Hilton. “I was so nervous about this talk tonight that I went to Cabrini-Green to settle down,” said Tomes, beginning his remarks. Then he held up his funeral programs and talked about the kids he had buried, including Elbert O’Neal, dead just that May. Tomes spoke of God’s command that we love our fellow men, and he invited the audience to devote themselves to others. When he finished, some people had tears in their eyes. Afterwards, a man approached Tomes and pledged a gift of $5,000 to Loyola, for Tomes’s use.
Tomes feels that he puts whatever money he receives to good purpose. He thinks he has saved “hundreds of lives.” But whether Tomes has curbed violence in the main–rather than just in specific circumstances–is open to question.
At Henry Horner, says Demetrius Ford, the violence is off “100 per cent from what it used to be,” despite the 405 violent crimes, including five homicides, that police reported there last year. “All the guys who used to shoot are either dead or in jail,” Ford says. (Thirteenth District Police Commander Don Torres says the same thing.) There are simply fewer people at Henry Horner now: of 1,774 units, 815 stand vacant, according to the CHA.
On the other hand, a peace treaty between the Disciples and the Vice Lords forged two and a half years ago at Horner was assisted by Tomes. When the agreement was pending, “Brother Bill walked around and asked everybody what they thought,” remembers Ford.
At Cabrini-Green, “the carrying-on is less now,” says Darryl Webster. “Now something happens once every blue moon. But the shooting ain’t going to stop unless the gangbangers want it to.” In other words, Webster credits the decline in fighting more to the gangs’ own machinations than to Tomes’s influence. (Ray Risley, the 18th District commander, says reduced occupancy is the big reason.) Steve Pedigo, pastor of the Fellowship of Friends church in the development and an admirer of Tomes, thinks violence has diminished in large part because city police and CHA officers swept and secured five troublesome buildings.
Tomes sometimes faces the accusation that in mingling so closely and lovingly with gang members he is sanctioning anti-social behavior. He understands he’s been criticized for knowing gang symbols.
Tomes responds by saying that he just does Christ’s bidding. “I’m not allowed to think about changing them. All I’m permitted to do is love. God has perfect love for these boys, and we are simply vessels for His love.” And when pressed, Tomes argues, however modestly, that he does make things better. “We accept the kids and love them as they are, and that brings some change,” he says. “They feel better about themselves. They develop higher self-esteem.” Finally, he exhibits a touch of rancor: “There is the view that I ought to change these guys, but they are tough fellas–they kill and do drugs. Are you out here getting jobs for them?”
“If nothing else, he is helping kids discover that they have value,” contends Father Tom O’Gorman. “At least someone–Bill–sees goodness in them. If he preached against their life-style, it wouldn’t make any difference. You don’t alter your behavior on account of words from other people. Does Nancy Reagan affect a soul with her Say No to Drugs campaign?
“The most positive thing about Bill is that he disintegrates the anonymity of gangs,” O’Gorman goes on. “Through him I’ve met hundreds of individuals who, before, I just thought of as ‘members of gangs.’ Now I know them as people. I can look out my window at Saint Malachy’s on a summer day and see a gang member stealing a woman’s purse–and be enraged by it–but that’s only part of the story. The other part belongs to Bill.”
“When I first met him, I thought to myself, ‘Who is this nut?'” reflects Father Donald Ehr of Saint Elizabeth’s. “But I had an intuition that he wasn’t a nut, and that turned out right. He shows people that they don’t have to kill and do drugs. He hasn’t been here long enough for me to say he’s made a tangible difference, but in time I’m sure he will have an effect. He is a gift from God, I think. I might have doubts about him if he wasn’t willing to put his life on the line, but he is–when cops and firemen crouch behind cars, he’s out there. And so far, thank God, he has had God’s protection.”
This spring Tomes worried that God might be about to remove His shield. “Most people think I’m going to get myself killed,” he mused one day. “I always seemed to be the only person who wasn’t feeling that way, but a couple months ago I started to wonder.” So he made advance arrangements for his funeral, which will take place at Holy Name Cathedral, with Catholic, Lutheran, Quaker, Presbyterian, and Missionary Baptist clergy participating. Holy Name makes sense to Tomes because it doesn’t sit in gang territory, which will allow all his kids to come and mourn him comfortably.
“Probably nothing’s going to happen,” he said, “but I’ve been with other guys who thought nothing was going to happen–and it did.”
The funeral of Lugene Tanner took place at the Johnson Funeral Home on a Saturday morning in April. A hundred mourners entered the chapel and approached the open, blue-sided casket. They found Lugene lying peacefully in a white jogging outfit, a white cap lying on his stomach. Lugene’s mother and a brother took their places on folding chairs at the front. Bill Tomes, whom Mrs. Tanner didn’t know but “had seen around a lot,” sat in front, too, but across the aisle.
Normally Tomes might have spoken; but the Tanners were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Tomes explained that their funerals are conducted by a member of the church. “The purpose of life is to accumulate a limited amount of knowledge,” said the preacher, “to grow old, and eventually to die–some prematurely, as in the case of Lugene Tanner.” That was the only mention of Tanner. Thereafter, the preacher recited passage after passage from the Bible. In the middle of the service, a girl in a pink dress shrieked and fled. Tomes ran out after her. Lugene’s soul is still alive, he told her.
Afterward, the mourners poured out onto North Avenue. The family climbed into a pair of limousines. Tomes gathered together a half-dozen Cobra Stones, friends of the deceased, and offered them rides to the cemetery. The sun shone brilliantly as the funeral procession headed east toward Lake Shore Drive. The black Buick was the sixth car in line.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.