I thought puns were a depressing, meaningless, mindless activity until this woman with Doublemint gum wrappers attached to the top of her shoe pointed out that “their invention takes great mental skill.”

“Beckett, Shakespeare, Joyce, and Nabokov were all punsters,” she said. “Ever eat Reagan chicken? It’s just the right wings.”

The woman with the gum wrappers on her shoe couldn’t help but speak in puns, partly because she is Joyce Heitler, president of the Chicago chapter of the International Save the Pun Foundation. Joyce Heitler was also wearing sample bottles of shampoo on her hat, toy tanks around her neck, a piece of paper stuck under her ear, and “Freud” written on her skirt. “My body is covered with puns. Everybody has to guess what they are.”

She was setting out the place cards for the second annual Save the Pun dinner April 1 at Schulien’s, which is more popularly known as a card trick headquarters.

“Nobody appreciates us,” she said. “This dinner gives us a great opportunity to shine.” Also a professional clown, a kindergarten teacher, and a publicist, she said she averages three or four puns a day. She made her first at 13. “I remember distinctly. I said, Why can people with small hands be on the radio? Because you need wee paws for station identification.” She explained that most punsters start early.

Fred K. Rosen came in and said he uses the middle initial K to distinguish himself from the owner of Sam’s Liquors. Rosen is famous. He is the person who, for more than ten years, gave columnist Bob Herguth some 1,000 puns for his column in the Chicago Sun-Times.

“It started when a guy I worked with accused me of writing Herguth’s material,” Rosen said. “I called Bob and said I may as well give you a line you can use. I said, if Barbara Walters would have gone to CBS, they could have had the Walters Cronkite Evening News. A year later I called Bob and said they’ll probably be debating the Panama Canal from now till isthmus. I went from one a week, to four a week. They just kept coming.”

Rosen is facilities manager for the naval hospital at Great Lakes. He was with his wife, whom he met through the personals column in a Lerner newspaper. “Herguth wished us a future of long-stemmed Rosens. Here we are with a little punster on the way,” Rosen said, referring to his wife’s stomach.

There is a problem for the punsters because Herguth’s news item/gossip column ended after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. “Without a column every day, you really get out of practice,” Rosen said.

“Some editors didn’t like puns,” said Herguth, who was sitting next to the Rosens. “Finally under Jim Hoge, he said, OK, you can have puns but they have to be good puns.” So everybody chipped in — Rosen, the late Rabbi David Graubart, and Mary Jo Bohrl, who sat at the table in white linen and pearls. She is a manager of corporate communications. “I was going to publish a book on the Chicago Symphony but it had too much sax and violins,” she said. “The Heimlich maneuver is no choke.”

She brought out her clippings of Herguth columns and estimated having made about 100 contributions. She said she’s always been good with words and enters joke contests. She lamented the loss of Herguth’s column.

Herguth now writes regular stories for the paper and confessed he sneaks in puns when he can.

Dr. Stephen Adams from the emergency room of Northwestern Hospital said three times during the evening, “I brought my brother tonight so there’d be a paradox.”

His brother is also a doctor.

“We came for gruel and unusual punishment.” Dr. Adams said he says more puns than most people want to hear. As far as saying puns to his patients goes, it depends on their injuries, he said. The paradox were sitting at a table with a glamorous blond woman, who said she’s an agent. She was with a portrait artist. He stood up and told everybody he was living in a transient hotel on Diversey and found a lonely cat and named it Fred on a stair.

Rosen dropped his place card. “Do you mind if I become a name dropper? I see the bar but where’s the punch line?”

In between courses, many of the 50-some guests couldn’t resist jumping up and saying a pun. They seemed happy that they were together.

“This wine must have come from the south side. It’s a Michael Reese-ling!”

“I’m in sales — baking ingredients.”

“You must have a lot of dough!”

“The library is the tallest building. It has a hundred stories.”

“Tall tales!”

“We have an artist here tonight.”

“You must be drawn to him.”

“Just kind of ease into it.”

“Don’t Ditka around with us.”

Heitler explained her clothing and the shampoo bottles on her hat. “I am the pun-up girl of the year. There are at least ten puns on my body. I was going to take them off one by one but everybody didn’t want to see a comic strip.”

The table has to guess the puns.

The Freud on her skirt was a “Freudian slip.” The shoe with the gum wrappers was a “gumshoe.” The tanks on her top were a “tank top.” So it went.

A social psychologist was at the table with a woman who said she is the head of publications at the Art Institute and doesn’t make puns. The social psychologist swore he wasn’t at the dinner to study the punsters. When asked why people make puns, he smiled and kept eating his greens.

“We can’t help it!” said a Punster.

“Because it’s there!” said another.

“It does us!”

“We sit here, like a shark waiting to jump,” said Rosen.

“There! That’s it!” said the social psychologist. “That’s the psychodynamics of it.”

The punsters, weren’t too interested in mulling over why they do it. They just wanted to do it.

“Maybe you’ve met my brother, Crashing,” Bohrl said.

I didn’t know what she meant. Neither did the woman from the Art Institute.

“Did you hear about the girl who got raped on Chicago Avenue and thought it was Grand?”

“She said it was Superior.”

“This is getting Erie.”

“Huron to something.”

I was getting seasick. I had to leave.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.