The man was probably in his 50s, but his lined face and matted hair made him look older. He was standing in a small plaza across from Columbus Hospital in Lincoln Park one recent weekday afternoon. The hat he wore read, “I’m not completely worthless. I can always serve as a bad example.”
“Who runs those things?” he asked, motioning toward some paddleboats bobbing in the lagoon behind him. He seemed to be just making conversation.
“That restaurant over there rents them out on weekends,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, then walked away, leaving the plaza to other men. At the rim of the plaza, inside a red-roofed gazebo, an unshaven guy in a black leather jacket and jeans walked in circles. Another man lay on a bench just outside the plaza, smoking a cigarette and reading Michael Sneed. His belongings were wrapped in plastic in a shopping cart parked by his side.
The weather was cold enough that the small cement drinking fountain in the middle of the plaza had been turned off for the season. Locust and hickory leaves filled the basin.
If I hadn’t been looking for the plaque on the side of the fountain, I would have missed it. The bronze rectangle was a little larger than an index card, and the inscription began with a line from the Book of Isaiah: “All you who are thirsty come to the water.” It ended with, “In memory of Jim Northcutt, 1929-1988.”
Jim Northcutt began appearing at Saint Clement’s Church in Lincoln Park sometime in 1984. He was a bearded, heavy man in his 50s, garbed in a rubber poncho even in warm weather. He’d come for the 7 AM weekday service and take a seat in the rear pew. When he sat down, so did his companions–two wire baskets filled with junk. Northcutt never took communion, although whenever the congregation knelt in prayer he too got on his knees.
In many ways Northcutt’s presence proved an affront to his fellow worshipers. He often gave off such a foul odor that people moved to the front of the church to get away from it. On Saturdays he came for the morning service and stayed for the weddings, which provoked a few incidents.
One afternoon in late 1984 a father of the bride saw Northcutt in the back of the church and approached Father Robert Oldershaw, then associate pastor at Saint Clement’s. “Get rid of that bum,” the man demanded.
“That’s not a bum,” said Oldershaw. “That’s one of our parishioners.” Oldershaw refused to evict Northcutt, whom he knew only as Jim, although he did convince Northcutt to slide his baskets underneath the pew.
Oldershaw became Northcutt’s defender. One time some Saint Clement’s youngsters on break from choir practice were making noise in the main sanctuary. “Don’t misbehave in God’s house,” yelled Northcutt from his pew. The kids fled to Oldershaw to complain about the “bum.” Oldershaw paused. “Well, wasn’t that man right about what he said?” he asked. “Let’s talk about ‘bummery,’ shall we?”
“Jim just made you think,” says Oldershaw. “He was troubling. Sometimes I’d look at him and think, gee, if I could just put you in a washing machine then you’d conform to our norms. But maybe Jim wasn’t meant for that.”
At first Northcutt’s place of residence was the red-roofed gazebo in Lincoln Park, but in the spring of 1986 the police forced him out of the park. So he set up on the corner of Clark Street and Deming Place, near the Itto Sushi restaurant. Ironically, the block to the west counts as one of Chicago’s wealthiest; it is dominated by several mansions, a Ronald McDonald House for the families of hospitalized children, and Saint Clement’s.
Northcutt’s home consisted of the bench he sat on and his baskets, which held old newspapers, magazines, two German prayer books, a notebook, and two plastic bottles–one to hold water and a second into which he urinated. In the winter Oldershaw would leave the west door to Saint Clement’s open, but otherwise Northcutt lived exclusively on his corner bench.
Northcutt asked for neither food nor money. If someone offered him money he spurned it, though Kathy Burke, a Saint Clement’s parishioner who took an interest in Jim, says that if you left him something to eat he would consume it. Mostly, she says, Northcutt combed Dumpsters for food.
Beginning in early 1985 Saint Clement’s offered its basement as a community shelter for the homeless during the cold-weather months, and Northcutt sometimes came inside to eat. However, since he stank so, he was barred from staying the night; instead, he’d huddle by the church entrance.
Northcutt usually avoided making eye contact, even with people he knew. He spoke sparingly, seldom acknowledging his audience. When he did connect with a person he’d say, “God’s peace be with you.” An exception was Kathy Burke’s son, whom Northcutt addressed by name when he saw the boy. “Be good, Abe,” he used to say.
Because Northcutt often spiced his remarks with German phrases, people assumed he came from Germany. But he told Oldershaw he came from Kentucky. He also told the priest he had been in Chicago for 17 years–an understatement, as it turned out. Oldershaw discovered Northcutt’s last name, but kept it to himself because he felt to share it would violate Jim’s privacy. Other priests at Saint Clement’s learned that Northcutt harbored certain political opinions. Once he informed Father John Fahey, then head priest at the church, that “they should blow up abortion clinics.” When the cleric argued for a kinder approach, Northcutt revised his opinion. “You changed my mind, Father,” he said. “They should shoot the doctors.”
In general, Jim’s relative silence was seen as menacing, and his appearance as unsettling, especially to the well-heeled residents of Lincoln Park. “There was a real uneasiness about him,” says Jeff Zaslow, at the time a feature writer for the Wall Street Journal who lived on Deming Place. “Here was a guy who urinated in bottles and had those ugly carts. People got on their buses to go down to LaSalle Street, and there he was.” Jim was unwanted. “There was a feeling among businessmen especially that he was bad for business,” says Kathy Burke.
On the night of July 15, 1986, someone set fire to Northcutt’s bench. When the neighbors found him in the morning, Northcutt was sitting on the remains of the bench and his carts were gone. Northcutt’s arm and shoulder were seared, though not severely. The police took him to the hospital, but not before he, weeping, told Burke, “They don’t want me around anymore. I’m going to have to go away.”
Afterward Northcutt moved his base of operations about a mile northwest to Saint Alphonsus Church. For a year and a half, when it was cold, he slept in the side vestibule of the church; the rest of the time he roosted on the church steps. He took supper with a senior-citizens group at the church, and he patronized the German service held each Sunday. Father Bernard Guenther, a retired priest affiliated with the church, took pity on Northcutt and gave him a rubber mattress. Guenther marveled at Northcutt’s belongings, stowed again in baskets. “It was junk, but these things were Jim’s treasures,” says Guenther. “He was a nice man, but peculiar in his ways.”
Jeff Zaslow, who now pens a personal-advice column for the Sun-Times, happened by Northcutt’s bench on the day it was burned. He was intrigued by Northcutt, who waved away any inquiry, and wrote a story for the Wall Street Journal that dealt not only with Northcutt but with the reaction of the upper middle class to the homeless. It ran in the Journal on December 1, 1986.
When Sun-Times columnist Tom Fitzpatrick wrote a spin-off story and revealed Northcutt’s last name, it jogged the memory of Harry Hirsch, director of operations planning for the CTA. He told Glenn Andersen, then a CTA equipment engineering supervisor, that the person Fitzpatrick had described sounded an awful lot like their old colleague Jim Northcutt. Andersen knew Northcutt’s sister Gail and called her at her home in Detroit. A high school math teacher, she had been searching for her brother for years.
Jim Northcutt was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 8, 1929, and grew up in nearby Covington as the oldest child and only boy in a blue-collar home. His father, Galen, was a sheet-metal worker; his mother, Catherine, became a switchboard operator once her five children were off at school. The household had some tenuous ties to Germany, since Northcutt’s maternal grandfather, born in Alsace-Lorraine, spoke German and passed along a few phrases to the children.
Brainy and motivated, Jim skipped straight from sixth grade to high school at Covington Latin School, a Catholic facility for bright youngsters. Following high school Jim went to the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, with majors in philosophy and economics. He also developed a proficiency in French and Greek.
There were troubles, however. Sometime after Northcutt left high school, says Gail Northcutt, “there was some estrangement with the family. He had a troubled relationship with his father, and he pretty much denied he had a family.” Catherine Northcutt, now an 89-year-old widow, disagrees with her daughter’s assessment: “I don’t think Jim and my husband had a strained relationship. They had a good relationship–Jim just preferred living somewhere else.” That somewhere else was first Cincinnati, where Gail remembers passing her brother on the street and him not recognizing her, or pretending not to.
Northcutt served in the Army during the Korean war, perfecting his German while on duty in Europe. Afterward he worked for the Cincinnati transit system for a few years, and then was hired by the Chicago Transit Authority in February 1958. Assigned to the planning department of the CTA, Northcutt oversaw, among other things, the installation of the authority’s first computer system. He left the CTA in 1962 and spent three years with the engineering firm DeLeuw Cather & Company, advising them on bridge and mass-transit projects in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. But he tired of being in other people’s employ and in 1965 turned to independent consulting.
Andersen recalls Northcutt as a talkative, jovial man, five feet eight inches tall, with a handlebar mustache, longish hair, and a sloppy appearance. He was always overweight, tipping the scales at 200 pounds or more, and he seemed to own just one suit. “He was a very open, very friendly person,” says Harry Hirsch, who started in management training at the CTA at the same time Northcutt did. “He took a lot of kidding over his appearance, but it rolled off his back.” Hirsch says Northcutt’s superiors took a dim view of his appearance, but he was too stubborn to change. “He always declared himself as a hillbilly,” says Andersen.
In his off-hours Northcutt cultivated an interest in Chicago’s ethnic churches, attending a different one every Sunday. He also went to church picnics. Another passion was railroad history. He lived in Lincoln Park and turned half of his Bissell Street apartment, which backed up to the el, into a mini-museum, piling it high with railroad books, pictures, movie reels, maps, and even roadbed ties. He was an avid member of the Central Electric Rail Fans Association.
Northcutt never married. “He was interested in girls, but I didn’t know of him having had any long-term relationships,” says Andersen.
In 1967 Northcutt seemed to withdraw more and more from society. Andersen is still mystified at the cause of his decline; all he knows is that Northcutt turned inward and became more eccentric. “One night I went down to see him, and he thought his phone was bugged,” Andersen says. Gail Northcutt would call and find a monosyllabic sibling on the other end of the line. “He’d say ‘yes,’ ‘no’–practically nothing,” she says. “I don’t think he was able to keep up with his bills.” Finally, in either 1968 or ’69–Gail’s and Andersen’s recollections differ–Northcutt’s phone was disconnected. Andersen then found Northcutt’s apartment vacant, and the woman across the hall told him Northcutt had been evicted.
“In my subconscious I feared Jim was having severe mental problems,” says Gail, who’s now 51. “He had always been strange, but when you are a little sister looking up to an older brother, strange sometimes passes for brilliant. When he disappeared, I first thought, oh well, he’s just sick of his family again.”
From what she was later able to determine, Northcutt went to living on the street and in state mental hospitals, including Manteno and Chicago Read; doctors diagnosed him as paranoid schizophrenic. He eluded contact with his friends and family. Andersen figures Northcutt’s former coworkers must have passed him countless times without recognizing him. “Middle-class people just don’t look at the homeless unnecessarily–they don’t make eye contact. His friends might have seen Jim a lot. I might have.”
Northcutt’s family did what they could, from a distance, to locate Jim. In 1979, after one Northcutt sister read a newspaper story about a Chicago railroad organization, Gail made some calls about Jim and finally connected with Andersen, who is also a train buff. Gail had weathered cancer surgery and wanted to find her brother, but she and Andersen had little luck.
They did discover, with the help of Michigan senator Carl Levin’s office, an uncashed social-security check made out to Northcutt in October 1979. But Gail grew more and more pessimistic, and in 1984 she finally donated Northcutt’s railroad memorabilia to the Illinois Railway Museum. Then came the Wall Street Journal article and Andersen’s call.
On January 13, 1987, Gail slid into the pew behind her brother at Saint Alphonsus Church. It had been 28 years since she had seen him. “I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I knew it was him.” Northcutt eyeballed her and then rose to do the stations of the cross. “He walked right by me. I just wanted to embrace him.” But sensing his displeasure, she held off.
The next day she approached him in front of the Golden Nugget Pancake House. “Guten Morgen,” she said, which means “good morning” in German. He spat in her face. “It broke my heart,” she says. Minutes later she walked up to him in church. “Jimmy,” she said, “I’m your sister, Gail, and I’ve been looking for you for years.” He yelled at her and made a gesture as if he was going to throw something at her.
She returned to Chicago that April on her spring break from teaching. After examining his records at Chicago Read, she began proceedings to become his guardian. In a hearing that August, at which Northcutt failed to appear, a circuit-court judge granted her that status. Two days later Jim and Gail had their first friendly interchange, after she presented him with some sandwiches at the church. “Thank you,” he responded.
For a month that fall he was hospitalized at Chicago Read and then released to Arlington House, a retirement facility and halfway house in Lincoln Park. He had developed what was first thought to be anemia, but in December 1987 doctors at Grant Hospital diagnosed him as having acute myeloblastic leukemia, an insidious form of blood cancer. Chemotherapy was begun.
“We talked, or rather I did,” says Gail. “I told him about school, about my work. I never asked him where he had been all those years. I didn’t want him to be under strain. I told him about his sister, about his nieces and nephews. He just closed his eyes. But I know he looked forward to my visits. We had good visits.”
According to Father Oldershaw, Northcutt started to take communion in the hospital during this period. Released to a nearby nursing home, Northcutt did not fare well. He developed a cyst on the left side of his head, and his gall bladder began to fail. On February 17, 1988, he reentered Grant Hospital for gall-bladder surgery. Three days after his operation he lifted his oxygen mask and looked directly at Gail. “Celebrate,” he told her.
“When?” she asked.
“Tomorrow,” he said. He died the next day, February 29, at 6 PM.
“Two days before Jim died he knew I cared for him,” says Gail. “He looked touched as I was crying, and I told him I cared for him.”
The funeral took place on March 5 at Saint Clement’s, with Northcutt’s mother, Gail, and another sister in attendance. Father Fahey delivered the homily. Northcutt was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery on the south side. “Gruss Gott,” reads his headstone, which means “praise God.”
The next month Gail Northcutt returned to Chicago to attend a benefit for Thresholds, a social-service agency that had helped her with Jim, when the idea of some memorial to him “just popped into my head. I didn’t want his life to have been in vain. I didn’t want him to be forgotten.” She cornered 43rd Ward Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, who happened to be at the affair, and convinced him to assist her. Liz Rothman, an aide to Eisendrath, subsequently suggested dedicating an existing water fountain to Northcutt. It was arranged with the Chicago Park District to name the fountain in front of the Lincoln Park gazebo after him. Gail agreed to pay for the plaque, but Eisendrath’s office has yet to forward her the $40 bill.
The dedication ceremonies occurred on June 24 at 11 AM in the plaza adjoining the gazebo. It was a hot day. A representative of the Chicago Park District spoke, and so did Rob Buono, another assistant to Eisendrath. Then came Oldershaw’s turn.
“Jim was the ragman of Lincoln Park,” said Oldershaw, now pastor at Saint Nicholas Church in Evanston. “Jim, clad in rags and loaded with his stuff, was a parable. He disturbed us, troubled us. We who don’t live on the streets or in the parks or on bus-stop benches, we who live in comfortable homes, have much to learn from the homeless.
“See, people were at first scared of Jim–bearded, berobed, Moses-like patriarchal figure that he was. But we came to respect and love this man who troubled our consciences and threw us off balance.
“Oh God, we ask your blessing on this fountain, that has provided refreshment for countless people. We bless and thank you for Jim Northcutt–friend, prophet, parable, Christ figure. Keep Jimmy always in your heart and help us all who are refreshed by these waters to open our eyes to the plight of the homeless and our ears to their cry of pain.”
Oldershaw then invited the 30 people in attendance to drink from the fountain. As they drank, he sang an impromptu song about Northcutt to the tune of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”
“The next day, on Sunday morning at five o’clock, I walked over to the fountain,” says Gail. “Some guy stopped by who looked like he had been up all night. He grabbed the fountain with both his hands and took a drink. Boy, I said to myself, I’m glad that fountain is here.”
There are those who don’t see the reason for the dedication of the fountain. “Jim Northcutt was homeless, but he wasn’t helpless,” says Father Guenther of Saint Alphonsus. “He could have worked or gotten social security. He was just mentally unbalanced. We are making too much of a fuss over the man.”
“No,” says Gail. “The fountain gives dignity to the memory of my brother and to the homeless. We must remember that each of them is unique.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Banks.