First, there was the smoke, then the smell, and then the word on the street: Louie Rago was “cookin'” bodies in a garage behind his funeral parlor on the corner of Western Avenue and Erie Street.

“Cremation’s what they call it,” says Charlie Greco, an elderly man, his voice tense and angry. “They shove the bodies into a big oven, and let them burn. You can see the smoke, you could smell it; it stinks. Would you want it? I don’t. We have concentration camp survivors in this neighborhood. They don’t need any reminders. I tell you, the whole thing just makes me wanna puke my guts out.”

So Rago’s neighbors–white, working class ethnics–rallied around PROS, their community group. For three years PROS battled Louis Rago. They fought him in the courts, in the City Council, in the media, and in the streets.

They fought him hard, too, though no one stood to gain much more than a picture in the paper for the effort. No one, apparently, used the fight to make money or launch a political campaign. PROS did not significantly increase its funding or membership. Certainly, there was no behind-the-scenes Alinsky-style operator rousing the masses, encouraging them to realize their own political empowerment.

No, it was simpler than that. Rago’s neighbors believed in their hearts that they were the victims of a terrible injustice. So they threw themselves into a fight, determined not to quit until victory was theirs. And when that triumph was complete, in September when Rago was forced to dismantle and move his crematory, folks in the neighborhood went quietly back to their business. Everybody was convinced a wrong had been righted, and that David, at long last, had beat Goliath.

Well, almost everybody.

“Yeah, sure, right, I’m Goliath, and they’re David,” says Rago, 42, his booming voice quivering with rage and sarcasm. As he talks, he paces across the red carpet in the chapel of his funeral parlor, while a reporter and ten or so of his supporters–men and women, young and old, all from the area–sit in awestruck silence.

“Let’s see, did they tell you about the concentration camp survivors?” Rago asks the reporter.


“Did you see the concentration camp survivors?”

“Well, no. They said the survivors won’t go public because they’re afraid of intimidation.”

“Oh, that’s great. That’s wonderful. They’re afraid of intimidation. That’s precious. Meanwhile every reporter in town is walking around saying that Louie Rago picks on concentration camp survivors. Well, let me tell you this. I’ve lived in this community all my life, and not once have I met a concentration camp survivor who lives here.

“Did they tell you about the smell?” Rago continues.


“Don’t tell me: sweet and sour. Right?”

“Uh huh.”

“Oh great, oh great. Sweet and sour. That’s too much. Some guy ate Chinese food, went home, had gas, and now the whole neighborhood smells sweet and sour.

“Well, let me tell you, nobody smelled sweet and sour, because nobody smelled nothing. Four people–four people, that’s all–were cremated in my crematory. And nobody in the neighborhood knew about it when it was going on. Why? Because those crematories don’t smell, they don’t make smoke, and they don’t make a noise.

“But, no, these people from PROS, they smell, see, and hear things that don’t exist. And for the life of me I don’t know why they do it. They turned on me. They turned a community against me. They tried to ruin my reputation.

“And no one questions them. No one asks them why. The reporters, the aldermen, the judges–they make PROS out to be some poor souls who fought the odds and won this battle against me, the big bad guy. Sure, there’s a victim here. Me, Louie Rago, I’m the victim. I’ve got a story to tell, too. Only with my story, no one’s listening.”

Near the end of March 1984, Rago installed a crematory in his garage at 2419 W. Erie. His funeral home is on the southwest corner of Erie and Western, and the garage is in back, just west of the alley that separates the funeral parlor from a quiet, tree-lined street of balloon-frame bungalows.

They call the community “The Patch” (as in “patch of Italians”); its borders are roughly formed by Western, California, Chicago, and Grand. Up until 1984, Rago got along fine with the Patch. By all accounts, he was one of them, a neighborhood kid. He’d been born there. His grandfather had opened Rago Brothers Funeral Homes at the turn of the century. (Another branch is located at 5120 W. Fullerton.) In their heyday, they handled many of the funerals in the west side’s thriving Italian community.

“We operated out of five parishes,” Rago recalls. “I was born five blocks from here. I live on Fullerton now, but in many ways, I still think of this as my community.”

Over the years, however, many Italians moved to the suburbs, and were replaced by blacks and Hispanics. As he lost his Italian base Rago began to think about broadening his business. A crematory seemed the logical step.

“Crematories are more popular with educated people of a higher income,” Rago explains. “I was looking at moving into some of the lakefront business, to tell the truth. Not that cremations should only be for rich people. On the contrary, a cremation is cheaper. At minimum, a burial will cost you $630. But a cremation alone [that is, without the funeral services] costs about $55. It’s no surprise that they’re becoming more popular.”

Last year, for instance, about 240 of the 365 funerals Rago handled at his Western Avenue parlor were cremations.

“The body comes here in a hearse,” Rago says. “We have a service. Then we drive it over to the cemetery, where it can be cremated.”

That last leg, Rago figured, was a waste of time and money. Why should he lose that business to the cemeteries? So, in 1984, Rago bought a “Model C-1000 cremation unit”–a state-of-the-art oven.

“I never anticipated any problems at all,” he says. “I mean there are crematories in Oak Lawn, Highland Park, Bensenville, Lombard, and about ten in cemeteries in Chicago. It cost me $27,000. It has an afterburner. It burns the corpse, and then the smoke and residues are recycled into the furnace and burned again. There’s a smoke detector in the stack that automatically shuts off the crematory if smoke goes through the stack. All you emit is a heat wave.”

By May, Rago had cremated three bodies. Then he got a phone call from the city’s board of health.

“They told me that I was operating an illegal crematory,” says Rago. “The problem was zoning. My funeral parlor fronts Western and is zoned commercial. But the garage, across the alley, is on a residential district.

“Well, I called the city, and said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And no one got back to me. It was a red-tape deal. I can’t operate the crematory, but no one tells me why.”

So in May 1984 Rago sued the city, charging, in short, that the crematory business had been closed without reason. Cook County circuit court judge James Murray heard the case, and he suggested that Rago ask the Zoning Board of Appeals for a zoning variance that would allow him to operate the crematory out of the garage.

By this time, word of Rago’s crematory had made its way around the neighborhood. “The wind was blowing south, and I smelled it [the oven] one night,” says Michael Olenczuk, a nearby resident. “My wife says, ‘What’s that?’ It smelled like sauerkraut and bacon. A sweet sour smell.”

“To me, it smelled like paint thinner,” says Bruno Brzezinski, another area resident.

“It makes you sick, that’s all I can say,” says Greco.

“That’s all a bunch of crap,” Rago counters. “I don’t know where they got it, or why. But how could they smell anything? The whole time I cremated, nobody ever complained about anything. I remember one day, I walked up to Charlie [Greco]. He was on a ladder outside his house. He says, ‘Hey, Louie, when you gonna operate that thing?’ I said, ‘Charlie, it’s operating now.’ He says, ‘No kidding, Lou, I can’t smell nothin’.’

“It’s not like I was trying to hide anything. How am I gonna hide a 22,000-pound oven? I’m accused of sneaking it onto Erie Street in the middle of the night. Are you kidding? Half of Erie Street saw that thing go in there.”

Over the days, several residents stopped by to ask Rago about the crematory. Rago says he showed it to them, letting them listen to its engine run, hoping to alleviate any concerns. It was a hard sell.

“I got this phone call from a lady on the block in August, right before we go to the ZBA,” says Rago. “‘Louie,’ she tells me, ‘you’re gonna have problems with that crematory.’ I says, ‘Does it bother you?’ She says, ‘No, but Charlie Greco’s upset.’

“All right, so I go to Charlie. I say, ‘Charlie, what gives?’ He says, ‘Oh, I don’t know, Lou, it’s environmental.’ Well, right then and there I knew–somebody had been putting something into Charlie’s head.

“Believe me, Charlie Greco’s a nice guy. We go back. But Charlie doesn’t know from environmental. Someone had to drag him to a dictionary to learn that word. I mean, here’s a man who hung out at this funeral parlor for years. He’d come in and sit while we were embalming, and now he’s worried about environmental?

“Well, I call Charlie up, I take him to where the ashes are. I reach down and pick up the ashes. I say, ‘These are the residues, Charlie. It’s more sanitary than anything else.’

“‘Louie,’ he says to me, ‘I’m glad we had this talk. We go back three generations, Louie.’ I say, ‘That’s good, Charlie.’ I thought we had settled it.”

But nothing had been settled. A week or so later, Rago called a neighborhood meeting at his funeral parlor to quell some of the talk and speculation. About 35 people attended; Rago served wine. He showed the residents the machine; he even turned it on so they could hear its low, rumbling hum.

“One guy tells me that he didn’t want to think about what was happening out in the garage behind his porch,” Rago says. “I said, ‘Our morgue faces your building. Didn’t you ever stop to think about what was going on behind the morgue window?’

“The guy says, ‘You’re right, Louie. But that’s me. I’m funny that way.’ So, I says, ‘Look, OK, you ought to think this over for a few days. Because we’re talking about an emotional issue.’ I mean, when you really get down to it, we’ve been embalming bodies in this neighborhood for 70 years, and nobody ever complained.”

One woman said the crematory’s smokestack reminded her of death. Rago volunteered to elevate the garage walls to block the smokestack from sight. Another man asked about the smell. Rago assured them the machine left no odor. The crematory, he continued, would actually reduce local traffic by cutting down on trips to cemeteries. By the meeting’s end, Rago felt vindicated.

“I thought I had satisfied a lot of people. I said: ‘Look, whatever you do, please don’t storm troop me at the ZBA hearing.’ I said, ‘I’ll take you downtown in my limo, if you want to go. But, please, don’t show me up with signs and all that.’ They said, ‘Don’t worry, Louie.’ And I thought, well, they may not support me, but at least they see my point.”

But that’s not what many residents thought–not at all. The heart of their opposition, they say, has to do with a creepy feeling that’s hard to explain. It was just, well, disgusting to realize that the air they breathed would forever be contaminated by the smoke of smoldering bodies. It revolted them. It made them sick.

Maybe Rago was half right when he said they were irrational. It’s true, they had never thought twice about the embalming. But it was hard to be perfectly rational about a crematory. It wasn’t like embalming. And why should they listen to him, anyway? He never listened to them. No, he acted like he had all the answers. He was so damn patronizing. He treated them like they were little children, too dumb or naive to have environmental concerns. Like they would exchange their independence for a ride downtown in his fancy limousine.

Besides, they insist, the crematory did stink–that much they swear, even today. And it does not matter that the one neutral source (a city inspector) who witnessed Rago’s crematory in operation reportedly smelled no odor. Or that similar complaints have not arisen in towns that have crematories. Or that representatives of the crematory business (biased though they may be) insist that machines like Rago’s do not secrete a smell. Or that some Patch residents (not members of PROS) say they have never smelled any strange smells in the neighborhood (other than those wafting from a nearby doughnut shop).

None of this matters, PROS members say, because none of it proves conclusively one way or another that they did not, in fact, smell a smell coming from the crematory. “Because you didn’t smell nothing, doesn’t prove that I didn’t smell it,” is how one resident states the case.

In fact, several say they smelled the odor at about ten o’clock in the morning, the day after Rago met with them in August 1984.

“He [Rago] never satisfied me, never,” says Rosemary Scavone, who lives across the alley from the crematory. “But when I smelled something the next day, I was convinced. I can’t say the smell was from a burning body; I don’t know that he had burned a body. Maybe that’s just the way the crematory smells whenever you turn it on. But there’s no way you should have this thing in a residential neighborhood. It’s just too offensive.”

Scavone, with only her daughter and husband to help and without the backing of any organization, went door to door, asking neighbors to sign a petition opposing Rago’s crematory. “I went out and got over 100 signatures, just like that,” says Scavone. “I didn’t pressure anyone. I told them who I was. I explained what he [Rago] was proposing. Some people said, ‘I don’t care.’ Some said they didn’t want to ruffle Rago’s feathers. They didn’t want to sign, fine, I didn’t make them. The big turning point was when I knocked at Frank Scamardo’s house.”

At the time, Scamardo was president of PROS. He listened to Scavone’s lament, and suggested she plead her case to the group’s board of directors. “Quite frankly, until then it had never occurred to me to go to PROS,” says Scavone. “PROS covers more ground than just our block, and I didn’t think they would be concerned.” The group’s institutional members include two churches, a social service agency, and a social club that is much like an American Legion post.

A few days later, Scavone made her pitch. To her surprise, the PROS board agreed to join the fight. “Our only question was whether we should pay for an attorney,” says Cathy Dell’Aquila, a PROS board member. “We didn’t do this to get on TV or for any personal satisfaction. We don’t need this fight. We lead normal lives. It was simple: the residents were against the crematory, so we felt we had to stand with them.”

From the outset, PROS’s strategy was obvious. They would use the press. “We went to the media because we were afraid of what you would call political hanky-panky,” says Scavone. “We felt with the media watching, Rago couldn’t get away with his plans.”

As they saw it, Rago was a man of influence. He was a civic leader in the Italian community, a key organizer of Festa Italiana, the not-for-profit summer festival. He was a successful businessman. He had an influential attorney, Anthony Fornelli, with a downtown address.

The neighbors were the underdogs–old men and women, housewives, blue-collar workers–some with foreign names and funny accents. They went into battle determined to fight, but destined, they figured, to lose.

“I got the news that something big was going on the day before the ZBA hearing when a resident called me,” says Rago. “She told me that one of the neighbors is in front of the garage with the CBS crew. The next thing I know, CBS calls, WMAQ calls, and I’m dealing with reporters. What do I know about reporters? I’m a neighborhood guy. All I can say is that if the ZBA rules on law, we win. If they rule on emotion, we lose.”

The ZBA did neither. Instead, its members continued the case, pleading with both sides to use the time to smooth out their differences.

By then, Donna Dombrowski was on the case–her involvement, though important, is perplexing. To this day, there are observers who do not completely understand why Dombrowski joined the fight. She was new to the neighborhood, having moved there with her husband in 1982. She is not a career community activist. She has no visible ambitions for elective office. (She is a phone operator for the state of Illinois.) She heard about the case only when Scavone came knocking at her door. I’ll go to the ZBA meeting, Dombrowski says she thought at the time, but only because I’m curious. I don’t really need or want to get involved.

Within a few weeks, there she was, picket sign in hand, leading the charge, absolutely enraptured by the righteousness of the cause. It was Dombrowski who called reporters; Dombrowski who lobbied politicians; Dombrowski who so immersed herself in the intricate odds and ends of the legal wrangling that, eyes gleaming with pride, she could later claim: “I know more about this case than the lawyers.” Dombrowski remains enthusiastic about the imbroglio, offering her interpretations (some bizarre, most off the record) of why events unfolded as they did.

“I felt I had to get involved,” Dombrowski says. “It was so appalling. The idea that a guy would put a crematory in his garage without any neighborhood consent, ooh, I still get burned.”

Not that she stood alone. Elaine Herzeg, for instance, made a pilgrimage that included crematories all over the Chicago area, in an effort to identify their supposedly offensive odor. Greco and the Scavone family led the charge from the beginning. But perhaps only Rago can match Dombrowski’s passionate obsession with the struggle. Maybe that’s why Dombrowski’s name, above all others, most rapidly lights the flame that fires Rago’s temper.

“I tell you, that woman really pissed me off,” says Rago. “I mean, who the hell is Donna Dombrowski? She comes waltzing into this neighborhood and gets everyone all riled up. She’s a troublemaker.”

“I’m a troublemaker, huh?” counters Dombrowski. “Ha, that’s a laugh. He slaps the community in the face, and I’m the troublemaker. Well, as far as I’m concerned, this was never a grudge match between me and Louie. I didn’t need this fight. There were times when I woke up in the morning, and I didn’t want to go on. But then I realized, this fight is for the older people. Rago always figured that their enthusiasm would wane. That he could beat them down with time. And I wasn’t going to let that happen. They needed younger people, like me, to keep their spirits going. That doesn’t make me a troublemaker. That’s what leaders are made of.”

So impressed was the PROS board with Dombrowski’s spirit, that on October 19, 1984, they hired her as a paid organizer. Two days later, Dombrowski had 80 marchers with picket signs protesting outside Rago’s funeral parlor. Among them, much to Rago’s surprise, was Wallace Davis, the area’s alderman.

“Davis must have had 30 picketers out there, all of them black,” says Rago. “Well, there ain’t a black face in the Patch. I’m wondering, what the hell does he want anyway?”

Indeed, many residents all over the Patch probably wondered the same thing. Theirs is one of the last white precincts in the 27th Ward. They have few ties to the west side’s black politicians. But Dombrowski had volunteered in a few precincts for the newly elected alderman in his 1983 campaign. After some deliberation, Davis (who was in jail and could not be reached for comment) declared his support for PROS.

“I don’t care what people say about Wallace Davis, or what he may have done elsewhere,” says Greco, referring to Davis’s recent conviction for accepting bribes from an undercover FBI operative. “He went to bat for us. He stuck with the community. And that’s what an alderman is supposed to do.”

“That goddamn Wallace Davis is a coward,” snarls Rago. “He told me, ‘As long as no one is dying, and no one is getting sick from the crematory, I will support you.’ And the next thing I know, he’s on TV, saying: ‘This thing’s just two feets from the houses.’ That’s what he said, ‘two feets.’ I thought to myself, ‘My God, now we’ve got two problems: negative public opinion, and an alderman who’s a functional illiterate.'”

The ZBA decided in Rago’s favor, ruling that a crematory complied with the garage’s previous use.

“The ZBA decided on the basis of previous use,” says John Kneafsey, PROS lawyer. “Rago has used the garage as a warehouse; he stored caskets there. So, the ZBA said, in effect, ‘caskets, cremations, it’s all cemetery business. Let the crematory go there.’ That, in my opinion, is a warped theory.”

Outraged, PROS members suspected that Rago had exploited political connections to muscle a favorable decision from the ZBA. A month later, a circuit judge upheld the ZBA’s ruling. Now the residents were convinced: clout had done them in.

“Rago has a lot of friends; we were up against a lot of clout,” says Dombrowski. “That’s the only reason we lost. And that only made us more determined. Don’t you see: it’s one thing to lose. But it’s another to be cheated.”

“Clout; yeah, sure, look at me: Mr. Clout,” Rago sneers. “The only alderman I really know is Fred Roti–our families go back. Most of the others I wouldn’t recognize if we passed on the street. The ZBA backed me because my position was right. A crematory is a valid substitute use for what I had been doing in the garage. Besides, if I have so much clout, how come Davis, my own alderman, was working against me?”

Sure enough, in November 1984 Davis steered through the City Council an ordinance that outlawed crematories except those in cemeteries.

“It became a chess game,” says Dombrowski. “Because of the grandfather clause, the Davis ordinance would not prohibit Rago from operating a crematory in the garage. We knew that. But we figured we would win the zoning case on appeal. After that, the Davis ordinance would prevent Rago from moving the crematory from the garage into the funeral parlor.”

In addition, the residents turned up the heat. They wrote of their struggle to such officials as Mayor Washington, Senator Charles Percy, and Cardinal Bernardin. They distributed fliers at Daley Plaza. They picketed the funeral parlor every Sunday (“We don’t want our neighborhood smelling like a death camp,” read one picket sign. “Would you like to dust dead people off your furniture?” read another).

And perhaps most important, they continued to call reporters at newspapers and TV and radio stations all over town. Within a matter of months, their cause was trumpeted in editorials on channels seven and five, and in a story in the Sun-Times that began: “When an elderly woman survivor of a World War II German concentration camp first complained that her area smelled like a death camp, no one paid much attention. Then other residents . . . discovered, to their horror, that [the funeral home] had installed a gas cremation oven . . . in a garage in the middle of their neighborhood.”

The media attention threw Rago off balance. He didn’t know what to do or say. For the most part, he refused to comment, hoping the reporters might just leave the matter alone. But after a while, his outrage got the better of him.

“I wish yours and other publications would stop printing lies,” he told one reporter for the West Town Herald, a local paper. He pleaded with, yelled at, and harangued others. At one point, he decided to hold a press conference and tell his side of the story. Only one reporter–Deborah Norville, then at WMAQ TV–showed up. Her story never ran.

“I can hear the reporters now,” says Rago. “I know their tricks. They call you up, and butter don’t melt in their mouth. It’s: ‘Oh, Mr. Rago, we only want your side of the story.’ And then I open the paper and what do I see? Nothing! And I wonder, ‘Hey, what the hell happened to my side of the story?’ Other reporters and commentators take a shot at me, and they never even called for a comment. One [television reporter] tells me, ‘Louie, I got footage of a neighbor who says the crematory doesn’t bother her.’ I says, ‘Great,’ and that night, I’m watching the news, only the neighbor never comes on. So, I call the guy. I say, ‘Hey, what happened? Where’s the footage?’ He says, ‘Oh, Lou, there was something wrong with the tape.’ Can you believe that? Something wrong with the tape. I tell him, ‘Look, the least you could do was mention what the neighbor said, for Christ sakes.’

“But the clincher was the day I got a phone call from a friend who says, ‘Louie, you won’t believe this, but Paul Harvey just did a commentary on you,'” Rago recalls. “I said, ‘No.’ He says, ‘Louie, honest, I swear.’ And sure enough, Paul Harvey was on the air saying that I had made these old people smell burning flesh. It was crazy.”

“Louie tried to intimidate us,” says Dombrowski. “He tried to get a court injunction against our picketing. But the judge said we had First Amendment rights. It was beautiful; the whole community supported us. This is not a rich area, by any means. We had to really put our nickels and dimes together to raise money for a lawyer, and buses to take us to all the hearings.

“Even people from outside the community were with us. I remember this delivery man who was bringing flowers to Louie’s funeral parlor. He told us, ‘I won’t cross your picket line, if you don’t want me to.’ We let him cross. We weren’t trying to give the mourners grief, we were trying to give Louie grief.”

“It was horrible,” says Rago. “My two aunts live in an apartment upstairs from the funeral parlor. And with the picketers, they had to sneak out the back door to go to church.”

“It was brutal for a while,” Greco acknowledges. “They tried to bully us. We had slashed tires, threats, broken windows. But we didn’t crack.”

“That’s a bunch of baloney,” says an elderly resident who supports Rago and asks not to be identified. “A lot of people here back Louie. We’re the ones who are afraid. The others come to our houses with petitions and say, ‘Sign this.’ If you don’t, they say, ‘What, are you against the neighborhood?’ And then they’ll say, ‘Look out, we know who you are.'”

And so it went. Members of each side accuse the other of violence, extortion, and threatening phone calls in the middle of the night–all charges, by the way, are unsubstantiated and off the record (or, at the very least, not for attribution).

“If you print this story, I’ll deny it,” one participant declares, before going into a hilarious saga of how a politician offered to take his side for a shakedown of 25 grand.

Meanwhile, the case wound through the courts. An appellate court ordered the ZBA to reconsider the matter. And this time the ZBA decided in favor of the residents. The crematory, the ZBA ruled, would disrupt the environment by adding to the neighborhood’s traffic. Now it was Rago’s turn to rail against political clout.

“What traffic? There’s less traffic with the crematory, and I proved it,” says Rago. “But that doesn’t matter, I tell you, because the ZBA cracked. The heat was on. The politicians feared pressure from the public.

“And then it got worse. After the ZBA rules against me, I’m dragged into housing court. The judge says, ‘Get that oven out of your garage.’ I say, ‘Judge, it’s not that simple. I don’t know where to put it. This is one huge machine.’ He says, ‘I don’t care, get it out.’ I say, ‘Judge, it’s disconnected, it won’t bother anybody.’ And he says that its very presence is emotionally disturbing to the residents.

“Emotionally disturbing? That’s too much. It reminds me of a story about the lady who calls the cops and says, ‘There’s a man walking around naked in the apartment across the street.’ So a cop comes over, looks out her window, and says, ‘You can only see him from the waist up.’ And the lady says, ‘Yeah, but if you stand on the chair, you can see the whole thing.’ The point is that the people made it distressful for themselves.”

Rago’s pleading fell short. The judge found him in contempt of court and fined him $400 for every day that the crematory was not removed.

Soon some of Rago’s friends and advisers recommended that he give up. But Rago is stubborn. Besides, he felt he had one last chance. Mired in a morass of legal trouble, Wallace Davis lost his 1987 campaign for reelection. Sheneather Butler, a political novice, was the new alderman of the 27th Ward.

“I went to Butler and pleaded my case,” says Rago. “I didn’t know her from Adam. But she believed me.”

Last July, Butler quietly proposed that the city amend Davis’s 1984 ordinance, and allow crematories “within funeral parlors operated by duly licensed funeral directors.”

Butler would not comment, but earlier this year she told the Sun-Times her motives were not political.

“[Rago] has assured me that they will have proper facilities to prevent any inconveniences to the surrounding communities,” Butler said. “Funeral parlors are no different than any business and as long as they operate within the guidelines set by the city and the state, and get the proper licensing, they should be permitted to operate the crematoriums.”

The proposed ordinance was a concession of sorts for Rago. It would allow him to operate a crematory, but force him to move it from the garage to the funeral parlor.

“We didn’t even know about the ordinance until we read an article in the Sun-Times,” says Dombrowski. “It floored us. We couldn’t believe it. Why would Sheneather turn on us?”

PROS immediately looked for evidence of a political deal, but could find none. Rago had not contributed any money to Butler’s campaign. The group turned its attention to rousing public opinion.

“We collected 1,400 signatures to a petition opposing the ordinance,” says Olenczuk. “We got only city residents. We didn’t cheat. We didn’t have to. No one wants crematories.”

The petitions were delivered to Alderman Danny Davis, chairman of the City Council’s zoning committee, which was to hold hearings on Butler’s ordinance. Chairman Davis met with PROS, accompanied by, of all people, Wallace Davis, then awaiting trial. At that meeting, PROS awarded Wallace Davis a plaque, honoring him for his contributions to their cause.

“And then we went after Butler,” says Dombrowski. “Why not? We were so close, and then she comes out of nowhere to attack us. We were stunned. We wanted to know why she would do this. But she wouldn’t meet with us. She told us we had to come to her regular ward meeting; she wasn’t going to hold separate meetings for blacks and whites.”

So, PROS chartered a bus, and accompanied by a police escort, drove to Malcolm X College to meet with the alderman.

“You should have seen it. When we walked in, Butler’s mouth dropped. She couldn’t believe it. She made us sit there for over an hour,” says Dombrowski. “We sat and we sat and we sat. Some county commissioner was talking; he probably thought we were there to hear him, so he talked a little longer.”

Eventually, tempers flared. Several PROS members demanded to be recognized. Shouts rang out. Butler called for order. Dell’Aquila stood on her seat, and started shouting.

“I felt like a kid in class with my hand in the air,” says Dell’Aquila. “It was like I was yelling, ‘Teacher, Teacher, Teacher,’ only the teacher wouldn’t call on me.”

“All Sheneather would say is, ‘Louie needs a fair hearing, Louie needs a fair hearing,'” says Dombrowski. “It was chaos.”

But it also worked. In the face of so much opposition, Butler backed away from the ordinance, telling reporters that she had sponsored it only to engender debate.

On September 21, the council’s zoning committee met to debate the matter. Rago brought experts, who testified that crematories were clean, odor free, and relatively noiseless. Sammy Rayner, a former alderman and proprietor of several south-side funeral homes, also spoke on Rago’s behalf.

But the PROS members carried the day. Voices cracking with emotion, they described their fear and anxiety about the crematory. When the testimony was over, the zoning committee voted to recommend that the full council not approve Butler’s ordinance. Two days later, the City Council did just that. And Louie Rago’s dream for a crematory was dead.

A few hours later, a flatbed truck drove up to Rago Brothers and hauled the crematory away. PROS contends that Rago had the flatbed on hold, awaiting the zoning board’s opinion–an accusation that leaves Rago sputtering with anger.

“I defy anyone, I mean anyone, to get on the phone and find a flatbed truck and heavy-machinery mover within an hour,” Rago says. “It took us six days to find ours.”

For the moment, the crematory now rests on the back of that truck, parked in a lot somewhere in the western suburbs.

“The moral of this story is that you can fight City Hall and win,” says Dombrowski. No longer simply an employee of PROS, Dombrowski has been elected president of the group. “The feeling early on was that Rago would get his way. A lot of people were even scared to stand up for their rights. But we proved that if you push hard, and remain dedicated, you will prevail.”

As for Rago, he has conceded. Well, almost.

“Let’s see: I got a $27,000 crematory I can’t use. I got $7,000 in fines for storing an oven in my garage. I racked up about $15,000 in lawyer’s fees. And I figure I lost about $30,000 in business because I couldn’t operate the crematory even when I had it. And still I’m the heavy.

“I mean, I’m talking to this lady on the phone, right? I say, ‘Ma’am, do you think I’d do anything to hurt my two aunts?’ And she says, ‘I don’t know, how much do you like money?’

“Can you believe that? I mean, it’s me, Louie Rago, she’s talking about. I lived here my whole life. On the street, people see me face to face, they’re so guilty, they want to look away. ‘Louie,’ they say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ Yeah, sure. The hell with that. Everybody’s Pontius Pilate, washing their hands.

“OK, I lost. The only way I get my crematory is if the politicians get some guts and pass a new law. And that’s not going to happen, I know that.

“But I’m gonna fight that $7,000 fine. For the principle alone, I’ve got to appeal. I’d rather give the money to lawyers than lose it to the system on a Mickey Mouse charge.

“And I tell you this: I ain’t moving. My grandfather and my father put sweat and blood in this building. It reminds me of a line from The Magnificent Seven. You know that movie? I love that movie. Anyway, the Seven have just been run out of town, and one of them turns around. ‘Hey, where you goin’?’ the others ask. And the guy says: ‘Nobody throws me my gun, and tells me to leave.’

“Well, that’s the way it is with Louie Rago. No one’s gonna tell me to take my building and leave. I’m here to stay.”

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