Family stories: They met in the bargain basement

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff and that’s fine with me.

My parents met in the bargain basement of Goldblatt’s department store on State Street in downtown Chicago. They did, really.

My father in his younger days. The pipe may be hereditary.

My father in his younger days. The pipe may be hereditary.

Allan McClure, my father, arrived in Chicago from his hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, in the late 1930s to study voice at (probably) the American Conservatory of Music in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. He lived at the downtown YMCA at 820 S. Wabash Ave., where he shared a room with an aspiring artist, Charles Banks Wilson, who was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago: a little like a Chicago-Depression version of La Boheme.

Wilson later became famous for works depicting American Indians. I have a lithograph of an elderly Indian for which Wilson used my father’s hand as a model. The button on the Indian’s overall is inscribed “McClure.”

Dad had a scholarship but had to support himself. He told me his father would have contributed to his education if he had chosen to study a respectable profession such as law or medicine, but if he wanted to become an opera singer he was on his own. So he worked at a variety of odd jobs, including working as a longshoreman on Chicago River barges.

My mother, Vilma Gasperik, applied for a job as a telephone operator after she graduated from high school but was rejected because she was too tall. (The Bell System’s approach to ergonomics in those days was to hire operators to fit the switchboards instead of vice versa.) She wound up working at the day-old bakery counter in Goldblatt’s basement, where discounted bakery goods were popular during the depression.

My father also worked at Goldblatt’s demonstrating electric shavers: a job for which he was suited because he had a heavy beard and could shave several times a day. Among other things, they had a common interest in music: My father sang and my mother played the piano.

My folks came from different backgrounds. My father had to assure his parents that my mother was not Catholic even though her family came from Europe. And my mother’s folks wanted to know whether my father was part Negro because he came from the South. They were married at City Hall August 22, 1941.

When they were first married my parents lived with my grandmother on the South Side, and moved to an apartment on the West Side before I was born two years later. By that time my father had abandoned his opera career and was working as a machinist. He said he had been offered a scholarship to study opera in Italy but World War II intervened.

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