John "Fred" Speck, Jr. was not big on social media.
If he had something to say about Merle Haggard, politics, or his beloved Chicago Cubs, he would pick up a phone and make his declarations loud and clear. He was a maverick street attorney.
Fred was big in so many ways, including a heart that gave out in late November.
Pat Embry, a college friend of Fred's who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., asked me to check on Fred Thursday night.
I drove to Fred's apartment, within walking distance of Wrigley Field. I found a couple weeks worth of unopened mail--including the Sports Illustrated that announced LeBron James as Sportsman of the Year. Fred would have something to say about that. I met Fred's neighbors and asked them to knock on his door. No answer. They heard a television set from within his apartment........
.....I called 311 and found a friend in dispatcher Mike Kessler. Catholic Charities did a wellness check with the Chicago police.
Fred had been dead about a week. He had a heart attack. Fred was 57 years old.
It's troubling that as the world becomes more connected, the darkness of loneliness becomes deeper.
Fred had hundreds of friends in the Wrigley Field bleachers. He was a force of good nature. He stood about 6'4" and and weighed around 210 in his playing days.
For 20 years in a row he hosted opening day baseball parties, serving hot dogs, chili, potato salad and beer first at his apartment and later at Guthrie's, 1300 W. Addison. He was featured in a September, 2008 Sports Illustrated cover story on Cubs fans, written by Gary Smith. After the story appeared, Fred kept a running correspondence with Smith.
"I've been all over the world," Fred told Smith. "I've scuba-dived the Great Barrier Reef and motorcycled the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, and yes, they're both beautiful. But I realized when I first came here 45 years ago that this ballpark on a sunny day was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen, and that it still is today....Winning or losing stopped making me happy or sad years ago.
"I just love being here."
Fred was born in northwest suburban Barrington, but he was a true Chicago character.
He almost always wore Hawaiian shirts. He never married but he wanted a girl friend. Fred lost his right leg to diabetes around 2005 and then tooled around on a cane and random Wrigleyville rickshaws. He was a regular at the Italian Village, the oldest restaurant in the Loop. [Fred would agree the union busting Berghoff does not count anymore in terms of Chicago's legacy joints. ]Fred loved bartender Vinny Masini who has been at the Italian Village for 54 years.
Fred knew a good story.
"Freddy always tried to have fun," Masini said Friday. "He loved the Cubs. A little bit on the loud side, but a good guy. Every year he would say this is the Cubs year. Every year."
The popular Chicago roots-rock singer Mike Jordan had his early 1990s wedding reception at FitzGerald's in Berwyn. Fred got on stage in a robin egg blue tux and sang the theme from "The Love Boat."
"It was a scream," club owner Bill FitzGerald said on Friday. "Fred had that unbridled enthusiasm. Mike Jordan exemplified what he felt was the true spirit of rock n' roll. Fred was always waiting for the grand slam, the spectacle of life. That's why people loved him."
Fred obtained a journalism degree in 1977 from the University of Illinois. During his junior year he was sports editor of the Daily Illini. After graduation, he drove a UPS truck for a year before entering law school at DePaul University in Chicago.
Embry is former entertainment editor of The Tennessean and former executive editor of the Nashville Banner. Fred mentored Embry at the Daily Illini when Embry joined the sports deparment in 1975. "I go into his office and he's eating a hot fudge sundae," Embry said. "He goes, 'You want to write, huh? Name all the Rolling Stones.' So I rip off all the names of the Rolling Stones and he says. 'You're in'."
Embry remembered when Fred took a baseball vacation to Mexico during the height of "Fernandomania." "Fred runs into (National League President) Bill White in the hotel lobby and starts chatting him up," Embry recalled. "He regularly dashed off letters to (baseball commissioner) Bud Selig and occasionally get a response. He was like a big, exuberant kid. If he liked it, he really liked it."
I have a truckload of Fred memories.
On Sept. 28, 2000 we attended the final game at County Stadium in Milwaukee. After the game many of the old Milwaukee Braves strolled onto the field. Former Braves--and Cubs--hurler Bob Buhl was in frail condition and was brought to the pitcher's mound in a cart. The lights above the 48-year-old stadium were turned off, one by one, in a measured fashion.
Milwaukee Brewers announcer Bob Uecker said in part, "..It's time to say goodbye. We will never forget you, for what was will always be. So long old friend and good night..."
I looked at Fred.
He had a tear streaming down from his right eye.
For the next 12 baseball seasons I would listen to Fred recite the end of Uecker's speech. I never got tired of hearing it.
I last saw Fred on the final day of the miserable 2012 Cubs season.
He was sitting at his favorite corner at the end of the bar at Trace on North Clark Street. He liked to sit by the light of the window.
Fred wore a Hawaiian shirt. Fun loving rasta vendor Bob Shaw bought us all a round of shots. Fred, as he was known to do, bellowed out GOLLLD SCHLAGER!" I hugged Fred and told him I loved him.
A few minutes later about 12 members of the Cubs front office staff walked into Trace. The posse included Crane Kenney and Theo Epstein. They looked more like a casting call for GQ than the rumpled baseball figures Fred and I admired, guys like Bill Veeck and Branch Rickey. Cubs manager Dale Sveum then strolled in wearing his grimey Cubs jersey and sandals. This was far more interesting to Fred than the front office people.
He got up off his bar stool, hobbled over to Sveum and shook his hand. Fred wished him the best of luck for next season. He had already planned his two-week sojourn to Spring Training, 2013.
Fred returned to his friends by the light at the corner of the bar.
I think it was Saint Jerome who said, "The friendship that can cease has never been real."
Fred lived full tilt, two tires and a dusty windshield burning down a dirt road. I will miss him.
Could this lonely ending have been prevented with more phone calls, a stop by the house, or more personal touch than an e-mail? Part of Fred's legacy is for me to retain that sense of wonder with those around me. Fred was a loud guy who in the end taught me how to be a better listener.
So long old friend, and good night.
Fred Speck was preceded in death by his parents. He is survived by older sisters Sarah, Martha and Beth. A memorial service is planned, likely around the beginning of the year .
And for sure there will be an opening day celebration of Fred's life.