Irish American News column March 2016

Lattner leads the parade
photo by Dean Battaglia

Hooliganism

By

Mike Houlihan

He flirted with Marilyn Monroe.

Graced the cover of Time Magazine.

And went to early morning mass every day.

John Joseph Lattner. Sure you know him as 1953 Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Lattner. But of course he was much more than that.

One of the great pleasures of my life was interviewing Johnny for my St. Patrick’s Day Diary in the Sun-Times back in 2003. He’s also featured in my film, “Our Irish Cousins”, leading the parade with the banner of St. Patrick. He’d been leading Chicago’s Irish since 1965.

Johnny died February 13th, a few months after his 83rd birthday.

Like everybody who ever met Johnny, I never forgot him. And unbelievably, he never forgot me. He welcomed everybody into his world, like an old friend who knew you when.

Back when I lived in St. Luke parish, I would kneel just a couple pews behind Johnny at 6:30AM mass. He always reached back to put the kneeler down on the pew behind him, to give his legs room to stretch. I looked forward to shaking his hand for the “sign of peace” and hearing him say “Hiya Mike.”

He always seemed glad to see me.

Terry Hanson posted news of Johnny’s death early that morning.

I rummaged around and discovered the old audio tape from our interview. Started listening to it and knew I had struck gold.

My sons Bill and Paddy had both tended bar and waited on Johnny for years at Kevil’s in Forest Park. They told me, “He was terrific, a great tipper.”

John would know about that, having owned a saloon himself.

Paddy and I went to his wake at Fenwick, lucky to be late because thousands had streamed through before us to pay respects. We ran into Charlie and Linda Carey in the crowd and exchanged Lattner stories. Everybody has one.

Got to the funeral at St. Vincent’s and it was packed, not a seat in the church, except for the one Mark Vanecko saved for me. It was a magnificent send-off to a favorite son of Chicago put on by the Friars, Johnny’s eight kids, and 26 grandchildren.

And then last night I listened to the tape. Suddenly it was just me and Lattner, just shooting the bull as he unspooled the stories of his life, each one better than the other.

“I was born in Oak Park hospital…my dad wasn’t workin’…we lost the apartment in Forest Park and had to move to Chicago…St. Thomas Aquinas parish, in an apartment at Madison and Lavergne…my brother Bill had a restaurant in Forest Park, called ‘Two Bills’, it’s O’Sullivan’s now…met my wife Peg, she went to Trinity, a buddy of mine was dating her girlfriend…I said to him on my 16th birthday, I said, listen I’d like to get a date with that Peggy McAllister…we didn’t get married til ’58…Two T’s in Lattner, it’s Renttal spelled backwards…it’s German…they think I’m Irish! My mother was Irish, so I’m half Irish…my dad was a machinist and he moved here after World War One, got married to my mother…they had a little corner grocery store …right across from Garfield Park…and he used to repair slot machines…in those days the Marlboro Theater at Madison and Karlov used to telecast the Notre Dame games…all the West Side would go to the games, people used to say it was like goin’ to the Notre Dame game, it was great…my dad died in freshman year…”

Listening to his voice on the tape, just a kid from the West Side who’d never left really. He spoke with pride of all his kids. Still hanging out with his old pals at Healy’s, Doc Ryan’s, Kevils, loved the “Has-Been” luncheons at Hawthorne, and the Como Inn, listening to Ziggy Czarobski sing at the bar.

What’s your message for St. Patrick’s Day?

“Have a good time, it’s legitimately the only time a good Irishman can get a load on without feelin’ guilty.”

As I was leaving, I asked for his autograph, sign it to my sons Bill and Paddy. He wrote, “To a great set of twins, good luck!”

I wisecracked, that’s what I told Jayne Mansfield.

His face lit up. “I should tell ya the story about when I met Marilyn Monroe.

I was a sophomore; we were playing the University of Southern Cal out there.

We went over to RKO Studio after practice, Friday, and we met Marilyn, she was filming this picture called ‘Clash by Night’, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, they were all in it… for two hours we talked to her like I’m talking to you Mike, back and forth bs, she says I’ll drive you back, there were six of us, but before that she says do you want my autograph? We all would love it Marilyn. What should I say on it? uh to John, thanks for that wonderful night we had together, love and kisses, with her phone number, … She was a nice lady, just a nice lady.”

Not as nice as you John Lattner. God rest your lovely soul.