How I Got A Peek At The Pope

Nov 16, 2018

Honestly, I can't think of any other profession I could have chosen that would have put me in the middle of so many unlikely places and so many historic events.

I can think about this now that I am old and gray, but, in October 1979, at the age of 26, standing in a vast crowd of people in Chicago's Grant Park – a crowd of at least one million human souls jammed between the shores of Lake Michigan and the steel-and-concrete skyscrapers of downtown – I had a different perspective.

They had all come to see the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, who, a year before, was elevated to St. Peter's Throne and took the name of Pope John Paul II. Nine years after his death in 2005, he was canonized by the church as Saint John Paul.

He said Mass on Oct. 5, 1979 for the incredible throng in Grant Park and delivered a homily that I remember still for a message that rings true even all these years later.

The Pope from Poland, who would visit 129 countries before his papacy ended with his death in April 2005, had chosen Chicago for one of his early overseas visits. In a true melting pot of a city, people of Polish ancestry make up the largest ethnic group in Chicago.  

I was a reporter from a tiny daily newspaper in Troy, Ohio, a newspaper whose readers would have made up about one percent of the Grant Park crowd.

I just thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

It was my first trip to Chicago and it was where this kid of Scots-Irish ancestry from Dayton, Ohio, learned to love kielbasa and pierogies.

But, more importantly, it was the place where I saw the Holy Father of the Roman Catholic church, a successor of St. Peter, pray for me and millions of others of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

Something I am not likely to ever see again. Something that is truly unforgettable.

So how does a young reporter for a tiny newspaper, a kid raised in the Methodist Church, end up in the presence of a man whose full title is Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State and Servant of the servants of God?

Well, what you do is you ask.

There had been talk of Pope John Paul II coming to America for several months. His first overseas trip was to Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Then, in June, he made history with a visit to his homeland, Poland, which was still under communist control.

As the cardinal from Krakow, Wojtyla had visited Chicago in 1976, where he met Chicago's long-time political boss, Mayor Richard Daley, and prayed in some of the area's Polish parish churches.

But, in August, when the plans for an October visit to Chicago were announced by the Vatican, that upped the game for Chicago considerably. This was as big as it got.

In late summer, the notion struck me that the Troy Daily News should be covering this papal visit to Chicago.

Specifically, I should be covering the papal visit.

After all, the Troy Daily News was a little newspaper that apparently had no idea that it was little; they spent money on travel all over the country.

This was a side benefit of working for a small-town newspaper that couldn't pay me (or anyone else) a boatload of money – although they did give us an extra week's pay at Christmas as a holiday bonus.

But it was no place to build a sizeable retirement fund (although, in those days, I always seemed to have some money in my pocket).

The good news was the newspaper was owned by an eccentric local millionaire for whom the Troy Daily News was his favorite toy. He would spend money on all the bells and whistles (which did not include salaries) like a drunken sailor.

For years after I left Troy and came to Cincinnati, I always advised young journalists coming out of college that if they ended up working for a small-town newspaper, make sure it was not one owned by some soulless media conglomerate.

Check it out first, I would say. Make sure there is an eccentric millionaire who owns the paper. And make sure he lives in town, where everyone will notice how much money he spends on his precious newspaper.

In August 1979, I had been at the Troy Daily News for two years, and I knew exactly how it worked.

I went to the editor, Jim Morris, and gave it to him straight.

How 'bout we go up to Chicago in August and cover the Pope?, I said, as casually as if I were saying How 'bout I go to Casstown tonight and cover the board of education meeting?

What do you mean, 'we'?, Jim said.

Well, not exactly you and me. I mean me. And a photographer. For two or three days. It will be great.

He rolled his eyes. I knew the look: Here he goes again.

But he knew I had a reputation for always delivering the goods when I would come up with some nutty scheme. He told me to give him a price estimate and he'd run it upstairs to the publisher.

I low-balled everything. The photographer and I would drive up to Chicago and get paid a measly mileage reimbursement. I quickly found that nearly every hotel and motel room in Chicago has been gobbled up, so I found a cheap motel on the far Southside of Chicago that was near the train line. It turned out to be cheap in more ways than one.

I figured that we would be on the move all day, every day, so I planned on us dining on Polish sausages from street vendors and, maybe, once or twice, a deep-dish pizza.

A few days later, I brought Jim a number for me and a photographer; he checked with the publisher and, very soon, I got the verdict: Book it.

I did just that. Immediately.

The photographer, Craig Ulrich, and I took off on Oct. 3 (I can't remember whose car we took), bound for Chicagoland. The pope was in Philadelphia that day, and was to go to a farm near Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 4 before arriving in Chicago that night.

It gave us a whole day to soak up the atmosphere in the city – the excitement was palpable among the Polish and non-Polish; Catholics and non-Catholics.

This man from Poland had totally captivated the city. Even before he arrived, his presence was everywhere on the streets of downtown Chicago.

Countless entrepreneurial types had decided an occasion like this was a good way to make a buck and started producing countless souvenirs to sell on the streets.

The souvenir hawkers had clearly never taken a vow of poverty.

Credit John Kiesewetter / WVXU

Walking the streets of downtown Chicago, we found an incredible array of souvenirs, many of which we bought. There were buttons of all kinds (the ones with the date and location of the Papal visit were most sought after by collectors), coffee mugs galore, china plates with the smiling Pope's visage, baseball caps, tote bags, pennants and one of the most popular items (and my personal favorite), the Pope-o-Scope.

The Pope-o-Scope was a two-mirrored periscope that was meant to be used in the massive crowd expected the next day in Grant Park. It was emblazoned with the Pope's image, delivering a blessing and the legend, I Got A Peek At The Pope.

I tell ya, you never gonna see the Holy Father without the Pope-o-Scope, a vendor with a thick Polish accent told me. Without the Pope-o-Scope, he's gonna look like a tiny ant up there. This is essential Pope gear!

And a bargain at $5 a pop.

We had press credentials for the Grant Park mass. Craig was going to use his to get up close for good photos of both the Pope and the massive crowd. I decided not to stay in the media pen and mix it up with the crowd, where I could talk to the faithful and experience it the way they did.

The city of Chicago had its hands full preparing for the Grant Park event. Mayor Jane Byrne, who had taken over the reins of city government just a few months earlier, was struggling to meet tight deadlines on getting the city ready for such a massive event. 

Preparations fell way behind schedule. In mid-September, no one knew exactly how big the crowd would be; there was no real plan for traffic management in a city where traffic is always a major headache; and there was some concern that the Grant Park underground garage roof wouldn't support a crowd of one million or more, with horrific visions of the whole thing caving in under the gaze of the Pope.

Then there were the porta potties. Even in America's "Second City," there were not enough portable toilets to handle a crowd that big.

But on the morning of Oct. 5, everything seemed to be in place.

The Pope spent the morning traveling around Chicago in an open-top limo, stopping at Polish parish churches where he was meet by hundreds of thousands of well-wishers.

The then-59-year-old Pontiff was an unstoppable force – he hugged babies; he blessed the ill; and shook hands with countless people wherever he went.

In the morning, as the Pope was making the rounds, the crowd was gathering in Grant Park. People from various ethnic groups were dressed up in colorful costumes and played music.

Everyone, it seemed – including me – had a Pope-o-Scope.

There were well over one million in the park by the time the Pope arrived at 3:30 p.m., about half an hour late. The cheer that spread from one end of Grant Park to the other was deafening.

I was standing about midway through the crowd, next to Cecilia Olkowski, a 53-year-old Polish woman, as the Pope appeared in the distance, near the altar.

The great man of this age, a man of love and peace, Olkowski said, I believe he will be a saint someday.

Of course, she was right.

The crowd, as large as it was, listened quietly during the Mass. Near the end, though, a million voices sang Amazing Grace as the Pope sat in his chair, his eyes closed and his fingertips touching his lips, a man in deep contemplation.

But it was in his homily that he spoke some words of love that have stuck with me over the years and are as meaningful today as they were in 1979 – actually more so: 

Let love then build the bridge across our differences and at times our contrasting positions. Let love for each other and love for truth be the answer to polarization.

Then, the million or so of us wandered off into the Chicago dusk, each carrying his or her own memories of being in the presence of the man who thought of himself as a simple parish priest in Krakow.

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.