From the monthly archives: "August 2014"


Sophie (left) and Liz on the last day of the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chester Madej.)

Sophie (left) and Liz on the last day of the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chester Madej.)

Sophie Madej was always let down when one of her regular Busy Bee customers left the Wicker Park neighborhood. She uplifted spirits while serving pierogis, sour cream spinach soup and potato pancakes between 1956 and 1998 at one of Chicago’s most famous diners.

Mrs. Madej died on Aug. 21 in her northwest side home. She was 86 years old.

The Busy Bee, 1546 N. Damen, was defined by a shoebox shaped diner counter and bright yellow walls you would find in your Grandmother’s kitchen.

Many customers sat on old  stools,  faced each other and sometimes yelled at each other across a service area at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Urban intimacy  is why the Busy Bee was a honey comb for everyone.

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington loved the Busy Bee’s oxtail stew, activist Abbie Hoffman recommended the budget conscious menu for anti-war protestors and the authentic Chicago vibe made the Busy Bee a photo-op for Hillary Clinton, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Dan Rostenkowski. At one time the Busy Bee sponsored a Damen Avenue bowling team and everyone along the counter read newspapers. That was a long time ago in heart and soul.

The famous Busy Bee counter

The famous Busy Bee counter (Photo by Dan M. Parker)

Mrs. Madej’s early years were directed by cruel winds, which is why she understood the importance of roots.

A native of Poland, Mrs. Madej was moved to Germany in 1943 under the Nazis forced labor laws. She met her husband Henry in 1947 (they divorced in 1985), where they remained until 1951 when Catholic Charities gave the couple $100 to sponsor their trip to America. The young couple came to America with two suitcases and two children. Henry worked on a cattle farm in Virginia for a year before they migrated to Chicago to settle in a larger Polish community. In 1955 Mrs. Madej found work at the Rose Packing House, originally at the Back of the Yards and later in Stickney.

“I worked on the slicing machine,” Mrs. Madej said in several conversations I had with her over the years. “We’d pack Canadian bacon and ham for the supermarkets. There were about 30 women in one room. They paid good, but I couldn’t take the cold anymore.” Mrs. Madej’s doctor told her to quit her job.

At the time Mrs. Madej was living at 18th and Damen in Pilsen. A friend told her that the Busy Bee was for sale. The Busy Bee had already been renamed from the Oak Room, which opened in 1913.


Exterior photo by Dan M. Parker

Mrs. Madej did not know how the Busy Bee got its name. She did not know anything about the restaurant business. She sold her house in Pilsen. With that money she bought the entire Busy Bee building in the early 1970s, a deal that included 16 upstairs apartments.

While all the action was at the front  counter, the Busy Bee also included a more sedate dining room north of the diner area. A favorite dining room tonic was the “Busy Bee Stinger” (brandy, white creme de menthe and a dash of krupnik, a Polish honey liqueur.). The bees began buzzing after a few of these drinks.

In the early years her work day began at 4 a..m. and ran until 10 p.m. Mrs. Madej  rode the Damen Avenue bus north from her home in Pilsen to Wicker Park. After the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, the Wicker Park area took a turn for the worse and her older children started picking Mrs. Madej up at night. During the riots someone threw a brick through the front window of the Busy Bee.

All her children: Elizabeth, Hank, Chester and Robert worked at the Busy Bee. “She worked very hard to make all her customers feel like family,” Chester wrote in a Saturday e-mail. “It was her heart that made it work. We all worked there, the grand kids, because it was all about Sophie. She did a lot for the Wicker Park neighborhood. That took a lot of guts, courage and personal pride to make it happen.”

Few people said, “Let’s go to the Busy Bee.”

More people said, “Let’s go to Sophie’s.”

I moved to Wicker Park in 1981, which is Jurassic Park in hipster years. I left in 1986 for Ukranian Village, and although I lived close to the Busy Bee, Mrs. Madej still would scold me for leaving the neighborhood. I remained a regular devotee of the handmade meat, cheese and potato pierogis which Mrs. Madej said was her mother’s recipe. During the Christmas season the Busy Bee would sell 1,000 pierogi a week. The dough was the power point. Mrs. Madej kneaded the dough, striking the exact balance of flour, eggs and water. This ensured that the dough would enclose the filling and not break open while being boiled.

Hillary Clinton at the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chet Madej)

Hillary Clinton at the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chet Madej)

In June, 1998 Mrs. Madej retired at age 70 and closed the Busy Bee .

Sophie was the last of a breed of old school female service industry entrepreneurs in Chicago that included Margie of Margie’s Candies, Phyllis of Phyllis’s Musical Inn and Marie of Marie’s Rip Tide Lounge. Shakespeare District cop William Jaconetti composed the prose for a historic plaque that community members put outside the restaurant, now the Blue Line Tap and Grill.

“Sophie is the pioneer of this neighborhood,” Jaconetti told me over lunch with Mrs. Madej. “They talk about community policing? It starts at a place like this. At tough times she was always here for the police. For every demonstration, for the Rolling Stones concert (at the Double Door across the street), she stayed open so the police would have somewhere to go. This didn’t happen because it was a business. She did something special. She opened the doors to everyone.”

Mrs. Madej had a triple bypass operation six months after selling the Busy Bee. She spent the rest of her life doting on her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Sophie with Chet Madej's daughter and her grandaughter on the grandaughter's 1st birthday on July 19

Sophie with Chet Madej’s daughter and her grand daughter on the grand daughter’s 1st birthday on July 19.

In 2003 I invited her back to her old place which was rebuilt as the Blue Line Tap. It was her first time in the building since she retired. She cried. “I spent my whole life here,” she said while sitting next to a jukebox stocked with Fatboy Slim and not Lil’ Wally.

I showed Mrs. Madej a copy of the book “The New Polish Cuisine,” written by former Chicago chef Michael J. Baruch. She was intrigued, especially by the angle that many Poles were vegetarians because of the abundance of religious holidays that required fasting.

In a subsequent interview Baruch called the Busy Bee “a very historical restaurant.” He elaborated, “The greatest lesson I learned from the Busy Bee was Polish peasant hospitality serving gourmet fare. Great chefs snuck in there. I was a sous chef at Le Francais, Jovan and Cafe Provencal and I’ve seen a lot of places close. It wasn’t until the Busy Bee closed that I saw people cry.”

The magic was simple at the Busy Bee.

“I often wondered what I got into,” she told me in 1990 over supper at the Bee. “I said, ‘Sophie, what did you do now?’ When I came in at six (a.m.) I used to do the register. Or at night I’d cook. When you’re here this much, people get to know you. Then they see you’re not a snob, but a plain working woman trying to make it….why that’s all it is.”

Besides her children, Mrs. Madej is survived by seven grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. Funeral mass is 10 a.m. Aug. 25 at St. Monica Church, 5115 N. Mont Clare.  She will be buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice.



Former NBA Commissioner David Stern (L) and Joe Lee (Courtesy of Charles E. Newman)

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern (L) and Joe Lee (Courtesy of Charles E. Newman)

Any passionate Chicago Bulls fan would recognize the forever young looking African-American passing out towels and soaking up blood, sweat and tears  behind the home bench. I saw this gentleman as a fan in the 1970s and he was in the house in 1990 when I covered the Bulls for the Chicago Sun-Times.

In the early 1990s I had a chance to talk to Joe Lee, who was the Bulls equipment man since the franchise’s birth in 1966.

Wanting to sit down with Joe Lee is what made me “different” in the eyes of some observers. Wink-wink.

But I learned about Mr. Lee’s gentle soul and his love for music that went beyond doing post-game laundry with equipment manager Johnny Ligmanowski.

Mr. Lee died on Aug. 4, three days before  his 78th birthday. He had been battling declining  health.

During the 1990s Mr. Lee worked for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation. He had been a groundskeeper for the Chicago Park District. Mr. Lee was also a part-time mobile disc jockey known as “The Golden Lion” and worked all Bulls home games. “He hurled garbage during the day and comforted Michael Jordan in the evenings,” his cousin Charles E. Newman wrote me on Aug. 12, the day of Mr. Lee’s memorial service.

Music was the great common denominator for Mr. Lee.

Joe Lee 2

In an early 1990s conversation he told me he made a mix tape of Motown and jazz-organ music of Jimmy Smith for Bill Cartwright. Michael Jordan received a contemporary rhythm and blues tape featuring Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle. He made a rap tape for Scottie Pippen.

A few days before I visited his home, Mr. Lee had spun records at a Bobby “Blue” Bland-Johnnie Taylor concert at the Sabre Room in suburban Hickory Hills. He loved James Brown and the JB’s and included the Godfather of Soul in many of his mix tapes.

Mr. Lee lived on the south side. His basement was jam packed with stereo equipment, blues and jazz records and speakers. An upstairs room was devoted to Bulls memorabilia: a couple of sets of gym shoes that were gifts from Jordan, his championship rings and five handmade cardboard scrapbook posters that traced back to the beginning of the Bulls franchise.

Mr. Lee was a fan, no doubt about it. He showed me snapshots of ex-Bulls Jerry Sloan, Randy Ayres, draft bust Tate Armstrong and even the original Super Fan who ran circles around the Chicago Stadium.

“I know I’m not one of the superstars,” he told me in soft tones. “I may not always know how to express it, but I’ m very thankful. When the Bulls won their 1,000th (franchise) game Scottie Pippen gave me his (game) shoes. He said, ‘They’re yours homeboy’.” Pippen is from Arkansas.

Mr. Lee was born in 1936 in Clarendon, Ark.

He was adopted as an infant to Frank and Viola Lee. His father died when he was four years old. Mr. Lee is survived by his long time companion Lorraine Williams,  a son Darnell, two grandchildren and several cousins.

No modern day figure spent more time involved with professional basketball in Chicago than Mr. Lee.

His hoops career began in the 1962-63 season for the now-defunct Chicago Zephyrs. He actually was a ball boy who retrieved loose basketballs in the stands. “The Zephyrs played at the Chicago Coliseum where there was a heat problem,” he told me. “I had to go downstairs two to three days before game day and fill up the radiators with pails of water to keep the building warm. And the players all had the same shower. I remember how (Walt Bellamy and others) had to yell out who would shower first before the hot water ran out.”

In the summer of 1966 original Bulls owner Dick Klein announced formation of the team. Mr. Lee wrote Klein a letter and became the Bulls’ first hire. Two weeks later Klein hired his head coach, the late great John “Red” Kerr.


There were no Bulls players at Mr. Lee’s memorial service at the W.W. Holt Funeral Home in Harvey, Ill. Newman reported “four or five” front office members attended and the Bulls organization sent a framed Bulls jersey with “No. 48, Joe Lee,” honoring the years he served the team.

One of Mr. Lee’s favorite songs, the Tamela Mann contemporary gospel ballad “Take Me To The King” was played at the service.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau sent roses and the Bulls also sent a floral arrangement of white roses and lilies. “Joe loved roses,” Newman said of a golden lion who could tame the giants.

Courtesy of Charles E. Newman

Courtesy of Charles E. Newman







CHARLESTON, S.C.–Only by traveling do you discover where you belong.

I have been down that road a couple times this summer, whether it was dancing to Beach Music in the sand of North Myrtle Beach, S.C. or just taking a memory trip under a full moon to the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.

But a lasting image of the summer of 2014 is seeing my friend Mike Veeck addressing the Charleston River Dogs fans after “Disco Demolition 2” at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park in Charleston, S.C.

Besides Veeck, I would argue I am the only other person who has attended both Disco Demolitions. The July 19 event involved blowing up Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus records in a large hand crafted boom box that was placed at second base after the game. And this was not a double header like the July 12, 1979 smack down at Comiskey Park in Chicago that forced the forfeit of the second game against the Detroit Tigers.


“Disco Demolition 2: You Better Belieb It” was a sell-out with 6,259 fans filling the house for the Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees. Veeck told me before the game that fans and not the front office had requested a second Disco Demolition. There was a tounge-in-cheek (sorry Miley) sense of anticipation after the game as the River Dogs showed Chicago television news footage of the Comiskey event on the center field video screen. A handful of players from the visiting Augusta Green Jackets watched from the dugout. I was amused by the four Charleston policemen who lined the field in case of a “riot” or something.


Nothing happened.

But something happened within Veeck’s words.

He sincerely thanked the Charleston fans for understanding his whims and making him feel like he belonged since he arrived in Charleston in 1996.

Besides being promotions director for the White Sox in 1979, Veeck has been involved with minor league teams in Butte, Mt., Fort Myers, Fla., St. Paul, Mn., the minor league version of Miami Miracle (one of the first teams he co-owned with Chicago Cubs fan Bill Murray) and a short lived stint with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays where he marketed a Lawyer Appreciation Night in which attorneys were charged double for admission.

I’ve talked to Veeck on and off over the past 25 years and I know of his challenges in growing up under the shadow of his Baseball Hall of  Famer father Bill Veeck, former White Sox owner.

Veeck’s words of belonging resonated with me. I was driving around the south this summer working on my next book. I had conveniently put Charleston on my agenda to fetch a Bill Veeck “Bobble Leg” doll, which  was the main hook of the July 19 game.  Bill Veeck would have turned 100 on Feb. 9. I also needed to do a follow-up interview in Charleston.


It was my second trip to Charleston this baseball season. The first visit was on May 29 and I was just embarking on a  reaffirmation of fun and spirit after leaving my job of 29 years.

Veeck is something of a guru for me.

I keep a copy of his business book “Fun Is Good (How to Create Joy &  Passion in Your Workplace and Career) ” [With Pete Williams, 2005   Rodale Press] next to my desk–right next his father’s “Veeck as in Wreck.” I live by some of these ideas.

Mike Veeck writes that when you maintain a childlike curiosity you develop a  mental edge. For example, when his father was a consultant for National Bohemian Breweries he was curious why beer didn’t come in square cans.

Bill Veeck, a fine beer drinker, maintained you could get 25 per cent more beer in a milk-carton shaped beer can. He was told the idea wouldn’t work because square cans couldn’t roll down conveyer belts.

But Veeck never stopped being curious.

This is what I was worried about in late May, just a few days before my birthday. Where did I belong? Can you learn fun? I was curious to find answers.

“Absoutely,” Veeck answered. “You can learn fun. You have to have plans. And you have to arrange the plans. The best things I’ve found  are unannounced things. Unannounced time off. And change something in the office every week and see who notices it. You gotta have kids day.  Hang real art that touches people, not something some guy bought because his job is procurement. Hospital workers and education administrators–not teachers–used ‘Fun is Good’  People who get  stretched. Police forces.”

Riley Park is on a peninsula west of downtown Charleston near the banks of the Ashley River. The stadium features a “Shoeless Joe’s Hill” on a berm in the far right field corner. The section honors former Chicago  White Sox “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. “They gotta put him in the Hall of  Fame,” Veeck said as he looked out at the corner. “He’s a South Carolinian. He wasn’t smart enough to be in on the (Black Sox) fix.”

A Cubs fan (left) and a White Sox fan (right). Photo by Libby Veeck

A Cubs fan (left) and a White Sox fan (right). Photo by Libby Veeck


Veeck said the Cubs invited him to represent the Veeck family at a 100th Wrigley Field Anniversary event this season. “You know for the  first time I’m worried about my reputation!,” he cracked. As of Aug. 11  there’s been no word of honoring the Veeck family at Wrigley Field,  even though it was Bill Veeck who came up with the idea of planting ivy on the outfield walls. His father William Veeck, Sr. was president of  the Cubs from 1919 until his death in 1933.

Veeck is also worried about the future of baseball.

“Pitch counts are killing the game,” he said in May, before Cubs manager Ricky Renteria went nuclear with his drawn out replay appeals.  “I hate them. But for the first time people from the major leagues are zeroing in on the minor leagues. When you and I first met what used to be  ‘bush’ suddenly is if they can monetize it they love it. They’re moving  men and women up from the minor league front offices into the major leagues. That’s their effort to relate to kids marketing. Look around. You can see how much younger it is here. These kids all flip baseballs  into the stand and sign autographs. If you have 40 Derek Jeters,  baseball is in much better shape. Access, access. You gotta get that ball in the hands of a 7-year-old.

“Then you have a fan for life.”

Besides Charleston, Veeck is involved in ownership with the Hudson Valley Renegades (a Tampa Bay affiliate) and the independent league  River City Rascals near St. Louis, the Normal Corn Belters near  Bloomington, Il. and the St. Paul (Mn.) Saints. “The Replacements are  playing Sept. 13 at our stadium in St. Paul,” he said. “They sold out in 10 minutes.” Remember, it was Veeck who came up with the then-unprecedented idea of the Bob Dylan-Willie Nelson 22-city 2004 minor league baseball stadium tour that he took to Jam Productions in  Chicago.

I did pitch the “World’s Largest Shag Dance” to Veeck for his South Carolina ballpark. He hasn’t got back to me yet.

Here is an example of Shag dancing to Beach Music in the Carolinas:

There were more than 6,000 fans at the May game in Charleston due to a “Thirsty Thursday” dollar beer promotion. “I’m so excited,” Veeck said. “This is the biggest crowd we’ve had since the last week of last year.”

The River Dogs had partnered with Palmetto Brewery in Charleston to serve the limited edition Homefront IPA—a pale ale  brewed with oranges and aged with Louisville Slugger baseball bats! Since I drove to Charleston last month I was able to bring home a couple of remaining six packs I found at a place called Bottles in Mount Pleasant, across the river from Charleston.

Of course I was curious.

Hack Wilson, 1930, my favorite beer drinking Cub.

Hack Wilson, 1930, my favorite beer drinking Cub.

I found out the brewmaster is former Seattle Mariners/Baltimore Orioles pitcher Chris Ray. While he was pitching for Seattle in 2011 he approached Fremont Brewing in Seattle. Ray created a recipe where unused maple bats are added to conditioning tanks as part of the beer’s conditioning process. Ray retired in 2012 and along with his brother now owns and operates the Center of the Universe Brewing in Ashland, Va.

When Homefront IPA hit the streets in May, 100 per cent of proceeds benefited Operation Homefront, which provides emergency financial assistance and other needs to family members of wounded warriors and other service personnel. The effort, called “Hops for Heroes” expected to raise more than $200,000 through 800 limited edition barrels brewed by 11 breweries across America.

Veeck said he is working on another book, “Another Boring Derivative Piece of Crap Business Book.” He smiled at his full stadium and said, “That’s the name of it. It’s stories. People talk about Millennials and especially guys my age (63), talk about them in condesending terms. I’m going to tell you these kids are smarter than I ever thought of being. And fun resonates with them. I was at a seminar at Wichita State last week. People are, ‘Why are you so pro-Millennial?’ I answered, ‘Very simple. They watched their fathers and mothers lose their farms. Have their 401 k depleted. And we were just sorting tickets with two 21 year old interns. One of the young women said, ‘I’m having a blast doing this.’ That’s not the way people usually feel about internships. The guys in my generation should be worshiping at their temples instead of ‘Fun? Why do I want to have fun?’

“Because it is over in a blink of an eye.”

I’ll be dishing  Cubs-White Sox in a gallery talk at 4 p.m. Aug., 15  at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, 120 E. Park Ave. in downtown Elmhurst. The free talk is in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibit, “Sox V.S. Cubs: The Chicago Civil Wars.”  I will try to explain how even though my first major league game was at Old Comiskey Park, I became a Cubs fan.