A Postal Theft, Two Vaudeville Actors, an Unsolved Murder, a Little Girl, and The Best Thing That Ever Happened!
Andrew Pokorny was born on October 20, 1912 in Chicago to Branislav Pokorny and Maria Tesar, both of whom were immigrants from Slovakia. Andrew is not sure whether his parents met and married in Slovakia or if they met here, but he remembers his father working as a coppersmith. His mother was a housewife and cared for their three children: Andrew, Danka and Martina.
The Pokornys lived in various apartments on Chicago’s north side and never did own their own home. Andrew went to school until the seventh grade and then began working. He jumped from job to job, mostly in factories or sometimes as a delivery boy. Though he had quit school early, he was clever, and he eventually found himself working at the post office in the mail room. This was a job Andrew really enjoyed, and he was proud to have it. His goal was to eventually be promoted to mail carrier, so he worked hard and tried to learn as much as he could.
On his days off, Andrew was fond of riding his bicycle around the city and in some of the city’s bigger parks, like Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas. One day, as he was riding through Garfield Park, he came upon a young woman sitting on a bench knitting. He stopped to ask her name, and they began talking. From there they began dating, and a year later, Andrew and Elizabeth Newman were married. Andrew had been raised Lutheran, and Elizabeth was Catholic, so Andrew converted to Catholicism for the wedding. He took it seriously, though, and remained devoutly Catholic his whole life. Elizabeth worked at Marshall Fields behind the cosmetics counter, with the understanding that when she became pregnant, she would quit to stay home and be a housewife. Sadly for both of them, however, they were never able to have children.
When they eventually realized that they were probably not going to have a family, Andrew and Elizabeth tried instead to get involved in their parish and joined various bowling leagues over the years. They also loved going to the movies and baseball games. Neither of them, it seemed, liked the idea of traveling.
Things stayed this way for about ten years and may have continued as such had a crisis not occurred at Andrew’s place of work, which was still the post office. Unbeknownst to Andrew, his best friend at work, a man by the name of John Davis, had been stealing mail for years. He was finally caught and arrested, and Andrew, by association, was suspected as well and was fired pending an investigation. John Davis ended up going to jail, while Andrew was cleared of any wrong-doing. He permanently lost his job, though, and thus his hopes of a career in the postal service.
Andrew began drinking heavily to deal with his grief over losing his job and could not seem to find another. After a couple of years of this, Elizabeth announced that she was divorcing him. She had run into an old boyfriend, she said, and was leaving Andrew for him. Andrew begged her not to go, but she eventually moved out of the apartment, remarried, and went to live with her new husband in Wisconsin.
With no job and no money, Andrew was forced to leave the apartment, too, and moved into a cheap motel. His sister, Danka, had died of cancer several years before, and he had been estranged from Martina from a young age. “We never got along,” Andrew says and lost touch with her when they were in their twenties. Even now, he has no idea where she is or if she is even alive. Thus, at the time of his divorce, he was very alone and really had nobody. He had lost his best friend, his job, his wife, and all of his immediate family. He got odd jobs here and there, enough to buy cigarettes and alcohol with, but not much more.
Andrew was eventually befriended by his next-door neighbors at the motel, a couple called Leo and Nellie, who claimed they had once been vaudeville entertainers and that they still made most of their money by acting or performing in various travelling shows. Andrew had never met anyone like them and was amazed by their talents. He loved it when they showed him magic tricks or did their juggling routine for him, and he especially took a shine to their little daughter, Josephine, or “Josie.”
Over the next several years, Andrew got to know his neighbors well and often even babysat for Josie when Leo and Nellie were travelling. One summer, however, Leo and Nellie did not come home, and Andrew later learned that they had been both been killed, apparently murdered. Leo and Nellie’s deaths were never solved, but Andrew thinks that it might have had something to do with gambling. Andrew took Josie in, though she was already fourteen at the time, and found it difficult to control the grieving, rebellious girl.
When she was just sixteen, Josie got pregnant and moved into her boyfriend’s apartment because Andrew was drinking so heavily. She had the baby, a little boy she named Leo, but she became quickly disillusioned with her relationship with her boyfriend. Eventually she went back to Andrew’s, with the baby on her hip, as Andrew now tells the story, and demanded that he choose between “the bottle” and them.
Andrew, astonished that Josie had returned, says that he gave up drinking and smoking from that day forward. He sobered up, got a job as a punch press operator, and moved into a decent apartment. Josie and little Leo stayed with him for several years until Josie met someone new and got married. They moved into their own apartment nearby on Pulaski, and Josie had two more children. She and Andrew stayed very close, however. Andrew says she is like a daughter to him, and, in turn, Josie refers to him as “Pops.” Andrew says he is so very thankful that he made the choice he did and that Josie didn’t give up on him.
Andrew was able to live on his own until 1992, when Josie found him unconscious on the floor of his apartment. She called an ambulance, and he was diagnosed as having had a stroke. He was then admitted to a neighborhood nursing home near where Josie and her family still live.
Andrew has made a brilliant transition to the home and often says, “This is the best thing that ever happened to me.” He fully participates in every activity the home provides, and Josie and her children often come and volunteer, of which Andrew is very proud. His favorite duty is calling the bingo numbers. Besides helping with activities and visiting residents who are bed-bound, each day he sits near the entrance of the home and greets people as they come in. He is so helpful to visitors coming in, as well as to current residents, that the staff had a badge made for him, designating him as a top volunteer and ambassador to the home. He is extremely proud of his badge and wears it everywhere. He is a wonderful example of someone who turned his life around, albeit a bit late, for the benefit of not only himself, but of many. He is very much an inspiration to all who are lucky enough to know him.
(Originally written: May 1995)
If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago: