When you board the Leading Lady, the vessel on which this official Chicago Architecture Foundation river cruise is held, it's easy to mistake Captain Rich Casler for the boat's undisputed leader. In addition to the title -- and the outfit befitting a man in such a position -- he's the one addressing the assembling crowd, informing the passengers of coast guard regulations and pitching special raspberry vodka lemonades and souvenir Chicago's First Lady hats.
Just before the boat embarks on its 90-minute journey along the Chicago River, though, he cedes the floor to the tour's real head honcho: Patricia Grund. Taking the microphone, she paces around the front of the boat with the confidence of a veteran stand-up comedian; she commands the large audience -- the boat has a capacity of 299 -- even in the face of those raspberry vodka lemonades.
She explains the history of the city that led to these buildings along the river, on the Chicago Fire and on ordinances passed by the second Mayor Daley.
All this information orbits, naturally, around architecture, and to architecture Grund always returns. She keeps the audience rapt as she goes on about art deco and postmodernism, rattling off the names of architectural firms like Solomon Cordwell Buenz and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill without breaking a sweat.
She barely pauses for the entirety of the cruise, only taking a moment to cede to the noise as the boat passes under the Congress Parkway Bridge. When the tour's over, she's inundated with a steady stream of thank-yous from those debarking from the ship.
"You were just wonderful," says one passenger who attempts to offer her a tip (Patricia says she'll pass it along to the Chicago Architecture Foundation). "You didn't even look at a note card!"
What makes this all the more surprising is that Grund has no background in architecture. A retired nurse, she doesn't even reside in the city about which she effortlessly expounds for 90 minutes on a weekly basis.
She's lived in and moved out of the city twice, coming back from Arlington Heights for these river cruises. The boat tour travels from the former Montgomery Ward complex on the North Branch of the river, to River City on the South Branch, and to Navy Pier just past where the river links up with Lake Michigan. The fleet of boats that includes the Leading Lady is operated by Chicago's First Lady Cruises.
Grund loved the tours -- recently named the No. 1 "Thing to Do in Chicago" by U.S. News & World Report -- so much that she volunteered to become a docent. After seven years as a river guide, she still hasn't lost that feeling.
"Unless it's 40 degrees and raining, every time I get out there it feels good," Grund said. "It's an hour and a half of my life where I haven't thought about anything else and people enjoyed it."
The tour has a steady suburban pipeline, drawing docents from Wilmette, Glen Ellyn, Highland Park and North Aurora, to name a few.
Gina Johnson, also of Arlington Heights, has been a docent for more than 20 years. Though Johnson has lived in the suburb since 1959, her affinity for the city made her leap at the opportunity to volunteer as a docent when her neighbor asked her to sign up.
"I just loved the city," Johnson said. "If you like the city, you do have to like its architecture."
Even with more than two decades of experience -- and, at more than 1,100, the organization's record for most guided river cruises -- the job hasn't become monotonous for Johnson. She still works on perfecting her form, getting a helpful push from the construction of buildings like the Trump International Hotel & Tower.
"I'm always trying to polish up my tour," Johnson said. "You never really stop. Buildings go, buildings come."
Johnson's tour has had to evolve to keep up with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which Johnson said only "half-focused" on the tours when she began. Today, docents face an intensive five-month introductory period that includes one full day of training and 25 hours of homework per week. In all, they're tasked with over 170 hours of work before they can start giving tours.
The training comes in handy. The river is lined with so many buildings that -- even talking almost constantly for 90 minutes -- there's barely enough time to name them all. Pinpointing the pertinent information is one of the most essential skills a guide develops.
That doesn't mean they don't have to have an extensive base of knowledge beyond the material they present every tour. Whether it's a branch of the river being made inacessable by a barge or a half-hour wait for docking space, the docents often have to call an audible.
"You just have to be very flexible and very easygoing," Grund said. "And have a lot of stuff to talk about."
Though some docents lead a cruise every day, there's no complaint about the workload or the lack of pay from the nonprofit Chicago Architecture Foundation.
"I have, sometimes, people coming up to me and offering me a tip," Johnson said. "I just tell them, 'You enjoyed the tour, and that's all I need.' And it is!"
"I always do the last day in November," said Grund, who is loath to see the touring season end. "I bring cookies and I literally have tears in my eyes because I can't do this again."
Summer: Docents undergo 170 hours of training first