You can jump into the life story of Ed Gombos at whatever point you wish, as if it is one of those arty movies with a nonlinear storyline. About to celebrate his 76th birthday, the Addison shopkeeper warehouses voluminous files, documents, essays, tapes, scrapbooks and photographs that help visitors navigate through the times of his life.
A black-and-white photograph shows Gombos as the youngest ("the caboose") of eight children born to a Czech soldier who immigrated with his wife to the United States of America after World War I. The poem that won Gombos a 1991 "Gold Poet" award hangs on the wall. Yes, that's Gombos shaking hands with Charlton Heston on the movie set of "The Omega Man" in a photograph from 1970. That's him in the "iron cross" pose as the top gymnast on the University of Illinois teams that won Big Ten championships in the 1950s. He looks spry in the grainy '70s home movies playing on his VCR that show him teaching flips to children at his old Bounce-N-Go business, where parents took advantage of his low price to get four hours of baby-sitting for four bucks.
I didn't pick up the Gombos story until after his watershed moment 25 years ago, when he said he saw the image of Jesus Christ in the wood grain of a closet door and started carrying that door with him to speaking engagements. He became even more interesting to me on Election Day 1992, when Gombos filed his candidacy papers announcing his intention to run for president in 1996.
Gombos made his pitch for the White House in a few newspaper columns, during a segment on TV's "A Current Affair," and in a snippet during a news show on the fledgling Fox News network that began in 1996. A kind, thoughtful, generous man, Gombos was easy to dismiss and tempting to mock for some. But he always remained sincere and well-intentioned.
He suggested presidential elections would generate more interest and produce better results it they operated the same way as the NCAA basketball tournament, with 64 candidates vying in regional elections across the nation as voters selected a Sweet 16 and Final Four before electing the winner. Seeing the value of a minimum wage, Gombos wanted a maximum wage. He advocated adding a Bill of Responsibilities to the Bill of Rights. He pushed for a National Family Reunion Day holiday.
All those ideas, and hundreds more, are included in the more than 30,000 pages of thoughts Gombos composed on his Smith & Corona Coronet electric typewriter. He began writing on May 18, 1988, when he saw the sign in the wood grain of his closet door, and stopped on Nov. 5, 1996, when his quixotic campaign for the president fell about 47 million votes short of winner Bill Clinton.
Gombos keeps all his writings filed in the Addison factory where he runs his silk-screen T-shirt business. That's also where he keeps all 100,000 pages of his autobiography, the 1,000 hours of audiotapes (many of them featuring his calls to radio stations), his 40 letters from pal Charlton Heston, his 2,000 VHS tapes and his inventory of 10,000 T-shirts.
A meticulous planner, Gombos dedicates one wall of his office, lined with '70s posters of Farrah Fawcett and Sylvester Stallone, to a calender. He lists dozens of local school events (wrestling meets, softball tourneys, track meets and such), where he sells his goods for $7 each and donates $2 back to the school. He vows to live as frugally as he can, without waste. He offers shirts nobody else has.
"It starts with Albania," Gombos says as winds through rows of metal shelving, where his shirts are neatly stacked in alphabetical order by nation and by activity. The "Albanian Body Building" shirts don't fly off the shelves, but his "Iran Track" is a top seller.
"There's over 200 countries, and I'm kind of stressed right now with 41 countries," admits Gombos, who stocks shirts for Bulgaria, Israel, Lithuania, Nigeria, Serbia, Cuba and Ethiopia but falls short when customers request something from Ecuador or Guatemala. He's thinking of adding a "Jamaica Track" line, and concedes that "if I had a website, this would be simple."
His company, USACO, 645 S. Addison Road, is open to walk-in business and orders at (630) 832-2346, but almost all his sales are done at events in public. I visited Gombos in 2009, when I wrote a column about a troubled man Gombos befriended. The guy stole 10 envelopes, each containing $1,000, that represented Gombos' life savings and the money he figured would save his two adult daughters from having to pay for his burial. Police recovered $3,000 of the money quickly, but Gombos was on the phone with DuPage County prosecutors this week talking about how the thief has not made good yet on his restitution plan.
Money never has been his motivation. Gombos is obsessed with making America better, starting with himself.
"I wouldn't settle for being average. I wasn't good enough to be good. So, I struggled at the pursuit of excellence." Gombos says, reading from one of his pamphlets dated 8-8-88.
"I achieved a higher level of self-satisfaction than I would have by being me. This self-satisfaction was my primary fuel as I journeyed through life," Gombos concludes. "Therefore, if you're not satisfied with being you, struggle on behalf of some pursuit of excellence. You may go through life without wealth or recognition, but your life will not be dull."