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updated: 4/4/2014 3:39 AM

Photography exhibit shows suburban railroaders on the job

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  • In this 1943 photograph by Jack Delano, Clarence Dwight Averill takes a break from his job as a freight train conductor. The West Chicago man spent nearly 50 years working for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway.

      In this 1943 photograph by Jack Delano, Clarence Dwight Averill takes a break from his job as a freight train conductor. The West Chicago man spent nearly 50 years working for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway.
    courtesy of the Library of Congress

  • Frank J. Krisch was the general yardmaster of the Chicago & North Western Railway's Proviso yard.

      Frank J. Krisch was the general yardmaster of the Chicago & North Western Railway's Proviso yard.
    courtesy of Library of Congress

  • "He didn't go for extravagant things," Marilyn Theobald said of her granddad John Joseph Sabados in this 1943 Delano photo.

      "He didn't go for extravagant things," Marilyn Theobald said of her granddad John Joseph Sabados in this 1943 Delano photo.
    courtesy of the Library of Congress

  • O'Hare International Airport now sits in the rear fields of a Bensenville rail yard.

      O'Hare International Airport now sits in the rear fields of a Bensenville rail yard.
    courtesy of The Library Of Congress

  • Marilyn Theobald first saw her grandfather, John Joseph Sabados, in this photo that will be featured in a new Chicago History Museum exhibit. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I see my father in him,'" the Mundelein woman said. "He didn't go for extravagant things."

      Marilyn Theobald first saw her grandfather, John Joseph Sabados, in this photo that will be featured in a new Chicago History Museum exhibit. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I see my father in him,'" the Mundelein woman said. "He didn't go for extravagant things."
    courtesy of Pablo Delano

  • "Everybody loved him," Chuck Timm said of his step-grandfather, a conductor on a commuter line from West Chicago to Chicago.

      "Everybody loved him," Chuck Timm said of his step-grandfather, a conductor on a commuter line from West Chicago to Chicago.
    courtesy of Pablo Delano

 
 

Marilyn Theobald never met her grandfather.

The 70-year-old retired nurse never even knew what he looked like.

When she was a toddler, a basement flood in her childhood home destroyed photos and heirlooms from that side of the family. The Mundelein woman tried to piece together what she could from relatives who had a falling out before she was born.

But two years ago came a phone call from a museum. Curators found a picture of her grandfather and wanted Theobald to take a look.

It was the first time she saw the man who fled political turmoil in his native Hungary to provide a better life for his family in Aurora's Pigeon Hill neighborhood.

The photo shows John Joseph Sabados washing his gritty hands in the car shops of the Chicago & North Western rail yards in Proviso Township. The carpenter and repairman would die from cancer about a year after the image was taken by a famed photographer.

There are no signs of his health problems. For a 65-year-old man working a grueling job, he looks relaxed, with a slight smile.

When Theobald studied the photo, her eyes filled with tears.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I see my father in him,'" she said.

Now that image is part of a new exhibit opening Saturday on Jack Delano's World War II-era railroad photography by the Chicago History Museum and the Center for Railroad Photography & Art in Madison, Wis.

The exhibit will be on display at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St. in Chicago, from Saturday until Aug. 10, 2015.

For suburban relatives like Theobald, the intimate photos and the stories behind them fill a missing chapter in family history.

She knew her grandfather, who learned only a little English, faced isolation. But in the photo, she sees the pride in his work.

"It can be a very powerful thing when you think about it," she said.

For Delano fans, the photos cover a seven-month project in a legendary career as a documentary photographer. In 1942, the Office of War Information assigned Delano to shoot the railroad industry, mostly in the Chicago area.

His boss instructed him to focus his lens on "lots of proud, strong, husky Americans," machinery, schools and church services.

Delano never considered his work propaganda. The Ukranian-born photographer set out to capture the human workers powering the country's railroad city.

He immersed himself in the job. Delano spent months riding freight rains with crews who logged 12- to 16-hour days.

"He really worked hard to establish a sense of comfort between himself and his subjects," Scott Lothes said.

The president of the Wisconsin museum helped track down nearly 50 families of railroaders. Researchers poured over Delano's notes, census records and national archives. The goal was to find out the railroaders' legacies.

"People typically enjoyed the work and were often very grateful for it coming after the heels of the Great Depression," Lothes said. "But we also saw the toll it took on families."

To unwind after a long shift, Sabados and Clarence Dwight Averill escaped to their homes' basements to whittle wood. Both were quiet men who tended to keep to themselves.

Averill spent almost 50 years of his life working for the Chicago & North Western. He lived only a block from the train station in West Chicago, then a tight-knit community where kids played kickball in alleys and met at the only gas station in town. Despite his brawny stature, Averill was a friendly conductor for 35 years on a commuter line into Chicago.

"He loved that job because of the relationships with the people," said his step-grandson, Chuck Timm of Batavia. "Everybody loved him."

The exhibit includes about 60 of Delano's photos. His son, Pablo Delano, shot about 25 of the railroaders' descendants living in the Chicago area in 2012. The new portraits are compiled in a digital scrapbook on display in the Chicago History Museum, along with work clothes from the era.

Theobald now has a better sense of her grandfather's roots.

"He didn't go for extravagant things," she said. "He just wanted enough to keep the family together and support them and live his life."

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