Korean War veteran called 'Pops' finds renewed purpose at Midwest Veterans Closet
In his 82 years, Russ McCann claims he never had a nickname. But the Korean War veteran says "Pops" is fine with him.
That handle was bestowed by Carrie Price, store manager at the Midwest Veterans Closet in North Chicago, where McCann has spent many weekdays for about the past four years volunteering wherever needed.
"They call me Pops because they think I'm old. I can probably outwork all of them," he says in jest.
Despite a variety of ailments, McCann has found a renewed sense of purpose at the nonprofit, which provides veterans and their families with clothing, household items, shoes, boots and other basic needs, as well as housing and employment assistance, at no cost.
"Every day I come in here and I can help a vet, it's a plus for me," said McCann, of Des Plaines. "That's why I'm still vertical -- it's helped me physically and mentally."
The personable McCann is considered a celebrity of sorts by the staff and clients, and he's known for corny jokes and quick rejoinders. But it wasn't always such.
"He never told any jokes when he first came," said Mary Carmody, the Midwest Veterans Closet's president. "He was very lonely and sad."
With his wife of 54 years gone, McCann was paralyzed in a sense, according to his daughter, Debbie Dusckett.
"He was lost after my mom passed away. He had such a hard time," she said.
Those who know him say the Navy veteran has a history of advocacy, volunteerism and good deeds. But it wasn't always enough.
"His volunteering goes so far beyond the vets, but it's after my mom died (that) the closet became his purpose," Dusckett said. "It helped to turn his life around."
The facility on Green Bay Road is blocks from the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, where McCann also visits frequently. He found the Midwest Veterans Closet after being convinced it was time to part with his late wife's things, Carmody said.
"On one of the donation visits, he noticed Carrie and I struggling with heavy boxes and bags and decided he needed to be our man in shining armor. And he is," Carmody said.
McCann comes in hours before the building opens to gather donations that have been dropped off, she said. He may have a snooze in the backroom, then hustles all day carrying bags and boxes, sorting and folding clothing, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms and providing general assistance.
His work, she said, is a contagious example of how veterans watch each other's backs, a hallmark of those who served. For McCann, that meant enlisting after graduating from Lane Tech in Chicago, which required a waiver from his mother because he was 17.
He was a radar operator on the USS Cromwell, a destroyer escort, at the end of the Korean War -- traveling "as high as Iceland and as low as the Caribbean," he said.
McCann's firm handshake belies his own issues. The retired pipe fitter said he's had dozens of surgeries for skin cancer, battles Crohn's disease and is being treated for PTSD. But he has a house, food and friends, and he considers himself lucky.
McCann chokes up at the memory of a veteran he later learned lived with his wife in a van.
"I cried. I didn't know he was homeless," McCann said. "We're here to help. Anything we can do, we'll do."