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Growing Up Right
Edwin John Feulner, Jr., was born on August 12, 1941, in Evergreen Park, a tiny suburb on the far southwest side of Chicago, the broad-shouldered city of the Daley political machine and the University of Chicago school of economics. He was the first child and only son of Edwin John and Helen Joan (Franzen) Feulner, also born on the South Side, and whose grandparents came to America from Germany in the 1870s. Ed Jr.—he was called “Bud” within the family—would be followed by three sisters—Mary Ann, Joan, and Barbara.
Tall and an outstanding athlete in his youth, Edwin Feulner, Sr. (“E.J.”), was outgoing and easy with people, always ready with a story in the office or at a party. He had a good position in the real estate department of the Continental Illinois Bank and a promising future there. Pretty and as gregarious as her husband, Helen Feulner ran the household with a firm but loving hand. Eddie was her favorite child, according to his sisters.
The Feulners were members of America’s largest self-identified nationality: German Americans represented about one-sixth of the population. Since Baron von Steuben and the American Revolution, Americans of German descent had been influential in every aspect of U.S. society. There had been military leaders like Jack Pershing, business leaders like John D. Rockefeller, renowned scientists like Albert Einstein, and presidents like Herbert Hoover.
Like all immigrants, the Feulners had been enticed by the promise of the American Dream, to have the freedom to be whatever they wanted to be, to rise as fast and as far as their talents and ambition could take them. Because they worked harder and longer and with more purpose, German Americans prospered more than almost any other ethnic group.1
The Feulners were different in one aspect from many other German Americans—they were devout Roman Catholics. All three of Helen Feulner’s brothers were parish priests, whose examples deepened the Catholicism of their family members. Uncle Peter’s parish was on the South Side, and he would visit his sister and her family several times a month. For the Feulners, saying grace before meals and praying the rosary were as natural as going to mass on Sunday, which they did without exception. In fact, Ed and Helen usually went to Saturday-morning mass as well. “Mom and Dad had a great love of Mary,” recalls Barbara Lackey. “When the clouds would start to come and it would start to rain, we took the rosary out. When we were in the car, we took the rosary out. It was very much a natural part of our growing up,” says Joan Barry.2
Edwin Feulner, Sr., was the first in the family to receive a college degree, earning a BS from DePaul University in the late 1930s by attending classes at night while working at the Continental Bank during the day. He endured without complaint the long days and nights, understanding that a degree would advance his career and help him provide for his family. During World War II he got a draft deferment because of his family status.
Shortly after the end of the war, E.J. left the security of his bank job and started his own realty firm located on State Street and later on Wabash Avenue on the near North Side. (His office was above a go-go club.) He decided to deal primarily in commercial real estate. It was a risk but a calculated one. The war was over, Chicago was beginning to boom, and office space was at a premium. He played a significant part in assembling the parcels of land that became Water Tower Place and Marina City, two of downtown Chicago’s most important developments. “You would ride up or down a street with him,” remembers his son, “and he could tell you the history and the ownership of just about every building. But he never lost his South Side roots, so we all grew up loving the White Sox, not the Cubs.”3
E.J.’s quiet charity made a lasting impression on his son. For many years the senior Feulner paid the rent of two relatives who otherwise might have been homeless. No one knew he was helping them until after his death. He would hire a friend down on his luck to work in his office, causing his practical wife to sigh: “There goes more overhead and not much more productivity.” “That was the kind of person he was,” says his son. “He didn’t need or expect accolades for his good deeds.”4
The senior Feulner was innately conservative—grateful for the rewards of free enterprise—but he was not politically active. He rarely expressed an opinion about any politician, although it came out in family talks around the kitchen table that he and Helen had voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. They voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960 mainly because he was a Catholic. E.J. focused on running his modest-sized but highly successful firm and providing a comfortable living for his wife and four children.
By 1950, the Feulners were doing well enough to move to the prosperous suburb of Elmhurst, which had so many elms and other trees it was known as Tree City, USA. Its annual Memorial Day and St. Patrick’s Day parades were among the largest in the county. Elmhurst was a Norman Rockwell town in which a boy could ride a bike and join the Boy Scouts and deliver the local newspaper and go to church every Sunday and wonder what was on the other side of Lake Michigan.
It was also a good town for making friends. When twelve-year-old Bruce McEvoy and his family moved from Brooklyn to Elmhurst in 1955, they knew no one. On the day they moved in, Bruce noticed several boys riding by on their bikes, but no one stopped until one boy pulled his bike up to the sidewalk in front of their house. Sticking out his hand, he said, “Welcome to Elmhurst. My name’s Eddie Feulner. What’s yours?” The two boys talked for thirty minutes, beginning a close friendship that would last for the rest of their lives.
Bruce was soon invited over to Eddie’s house to meet his parents, who quickly accepted the likable young New Yorker who shared the senior Feulner’s love of sports. On that first visit, McEvoy recalls, Eddie invited him downstairs to see his room. “I thought it was a wing of the New York City Library,” he says. “It was filled with all kinds of books on history, geography, railroads, photography, all the things that interested Ed. It was clear from the start that Ed was a little different from the rest of us.”5
What impressed McEvoy was his new friend’s thoroughness. When Eddie took up something, “it [was] 100 percent,” like the model trains that seemed to occupy every inch of the Feulner basement. Proud of the complex of tracks, bridges, stations, gates, and lights he had constructed, he insisted on referring to them as model railroads, not model trains.
Although happy in Elmhurst, Edwin and Helen Feulner never forgot they were from the South Side. Every week, along with Eddie and his sisters, they visited their parents who had remained in the city. Helen’s father owned a hardware store at 102nd and Vincennes, which the grandchildren loved to explore. “We could play with putty or watch our grandfather cut glass or sell paint or cut keys,” recalls Ed Feulner. “You don’t make a key, you know—you cut a key.”6
Their paternal grandfather died when Eddie was only four, but his widow lived for another thirty years, working as a factory cook on the South Side within a mile of the stockyards. “We used to go there Sunday evenings for dinner,” Feulner remembers, “and on the way home we’d see the trucks with cattle, hogs, sheep lined up—hundreds of them in a row—waiting for the opening of the stockyards Monday morning. That was back when Chicago was the hog butcher of the world.”7 E.J. would explain the law of supply and demand to his fascinated son sitting beside him in the front seat.
E.J. had been an altar boy, and so starting in the fourth grade, Eddie was an altar boy at Immaculate Conception, their large parish church in Elmhurst. In those pre–Vatican II days you fasted from midnight Saturday, taking only water until receiving communion at Sunday morning mass. That could be hard on a growing boy, as it was for Eddie one Christmas morning at high mass, when he fainted while serving. But that did not deter him from showing up the next Sunday.
Because he and Bruce McEvoy, who was also Catholic, lived close to the church, they were often drafted to fill in as altar boys when other boys fell sick or there was a special mass, presided over by the bishop. “Ed was very good at ceremony,” says McEvoy, “and had pretty good Latin. He was devout without calling attention to it.” He gave some thought to becoming a priest but, as his sister Joan puts it, “no more than most good Catholic boys in the fifties and sixties.”8
As a boy, Eddie was fascinated by the giant steam engines and freight cars of the Northwestern Railway, the Illinois Central, and the Chicago and Great Western Railway, all of which passed through Elmhurst, “a big train town.” Elmhurst was the last stop for the commuter trains coming from Chicago that would pull off on a siding about two blocks from the Feulner house. “I could go over on my bicycle and watch the engine go down the track, run around a Y, do a switch, and turn itself around so that it was ready to run back into the city. I had notebooks to keep track of cars going in and out.”9 He and his father built a model Elmhurst and Western Railroad, complete with passenger passes that Eddie printed on his own small press.
From an early age, Eddie possessed boundless energy and was curious about everything, in and out of school. While maintaining a high grade average at Immaculate Conception High School—which earned him a commendation from the Illinois State Scholarship Commission—he appeared in the classic farce Charley’s Aunt. He was the official photographer of the yearbook, developing pictures in his darkroom in the basement of the Feulner home, and the head of the debating society. He organized a model United Nations, resulting in a trip to New York City.
His class picture reveals an earnest young man in a dark suit and white shirt with black horn-rimmed glasses with thick Coke-bottle lenses. The glasses were essential—without them, he had 20–1200 vision in one eye and 20–1150 in the other, a condition formally classified as “severely impaired,” almost legally blind. His exceedingly poor eyesight meant he couldn’t play on any of the school teams, but he was at every ICHS football game, snapping pictures of the players. And his eyesight did not prevent him from reading and reading and reading, starting with the wall of books in what the Feulners called the library in their home. “Dad loved Mark Twain,” remembers Barbara Lackey, “Huckleberry Finn and all the rest.”10
“Mom and Dad instilled the entrepreneurial spirit in me from an early age,” Ed says.11 He did it all—washing windows at a penny a pane, selling cucumbers and tomatoes from a backyard vegetable garden, mowing the neighbors’ lawns. He delivered the Elmhurst Press twice a week and was a sales clerk on the weekends at the Elmhurst Camera Shop. In the summers, he and Bruce McEvoy parked cars for a summer stock theater. He was a Cub Scout and then a Boy Scout, attaining First Class. His scouting experience taught him not only to tie knots and read a compass but to take oaths seriously. To this day, he writes approximately two thousand letters a year congratulating young men who have made Eagle Scout.
Barbara remembers sitting around the kitchen table with her brother and sisters after dinner when their father would talk about what had happened that day—“ ‘this deal went through,’ he’d say, or ‘we had better pray that I close this deal.’ He would explain something to us if we didn’t understand it. And he instilled in us a sense that we could do anything we wanted to if we put our mind to it, and we could be successful at whatever we do as long as we really concentrated on it.”12
In the 1950s a good Catholic high school offered a liberal arts education equivalent to that of many of today’s colleges. Immaculate Conception was one of the best and one of the few coed schools in the diocese, with solid instruction by the Sisters of Saint Agnes of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. “They were tough, but they were fair,” says Joan Barry.13
Fifty years later, when he received Immaculate Conception’s Distinguished Alumni Award, Ed remarked that the school had equipped him with “a remarkable education . . . a sound faith in good over evil and a deep trust in God.” Even then, he said, “I knew I wanted to one day make a difference for the general good of my country by restoring the first principles I believed it to be founded upon.”14
After considering a number of Catholic colleges—his father suggested Chicago’s Loyola University, of which he was a trustee—Ed surprised his parents by picking Regis College, an all-male liberal arts college in Denver, Colorado. “I wanted,” he explains, “a school that was Jesuit, small, and away.” Although unknown in secular higher education, Regis University is one of just twenty-eight Jesuit universities in America, and it is highly regarded within the American Catholic Church. In August 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the Regis campus, where he met with President Bill Clinton for the first time.
During Ed’s first eighteen years, his father provided an entrepreneurial spirit, his mother gave him her unqualified love, Elmhurst gave him a sense of community and patriotism, and Immaculate Conception High School gave him a good education and deepened his faith. Regis College would introduce him to a world of ideas he did not know existed.
• • •
Ed Feulner entered college at the end of the 1950s, when it seemed that America’s center was holding steady, but a series of violent events would soon cause a polarization between generations, races, and social classes.15 They included the assassination of a dynamic young president, a distant war involving half a million servicemen, and the rise of a radical counterculture.
Most accounts of the 1960s focus on the most visible manifestations of the Left—the antiwar movement, the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, SDS and the Weathermen—but they leave out the rise of a Right that offered an alternative, emphasizing patriotism, free enterprise, and religious faith. Concerned about the course of the nation, conservatives plunged into politics and helped a Silent Majority find its voice.