Mystery of Chicago’s ‘Walking Man’ solved, but only after he’s beaten and hospitalized
Chicago knows him as “The Walking Man” or “The Walking Dude.” A mostly silent wanderer of downtown streets with long wavy hair and a thick mustache who often wears a sport coat, sometimes with a boutonniere.
The mystery has fed rumors for decades. He fell from a wealthy family, he once worked on Rush Street as a bartender, he had taught college literature, he was a graphic artist.
None of those is true, his family said Wednesday as the 69-year-old man lay in a hospital bed at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the victim of a vicious beating on Lower Wacker Drive near Lake Shore Drive.
His name is Joseph Kromelis. He’s a street peddler who prefers to keep to himself and walk the city, every day and in every kind of weather. “It’s just a way of life for him,” said his sister-in-law, Linda Kromelis, of Michigan.
That’s what Joseph Kromelis was doing around 11 a.m. Tuesday when he was attacked. He told police he was on Lower Wacker and said hello to someone he passed. That man began punching and hitting him with a bat, Chicago police said.
A police officer responding to a battery call saw the attacker straddled over Kromelis, struggling with the bat, according to a police report. A witness told the sergeant the suspect also tried to throw Kromelis over a railing to the pavement about 20 feet below.
Kromelis was taken by ambulance to Northwestern to be treated for several injuries, including severe cuts to both eyes, according to the report. He also suffered leg injuries from being hit with the bat. He was listed in fair condition.
Police said the suspect was also taken to Northwestern for observation before being transferred to jail.
Kromelis has been a fixture in downtown street life, often seen patiently browsing inside stores and walking the streets of the Magnificent Mile and Streeterville. He has been featured in news stories and videos, including a YouTube feature titled, “Dudementary.” A few years ago, someone created a Facebook page where people post sightings.
People who know him on the street describe him as a nice man who never loses his temper.
“That guy doesn’t bother anybody,” said Michael Parks Sr., who has worked the corner outside the 7-Eleven on St. Clair Street for 4 1/2 years. “I’ve never seen him in an argument. If somebody said something [negative] to him, he would just walk away. I don’t like to see the people who don’t do anything to anybody get hurt.”
A doorman at a nearby hotel instantly recognized Kromelis in a photo, saying he last saw the man about three days ago. Kromelis stood out from the regular cast of street people because he was often well-groomed, wearing a sport coat.
“He was a real nice guy. He’s never been irate,” the doorman said. “I see some that are irate all the time, trust me. He was quiet. Very, very quiet.”
Kromelis’ family said he is very private and a loner. He grew up in Lithuania and moved with his family to Chicago when he was about 5 and attended high school here, Linda Kromelis said.
His father, Jonas Kromelis, owned a tavern in Chicago, but in the middle to late 1960s, he and his wife, Gertruda, moved to Michigan because they liked the area. Kromelis stayed in Chicago, where he worked as a street vendor selling jewelry, Linda Kromelis said.
For about 30 years, Kromelis lived in an apartment near Lincoln Park. But about two or three years ago, he had to move because the building was converted to condominiums, she said. He never married and has no children. His parents are dead, as are his three brothers and one of his two sisters.
“We always worried about Joe, something happening to him, out in the streets all the time,” Linda Kromelis said.
The last time she spoke to him was about a year ago when he telephoned after the death of his brother Pete, Kromelis’ husband.
He didn’t drive, and, when he would visit, her husband would usually pick him up and he’d stay for a few days. Kromelis would usually call from a public pay phone in the hallway of where he was staying, she said.
“He was just kind of private,” Kromelis said. “He was always that way.”
A nephew, Vytas Vaitkus, has created a GoFundMe page to raise money for his uncle’s medical and living expenses.
“He’s lived his life on the street,” Vaitkus said. “If he’s blind now or incapacitated in any way, I don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Vaitkus said he doesn’t know where his uncle is going to go when he gets out of the hospital and doesn’t think he is eligible for Social Security. “It’s an individual that can really use the help.”
Gorner writes for the Chicago Tribune
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