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Led beloved Chicago ghost tours


Updated: July 10, 2012 6:05AM

Richard Crowe, who probably did more than anybody else to spread the story of Chicago’s most famed ghost, the beautiful graveyard spectre known as “Resurrection Mary,” will be buried in Resurrection Cemetery.

He died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer at Little Company of Mary Hospital, only 11 days after his illness was diagnosed. He was 64.

On his deathbed, the self-styled ghost hunter was still giving one of his most popular Supernatural Tours.

“He was talking about walking around Chinatown — ‘turn here, go left,’ “ said his sister, Joann Crowe. “He was instructing the crowds on where to go.”

His Polish grandmother regaled him with spooky tales while he was growing up on the South Side. Mr. Crowe’s family lived downstairs, and his grandmother upstairs, close enough for hugs, kolackys — and stories.

Before Mr. Crowe was born, his grandmother said she sensed an unfriendly presence at a home where the family stayed. One night, after saying her prayers, “she felt something on her chest, and there was an [image of an] old hag, sitting on her. She couldn’t breathe,” Joann Crowe said. Later, Mr. Crowe’s mother said she experienced the same thing.

The family fled the house.

When Richard’s mother was a little girl, she forgot her First Communion prayerbook in the basement of Visitation parish. She went to the basement to retrieve it, and “all of a sudden, the doors, they flew open by themselves,” Joann Crowe said. “She goes in, and the doors slam shut, and she starts hearing music, like organ music.” When the doors flew open again, she ran out, her daughter said.

“She talked about it for years.”

In a sense, so did Richard Crowe.

His mother’s story about Visitation never left him. The church at 55th and Garfield was one of the potential stops on his many different historical and ghost tours.

They included lakefront Supernatural Cruises, “Devil in the White City” excursions, a “Haunted Pub Crawl,” “Ghosts and Gangsters” trips, and Halloween outings.

Mr. Crowe grew up in Visitation Parish. He spent three years at Quigley South seminary, but decided the priesthood wasn’t for him.

He graduated from Gage Park High. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature from DePaul University, where he wrote so many papers about Chicago folklore and the supernatural, that a professor suggested he offer a ghost tour, said his friend, mental-health counselor Bill Karmia.

That Oct. 27, 1973, tour “left the campus with a full bus, and a 200-person waiting list,” Mr. Crowe told radio host Eddie Schwartz.

His thesis was on Chicago folklore and mythology. “He took a master’s thesis and turned it into a business,” said another friend, Joseph Troiani, an associate professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology.

For a while, he worked as a teacher at Lourdes High School and as a Chicago city planner.

But the ghost tours —narrated in his baritone voice — took off. He wrote Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural. He appeared on “Oprah.” Customers noticed a familiar-looking man on the bus on one of Mr. Crowe’s excursions.

It was horror novelist Stephen King.

He lived in Oak Lawn, where “his house had more books than the Oak Lawn Library,” his sister said.

He was also a deltiologist — a collector of postcards — especially from the Old West. He named two of his four cats Frank and Jesse, after the James Brothers. Another cat, “Carmilla,” was named for the siren in one of the earliest tales in the vampire canon. A particularly feisty cat was called “Nate” for the controversial, rampaging Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Mr. Crowe traveled to Salem, Mass.; Ireland, Scotland and England, to research and offer ghost tours. He particularly enjoyed visiting Macau, China.

But at a peak weight of around 400 pounds, “airline seats were murder,” his sister said. Most of the time, Mr. Crowe liked to drive Cadillacs, said his friend, Downers Grove Police Sgt. Joe Karmia.

He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War and World War I and II, and often gave free historical lectures to law enforcement and senior citizens’ groups, Joe Karmia added.

“It’s more than just the ghost tours. He just loved Chicago. You couldn’t drive down a street without him pointing something out,” said another friend, Chicago native Bob Zmuda, founder of Comic Relief and a writer and biographer for comic Andy Kaufman. Paul Giamatti played Zmuda in the film “Man on the Moon.”

On a few occasions, Mr. Crowe was spooked during investigations, like when he suffered vivid nightmares during a trip to The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, La.

But “he definitely believed in a higher power, something bigger and better than us,” his sister said. “He always felt there was something higher, protecting him.”

He never feared the legend of Resurrection Mary, the ghostly hitchhiker and Willowbrook Ballroom dancer who is said to materialize and disappear near Resurrection Cemetery. In fact, members of the Crowe family used to joke about their “condo” at the cemetery.

“We’re all going to be there,” Joann Crowe said.

He is also survived by another sister, Barbara Hickey. Visitation is 3 to 9 p.m. Monday at Modell Funeral Home, 5725 S. Pulaski. His funeral mass is at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Patricia Church, Hickory Hills. Mr. Crowe will be buried with the ashes of his beloved calico cat, Emily.

As for the future of the tours, “We’d like to continue it in some form. It’s such a cult of personality, it’s going to be difficult to replace him,” Joann Crowe said.

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