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Norman B. Schroeder, a World War II hero, dies at 94

Norman B. Schroeder his wife Eileen Schroeder.

Norman B. Schroeder and his wife, Eileen Schroeder.

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Updated: August 4, 2012 6:30AM

As a boy, Norman B. Schroeder happened upon a ruckus on Clark Street that turned out to be the discovery of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

As a youth, he scurried around Wrigley Field, cleaning seats in exchange for free tickets to see the exploits of future Hall of Famers such as Gabby Hartnett, Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler.

As an American GI, he witnessed Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines. Someone suggested MacArthur be carried ashore to keep his shoes and pants dry, Mr. Schroeder said.

He told his kids he would never forget the response of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.

“How would that look in the photos?” MacArthur snapped, before striding through the surf at Leyte Gulf, an indelible image that made him look as unstoppable as the waves. The powerful moment communicated the relentlessness of the American forces who were wresting the country from Japanese control.

At 48, Mr. Schroeder attended a Beatles concert at the old International Ampitheatre.

At 85, he was still swimming laps at the Leaning Tower “Y” in Niles.

And at 92, his kids were tickled to hear him singing along to “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones.

They were all wonderful adventures and moments. But his early days as a sometime foster child meant that the one thing he really cared about was his family.

“He said he was going to climb up the ladder of life as far as he could go,” said his daughter, Mary Eileen Jordan, “and then he was just going to take his kids and throw them up that much further.” He was a Boy Scout leader who took his kids swimming at the “Y” every Sunday.

Mr. Schroeder, 94, died June 18 in the Edison Park home where he built a life with his wife, Eileen. Before the war, she had been a kid who used to roller-skate past to get him to notice her. In her yearbook at Jones Commercial High, when asked to describe her perfect man, she answered with one word: “Norman.”

She wrote to him the whole time he served, from 1941 to 1945. When he returned to Chicago, neither had eyes for anyone else.

His early years were hard, but he never felt they were sad, his children said.

His parents split up when he was about 3, and he spent time in a foster home and in the homes of German-speaking relatives. He picked up enough German to figure out what the adults were talking about when they did not want the kids to understand. He never let on — he was the kind of boy who wanted to know everything.

Mr. Schroeder grew up around Lincoln Park and Old Town. He had his first job when he was only 3 or 4, said his son, John. “He would have a little cart, kind of a little scooter, and he would go down the street and pick up wood and coal and things to burn in the stove.”

In 1929, “He remembered walking down Clark Street and seeing a commotion,” said his son, Norman. “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre had just happened.”

Once, he jumped up on a Chicago Herald-Examiner delivery truck and offered to help. The driver took him on, and on a day the man was ill, a young Norman drove his truck and delivered all the papers. He was 13 or 14.

He wanted to study architecture and engineering at Lane Tech High School, but his family didn’t have the money for drafting tools, his children said. He went to Senn High School and hawked the Chicago Daily News on the street.

In his later years of high school, he lived in a Catholic Youth Organization home on South Michigan Avenue.

The motoring skills he developed as a newspaper-delivery truck driver may have helped him land a job as an ammunition-truck driver in the war. He received two bronze stars and participated in landings on the islands of Atuu, Kwajalein, Leyte and Okinawa.

He had one very close call.

“During the invasions, he was bringing ammunition ashore from the ships. He used to feel like he was a sitting duck — you’re driving onto the beach as fast as you can,” said his son John. “One time, at the end of the day, he took off his jacket, and there was a slice where a bullet had nicked the jacket.”

“He was the target of a Japanese sniper who just missed,” said his son Norman.

After the war, Mr. Schroeder supervised distribution and delivery of newspapers including the Herald-American, the Chicago American, Chicago’s American, Chicago Today and the Chicago Tribune.

He moved to Edison Park and was a Scoutmaster and usher at Immaculate Conception Church. “He helped make the block the kind of block that people want to grow up on,” said his son Norman.

In 1966, when the younger Norman Schroeder was about 13, the youth had two tickets to see the Beatles at the International Ampitheatre, but none of his friends could go.

Mr. Schroeder gamely got in the car and drove his son to a concert where he could only hear the screams. “In later years, it just meant the world to me,” his son said.

The Schroeders entertained in the wood-paneled basement he crafted himself, serving Old Fashioned cocktails and roast beef with his homemade bread.

Services have been held. He is also survived by two granddaughters.

His wife, Eileen, died before him.

Now, his children have to decide what to do with their chairs. “In our living room were two gold-colored chairs,” John Schroeder said. “Those two chairs were for he and my mom, and at 10 o’clock, at the end of the evening, no matter what time it was, they would manage to sit down together and watch TV and have a glass of wine.”

“They would always find a little bit of time to be together at the end of the day.”

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