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Founder of Beck’s Bookstores, Cub fan

Bob Beck founder Beck's Books.

Bob Beck, founder of Beck's Books.

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Updated: October 16, 2012 6:11AM

When macular degeration limited his field of vision, Bob Beck never gave up on his field of dreams.

Mr. Beck, who founded Beck’s Bookstores, continued to use his season tickets at Wrigley Field, “watching” the Cubs with wide-angle binoculars and the radio. When it grew difficult to see the game on the TVs over the bar at Bernie’s Tap and Grill across from the ballpark, owner Linda Dillman installed a new television next to his seat of honor.

The Cubs were the alpha and omega in Bob Beck’s life.

During the Great Depression, his mom, Edith, a hardworking cleaning lady, was listening to the Cubs on the radio when the announcer reported the ushers were chasing an eight-year-old kid who ditched school and snuck into Wrigley. “He was running along the outfield wall,” said Bob’s son, Philip Beck. “They described what the kid was wearing, and what he looked like.”

Then it dawned on her.

They were chasing her son, Bob.

“Sure enough, it was my dad,” said Philip Beck.

At 85, Mr. Beck was interviewed for the 2006 HBO documentary “Wait Til Next Year: the Saga of the Chicago Cubs.” Mr. Beck — who saw his first game at Wrigley in 1929 — made a lament familiar to many senior Cubs fans.

“Wait ’til next year?” he said. “I don’t have that many years to wait.”

Mr. Beck, 91, died Sept. 13 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

He leaves behind 10 Beck’s Bookstores. Tens of thousands of Chicago students buy their textbooks at Beck’s and sell them back to the store at the end of the semester.

Despite Internet commerce, and the deaths of countless other private bookstores, Beck’s has survived for 56 years.

Today, a marketing major would say he had a business plan. Back then, it was called an angle. He sold books at Beck’s for less than the college bookstores charged, and he paid more when the used books were returned.

Mr. Beck was born near Wrigley Field before it had the Wrigleyville cachet. “They didn’t have any money at all,” Philip Beck said. He told his son, “ ‘When the rent came due, we wouldn’t have the rent and we’d have to move to another place.’ ”

The Cubs were an escape, and a thrill; a community, and a history.

Mr. Beck witnessed Gabby Hartnett’s “Homer in the Gloamin,” featured on ESPN’s “100 Greatest Home Runs of All Time.” Despite encroaching twilight, Hartnett hit a crucial homer that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-5, helping to clinch the ’38 pennant.

“My father was there at the ballpark when it happened,” said his son, who had a role in history himself. He was the lead trial lawyer in the Bush vs. Gore Florida recount case.

Mr. Beck graduated from Waller High School and joined the Coast Guard during World War II. He was supposed to pilot a landing craft at Normandy, but foot problems sidelined him, his son said. He became an instructor, giving lessons on Morse Code and the maritime language of flags.

After the war, he returned to Chicago and worked at Faulkner’s bookstore on Lake Street. That’s where he met Nadine, who would become his wife of 65 years.

He opened his first Beck’s Books on Chicago Avenue, near Loyola University’s Lewis Towers.

“He had an unbelievable memory,” said his daughter Linda Olson, who now runs the stores. “Before computers, he was able to memorize the ISBNs [International Standard Book Numbers] in all the books.”

Today there are Beck’s Books at or near Glenbrook North and South High Schools; John Marshall Law School; Harold Washington College; Northeastern Illinois University; Northwestern University, and Truman College, among others.

Mr. Beck and his wife lived on Marine Drive. “You could see Wrigley Field from the bedroom and from his living room,” his daughter said. “That’s the reason he bought it.”

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts was so impressed by his Cubs memories, he encouraged him to write them down, Philip Beck said. Thanks to his publishing connections, Mr. Beck had them bound and printed, and sent Ricketts a copy.

“Chicago has lost a legendary citizen and the Cubs a legendary fan,” Ricketts said Friday. “His bookstores are part of the fabric of Chicago and he was part of Wrigley Field. We appreciated his loyalty to the team he loved and we will miss seeing him at games.”

Mr. Beck loved a good martini, and, back when he could see well enough a drive, a trusty Buick. “He thought he was the living end when he had a Buick,” his daughter said.

He enjoyed detective shows like TV’s “Columbo.” When he was young, his jitterbug and swing were so fierce, women fought to dance with the hep cat, his family said.

He and his wife loved to travel. They visited Alaska, Hawaii and Egypt.

But his favorite destination, after the intersection of Clark and Addison, was probably Mesa, Ariz. He went there every year for Spring Training.

Mr. Beck admired Cubs Ernie Banks and Phil Cavarretta. He hated the New York Mets. However, he tolerated Cardinals fans well, because he often went to games in St. Louis.

In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Beck is survived by five grandsons and two great-grandsons. A celebration of his life is planned Sept. 29 starting at 7 p.m. at Bernie’s Tap and Grill, 3664 N. Clark.

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