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John R. Powers, 67, wrote ‘Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?’

John R. Powers

John R. Powers

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Updated: February 21, 2013 6:50AM

As sure as a priest swinging an incense-burner at a solemn mass, the novels of John R. Powers captured an era when mass meant Latin, nuns wore habits, and the Catholic schoolchildren of Chicago thought the other religion was called “Public.”

In the 1970s, the books of Mr. Powers became popular paperbacks that could be spotted in the hands of commuters on buses and L trains all over Chicago.

Touching, bittersweet and funny, they made former Catholic schoolchildren laugh out loud as they recognized the rules and rituals of their religion.

One of them, “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” became a hit play in Chicago, running for three years. It made it to Broadway, briefly. It’s had hundreds of professional and amateur productions and has become a hardy perennial of community theaters around the country.

He evoked Mount Greenwood in all its working-class, tribal glory in this paragraph about the fictional neighborhood of “Seven Holy Tombs” in his first book, “The Last Catholic in America.”

“Although most of the men of Seven Holy Tombs worked in other parts of Chicago, the vast majority of residents thought you needed a visa in order to get out of the neighborhood for more than one day at a time. It was customary for the natives, upon reaching puberty, to marry the girl next door and then move two blocks away. We children of Seven Holy Tombs believed that the edge of the earth lay two blocks beyond the cemeteries.”

Father Andrew M. Greeley put the book into context in the introduction he wrote.

“It is South Side Chicago Irish in the middle of the twentieth century, a generation after James Farrell’s Studs Lonigan and a generation before the sexual-abuse crisis. Powers is gentler and wittier than Farrell, and not nearly so angry.”

Mr. Powers, 67, died Wednesday of a heart attack at his home in Lake Geneva. He had segued into a successful career as a motivational speaker but for many Chicagoans of a certain vintage and Vatican-based religion, he remained the funny kid in the back of the class who got you into trouble by making you laugh.

His trilogy of books, “The Last Catholic in America” (1973), “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up” (1975), and “The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice-Cream God” (1977), traced a Catholic childhood, from grammar school to manhood.

His alter-ego, Eddie Ryan, starts out in a first-grade classroom with 85 kids (and a nun who bragged she had over 90 the year before). He navigates Boy Scouts, baseball diamonds, altar boys and roller rinks, and a kid known as “Felix the Filth Fiend Lindor,” who “could look up at any cloud and see a dirty picture.” He recalls the mind-numbing memorization of the multiple-question Baltimore catechism (Q. “Why did god make you?” A. “God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”)

The “Black Patent Leather Shoes” title refers to a rumored warning to girls, from the nuns, about patent’s reflective quality and its effect on the libido of the teenage male. The book evoked the agony, ecstasy and longings of adolescence. In one bittersweet passage, the adult Eddie Ryan, driving a fancy car, sees a youth in a jalopy and flashes back to when he welcomed a girl into his first car with words worthy of a gallant knight.

“Enter into the kingdom that has been prepared for you for all eternity.”

Mr. Powers, who knew that many Chicago conversations began with “What parish are you from?,” attended St. Christina grade school and Brother Rice High School, which last week informed him he would be inducted into its Hall of Fame. His mother, June, was a real estate agent, and his father, John, sold cars and drove a bread truck.

School was a struggle.

“My father was a horrible student,” said his daughter, Jacey. “He’s the only person in the history of his high school to fail music appreciation.”

Mr. Powers used to say he applied to 25 colleges and was rejected by each one. But grindingly boring jobs convinced him higher education might be worth the trouble. He waited tables at the Martinique, packed up buns at a bread wholesaler, and loaded railroad boxcars.

He made it into Loyola University, scored top grades and was accepted at Northwestern University, where he earned a Ph.D. in communications. He began writing books and taught at Northeastern Illinois University.

He met his wife, JaNelle, when she acted in the original production of “Black Patent Leather Shoes” at the Forum Theater in Summit, his daughter said.

Despite his success, Mr. Powers retained a blue-collar aversion to pomposity, his daughter said. “Whatever lessons he learned in the parish, became the way he treated people here,” she said.

He co-signed college loans for hard-working students he met, and visited Lake Geneva nursing homes to play his banjo for the residents, while his wife sang.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he also is survived by another daughter, Joy, and two sisters, Margo Sorrick and Gay Powers. Visitation is 2-5 p.m. Sunday at the Chapel on the Hill in Lake Geneva. A memorial service is at 5 p.m.

Mr. Powers was 22 and his brother, Randy, was 16 when Randy drowned in an accident near the Indiana Dunes. He changed his middle initial to “R” in Randy’s honor, and he had Randy in mind when he wrote a passage in “The Junk-Drawer Corner-Store Front-Porch Blues.”

“There is a first time, and a last time, for everything. For snowfalls and funny faces. Kissing mirrors.

“And going home.”

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