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John Delgado, musician and WWII veteran, dies at 94

John Delgado service. He served Army Army Air Corps South Pacific.

John Delgado in the service. He served in the Army and the Army Air Corps and in the South Pacific.

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Updated: October 18, 2013 6:24AM

John Delgado brought home a Japanese sword from World War II, worked 50 years for the federal government and helped Chicagoans mambo their cares away as the leader of a Latin band.

Mr. Delgado, 94, died Friday at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.

He was born in El Paso, Texas, to parents from Zacatecas, Mexico, an arid mining city that would eventually produce more immigrants than silver. In the case of his parents, Miguel and Clara Delgado, it wasn’t just poor prospects that propelled them north. A deciding factor may have been the 1914 Battle of Zacatecas, often called the bloodiest and most decisive battle of the Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa, a brilliant military strategist, crushed the federal soldiers.

Despite Villa’s stance as an agrarian reformer, “They were not getting any land. They were not getting any farms,” said Mr. Delgado’s nephew, Michael Hernandez.

The Delgados headed north, following the tracks of the railroad as they sought jobs and stability. They picked the “betabel” — the sugar beet — and settled for a time in Herington, Kan., where Miguel Delgado repaired tracks for the railroad.

It was not an easy life, especially for John Delgado’s baby sister, Liz Hernandez.

“When the dust storms would come, my mother was just born,” Michael Hernandez said. “So they would hold her in front of a fan to keep the dust off her.”

In Herington, Mexican immigrants often were treated as unequal, relatives said. At the little Catholic church, “We sat in the balcony. We couldn’t sit down on the first floor,” Liz Hernandez said. “The irony is, my brother [Leo] became a priest. He went back to Kansas and he said a mass on the main floor.”

John Delgado grew up to be a crack shot. He brought home plenty of pheasant and rabbits, which the family fried up and ate, said his sister, Consuelo “Connie” Perez.

They headed to Chicago in 1939, where Miguel Delgado landed a job with Inland Steel. John Delgado and his six brothers and sisters grew up in Pilsen. They worshipped at St. Frances of Assisi Church at Roosevelt and Halsted, a haven for Mexican immigrants.

John Delgado’s mother landed a job with a distinctive tang, in the packing houses linked to the Chicago Stockyards. Eventually, the Delgados bought a building on Flournoy and Loomis, near UIC.

Mr. Delgado was drafted in World War II. He served as a quartermaster, handling supplies for the Army Air Corps, his family said.

He was stationed in the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Borneo. In addition to keeping a lookout for the Japanese, the American soldiers had to worry about conflicts among some of Borneo’s indigenous peoples, said his son-in-law, Al Gonzalez. “There were some local tribes that were warring against each other.”

He brought home a Japanese sword from the South Pacific, his son-in-law said. “He was always scared. He said you’re a fool if you’re not.”

After the war, Mexican migration increased, and Chicago exploded with Latin bands. Mr. Delgado, who played the bass, started his own group: Johnny Delgado and His Band. They performed at weddings and appeared in Mexican parades. Later, he joined Don Roberto’s Band. He met his late wife, Rita Calabrese, at a dance.

He again worked as a quartermaster, handling supplies and services at an Army location on Pershing Road that for a time became the headquarters of the Chicago Board of Education. Later, he was an office service manager at Fort Sheridan on the North Shore.

“He made sure all of his people got promoted, or more education,” said Donna Vanek, his longtime companion. When Fort Sheridan closed in 1993, he retired.

He loved to take his family north to Wisconsin, to Eagle River and Three Lakes, where he enjoyed fishing, said his daughter, Linda M. Gonzalez.

He had a long string of dogs he took hunting. Many were skilled, despite being mutts, said Al Gonzalez. Some, though, took off for the hills and never came back.

His family loved his silly sense of humor. “Instead of saying buenas noches — good night — he used to say ‘boney snowshoes,’ ’’ his daughter said.

“ ‘You know who wants to be 100 years old?’ ’’ he once asked his son-in-law. “ ‘The guy who’s 99.’ ’’

Other survivors include his son, Richard J. Delgado; his brother, Michael Delgado; three grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. Another son, John R. Delgado, died before him.

His funeral is scheduled at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of the Snows Church, 4810 S. Leamington. At his wake Monday at Chicago’s Modell Funeral Home, Mr. Delgado’s bass — polished from nearly 65 years of playing — rested next to his casket.


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