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Opinion: Remembering Chicago's famed Walking Man

Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, Columbus Drive and Michigan Avenue double-leaf trunnion bascule bridges, top to bottom, are seen over the Chicago River on April 3, 2006.
Tim Boyle
Getty Images
Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, Columbus Drive and Michigan Avenue double-leaf trunnion bascule bridges, top to bottom, are seen over the Chicago River on April 3, 2006.

You could get a glimpse of Walking Man almost any day in Chicago: a tall, lean man with long, bushy hair, sharp features, and a wide moustache, who wore a blazer to stride, more than stroll, along downtown streets and bridges.

Walking Man once peddled jewelry, then made his life on the streets after he lost his rented room a decade ago. But he was never seen to hold his hand out and ask for money or food. What he mostly did was walk.

And walk.

"Up this street, across, diagonal, and back and down." David Jones, who tried to make a documentary film about Walking Man, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "There didn't seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason, to us. But to him I think it made perfect sense."

Walking Man, whose given name was Joseph Kromelis, died this week at the age of 75 of injuries he suffered back in May. He was asleep under blankets on a street below a downtown bridge. A man poured a flammable liquid over him, and started a fire.

The man told police he was angry, and didn't know there was a human being bundled below the blankets. He has been charged.

Joseph Kromelis had also been attacked in 2016, by a man with a baseball bat, on a street below another bridge nearby.

Those attacks may remind us of thedangers of life on the streets: cold, hunger, and fear; and the challenge just to sleep safely for a little while. Joseph Kromelis had family in small-town Michigan, who say they tried to persuade him to stay with them. But he chose to live on his own, as Walking Man.
"There's nothing wrong with him," his sister-in-law, Linda Kromelis, told the Sun-Times in 2016. "He's not mentally ill. He just likes walking. It's that simple."

"He had spirit," Scott Marvel told us. He runs a video production company, and organized fund-raising efforts to help Walking Man with medical bills after his attacks. "There are people who live outside the normal path of society," he said. "And they deserve our respect, dignity, and compassion."

It may be a natural reflex of the heart to feel pity for Joseph Kromelis. But everything I saw in his stride the times I glimpsed him strutting across the Michigan Avenue bridge, looking poised, urbane, and elegant, tells me that Walking Man would prefer to be remembered for making his own way through life. He cut a vivid figure against a great skyline.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.