Jim Walsh, Wicker Park pioneer and architect succumbs to post polio syndrome


With his favorite hat and his cane, Jim sits amid a construction site

On June 7, just days after his 75th birthday, Jim (James M.) Walsh was felled by a childhood disease…polio, that first ravished his small body before entering kindergarten. 

Raised on Chicago's northwest side with two brothers and two sisters in an Irish Catholic family, Jim, the fourth child, faced several health battles throughout his life. His resilience was evident early as he needed to wear a body cast, unknown to most.

He attended Our Lady of Victory grade school followed by DePaul High School before entering the seminary. One year short of being ordained as a Catholic priest, Jim decided that the priesthood was not meant to be his life's calling and decided to become an architect. 

He received his architectural degree from IIT in 1971 and began working in the Office of Mies van der Rohe. Van der Rohe died in 1969 so the firm was run by his architect grandson Dirk Lohan, Joseph Fujikawa and Bruno Conterato. They changed the firm`s name to Fujikawa Conterato Lohan (FCL) Associates Inc. in 1975. Jim stayed with the firm for 10 years, leaving after his battle with stomach cancer started. 

He and his sister Pat moved into Wicker Park in the early to mid-1970s. Gerri Baginski remembers coming home from her summer break from school teaching and being told by her mother that, "Jim Walsh says that you should be buying up property here." While Baginski did not follow his advise, she says, "Jim and Pat did just that!" 

Both of the Walshes became activists in the community which was populated by gangs with drug deals going down along several streets. "Jim had three bull mastiffs that served as his protectors," comments his architect neighbor Ed Tamminga, who with his wife Mary moved into the area in 1997. "He told us many times about the fires as well as the stained glass window and car battery thefts. He was truly a Wicker Park pioneer who faced tough times as the area started its resurgence." 

As an architect and preservationist, Jim was ever watchful of construction going on, particularly in the historic landmark district, explains neighbor and friend Bob Johnson. "When I moved in in 1996, Jim came over and immediately began telling me what to do. I quickly realized that he that he was a good resource and was generally right," he says with a chuckle. "Everything he did with his building or that he oversaw was always done in the best way." 

His next health challenge came in approximately 2001 when a rod was inserted by his spine to straighten his back. A continuing spine curvature was threatening his internal organs. Though the operation was successful, an infection almost ended his life. His last health battle began in December 2011 when the first signs of the post polio syndrome began with respiratory issues.

His inquisitive nature appeared to help him compensate for his many health challenges. His quest for learning mingled architecture, arts, photography, antique watches, native American arts, Bonsai trees and other exotic plant interests with politics and a keen delight in the art of argumentation and love of family. 

With his family, neighbors and friends, Jim was known to be not only opinionated about many subjects, particularly politics, but also parsimonious. Whether at large events, small dinners or one-on-one, Jim was always ready to start sparring with anyone about some subject that he knew would cause his "opponent" to become defensive, edgy or downright angry. To him this was great fun. "Opponents" had various views about this "sport." 

One of his other enjoyments was being "careful with his money." Sister-in-law Joan said that her late husband Michael always joked, "Jimmy, doesn't have the first nickel he earned, but he has the interest!" She went on to talk about how he loved to immerse himself in several different interests, collecting many things that some people thought to be "unusual." 

His home, for example, is probably the only one in the area that has two large horses on top the garage roof. Joan explained, "Mike would say, 'If it's big, heavy and expensive, Jimmy will buy it!'" 

To many of us who knew him for many years, it seemed amusingly fitting that Jim, who became a multi-millionaire as a result of his real estate holdings, decided that he wanted to be buried in a pine box. His sister Dody explained, "He always said that he wanted to be buried in a pine box and there should be a party not a big funeral. Several years ago, I saw an ad in a Catholic publication about pine box coffins made by the Trappist monks. I told him about that and he had me get their catalog." 


Pat, Michael, Joan and Jim Walsh

"He had that catalog and made sure a few months ago that we place the order," said Joan. "Jim loved his family and we loved him. He will be missed." 

Having spent a great deal of time with Jim in the last few years, Johnson gave this insight, "He was a private man and while he never wanted to cheat you, he wanted to feel that he never got the short end of a deal. But, most people don't know that he was a very generous man to many organizations. He always did his homework though, to make sure the bulk of the donations went directly to the institutions. 

"Everyone loved him. My family always made sure that if we were having an event or holiday celebration, Jim would be part of it. He'll be missed." 

Jim was waked in St. Aloysius Church, 2300 W. LeMoyne St., and  Reverend Nicholas Desmond (Father Nick) officiated at the funeral service.

Photos courtesy of Bob Johnson



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