The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
Hank Oettinger, who arguably wrote more letters to more editors than anyone else in Chicago history, is dead at 92. Mr. Oettinger died in his sleep Tuesday morning, Oct. 5, of natural causes, according to his friends Tobin Mitchell and Bruce Elliott.
For decades he was a familiar presence at the watering holes of newspapermen, always with a pocket-full of clippings to support his opinions, which centered on the perfidy of Republicans and the nobility of his friends. Retirement freed him to make daily rounds of taverns where he met his countless friends, invariably referred to as "lieberfreunds," one of the German words he retained from his childhood in Crandon, Wisconsin. If you were a leiberfreund you would be shown the latest snapshots of his grandchildren, always described as "uberbabies."
Although he spent most of his waking hours in bars, often closing O'Rourke's or the Old Town Ale House on North Av., he was not a heavy drinker but a heavy talker, who could nurse a beer for hours while arguing for his current causes, which tended toward civil rights and the anti-war movement. He was particularly close to such activists as Dick Gregory.
Mr. Oettinger was self-educated. He became a printer's apprentice at 14, worked in the printing trades all his life, and like many printers absorbed through the linotype machine a voluminous array of miscellaneous material, so that he would sometimes break into an overheard conversation by supplying an obscure fact or name.
A lifelong leftist, he was a member of the Communist Party from 1940 to 1946, when he quit in disgust over Stalin. He moved to Chicago in 1953, worked nights setting type, and began writing letters to the editor. Every Chicago newspaper printed hundreds of them, invariably pithy one-paragraph compositions in which he praised those he admired (Mike Royko, a friend, was paramount) and those he despised (Chicago Tribune editorials rarely went unanswered).
"For years Hank started each day at the Old Town Ale House, reading all the papers," Miss Mitchell recalled. "Then he would take the bus to the Billy Goat and be stationed at the bar by the time Royko and his other buddies came in after work. Then he would take the bus back to O’Rourke's, arguing politics and conning people into making one-sided sports bets, usually against the Cubs."
Mr. Oettinger was adamant in separating those he liked from those he didn’t like. One of his closest friends was the late Sidney Harris, a photographer long associated with the labor movement. One of the Chicago columnists he disapproved of was the late Sydney J. Harris of the Chicago Daily News.
One year he received an invitation to a New Years' Eve party, only to be greeted at the door by Sydney J. Harris.
"I've made a terrible mistake," he told the host. "You're Bad Sydney. I thought the party was being given by Good Sidney."
Mr. Oettinger is survived by a son, Joseph, who is a doctor in Grand Rapids, and by seven grand-uberbabies and seven great-grand-uberbabies. A memorial meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16 at the Chicago Historical Society.