Regas Chefas - Transcript

Transcript of Regas Chefas Oral History.
Interviewee: Regas Chefas
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren and Gerhard Schutte
Date: February 15, 2013
Place: Gethsemane Garden Center, Chicago, Illinois
Transcriber: Martin Stewart
Total time: 48:00 minutes

Copyright © 2013 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: We are starting an interview with Regas Chefas owner of Gethsemane in Edgewater. The date is February 15, 2013. My name is Dorothy Nygren and I’m here with Gerhart Schutte. First of all, we’d like to thank you so much for all the efforts you made on behalf of the Edgewater community and congratulate you on being awarded as one of Edgewater’s living treasures – a group of about 20 people who have given over the years of themselves, above and beyond their personal interests. It’s quite warming and I think that it makes such a difference in our community. Regas I’d like to start the interview by asking you a little bit about your early life where you were born, and what your early life was like, and when you came to Edgewater?

RC: My mother and father grew up in Edgewater actually grew up around Devon and Clark. During World War II, my family, I was born in Rockford, we went to California during the war and then we returned in 1945. I went to Hayt grammar school and Senn high school, so did my dad and his three sisters, and my mother went to Senn high school too. My dad even went to Sullivan, when it was a junior high, and then went on to Senn.

DN: Do you remember your address, your house address?

RC: Oh, yeah, I lived at 1718 W Devon. It’s right across the street from the Rogers Park post office. As far as gardening, when I grew up there was no building near the Rogers Park post office; there were just empty lots around. So by the time we were 10 to 12 years old, my brother and I and several of the neighboring boys, we used to plant Victory Gardens. We would have maybe three or four of them at a time. We did it for several years. That’s one of the things we used to do. I had a wonderful time doing it. At the age of about 13 I started delivering groceries on my bicycle for Brian Kelly’s meat market. Brian Kelly, one of the owners, he and my dad had played on Magnolia city, which was a semi pro football team when they were younger. My dad had worked for the Bornhoffen’s, the father, when he was a teenager. So, Devon Avenue was always good to us. And of course we had always gone to the Ritz Theater right where Clark, Devon hardware is. And I can remember the specials on Saturdays. They would be fourteen cents. When we got older we went to the Granada theater. And I remember it was a quarter. Every Saturday the kids from Hayt would go to the Granada and the kids from Saint Gertrude’s would go on Sunday.

DN: A lot of good Edgewater memories in your recollection here.

RC: That’s very true. I was very fortunate. A few years ago, principal Gomez came here with a lady that my wife knew and we got to talking and I told him that I went to Hayt school. So he asked me to be principal for a day when they were doing that. So I formed a relationship with Hayt grammar school. We still work with them as best we can.

When I was growing up, my grandfather went to the Greek Orthodox church when it was on Kilborn in a house, before they built the church facility over there on Bryn Mawr. For my grandfather, I always felt if I could do anything to help him over at the Church of Saint Andrews I felt I would try to do it.

DN: So by growing up in the neighborhood you had formed all these relationships with different organizations – churches and schools. As you got older, and went into business you wanted to support that effort in some way. Could we talk a little bit above Gethsemane and how you came to grow it from a little tiny business to one that has expanded enormously and known citywide?

RC: Well, I could tell you that my father sold Christmas trees in front of our house on Devon. So as teenagers my brother and I and my sisters all sold Christmas trees and my dad had a restaurant at the time too, so my brother and I set everything up and mainly sold out of there as we grew older. One year I sold Christmas trees over at Ardmore and Clark and then a couple years later I sold them at Victoria and Clark. After two years my dad purchased the lot and my dad continued to sell Christmas trees there and I was in Colorado at the time and I was doing anything I could to make a living. I was going to school out there…

One year I was practically broke. So I came to Chicago and I told my dad, you know, I want to sell flowers over on that lot. Nobody uses it, the rest of the year. My dad gave me $250 and let me use his truck… And I bought flowers. I had read an article in the Readers Digest about a neighborhood in Brooklyn where a group of people, neighbors, planted flowers around about in flower boxes and they said that it wasn’t too long before other neighbors were joining in and then they started thinking about fixing up their house. So I thought this was a pretty good idea. And I’d like to bring another thing up that was kind of a factor in my life.

First of all my grandfather had always told me, you have to pay your bills. Pay the bank first. Use the rest of the money to pay the other bills. And I always remembered this, but I didn’t always follow it and I had to learn it all over again. And if I was going to give anybody advice it would be pay your bills. I don’t care what they are. And the other thing is don’t lose contact with the people that you owe money to. Call them up, reassure them, keep their confidence.

DN: I want to ask you to repeat what you just said a little bit louder because of the background noise. I want to be sure that you get this message across to the young people loud and strong.

RC: This is advice I give to anybody who asked me about being in business for themselves and that is to pay your bills. If you can’t pay them, pay the bank first, so you can re-borrow the money to pay the people, or otherwise, if you’re not in that positions at least stay in contact with people that you owe money to, and send them something every month. In that way, they will know that you’re trying. The worst thing in the world is to ignore them. That will get you in trouble.

DN: I think that’s really good sound advice with people. At least give whatever you can afford. So you are reliable, honest and conscientious about everything. So basically, you started Gethsemane as a boy selling Christmas trees with your dad in front of the house and then you moved to a lot on Ardmore and Clark. And then you expanded the Christmas tree sales to flowers and then just took it from there. How long have you done it, the enterprise at Gethsemane happen? With sound business advice? Adding on little by little?

GS: Where did the name Gethsemane come from?

RC: I adopted that name for several reasons, one, I grew up in the Catholic Church even though I always made mistakes. My mother and grandmother, my grandfather too, were people of faith. About the time I started Gethsemane, I used to attend the family … at Loyola Mundelein. So that’s how I chose the name Gethsemane. But the hard part is, for me, if you choose a name like that, that’s an … I’m telling you that because it’s the truth. I’ve not always lived up to it. I have a bad temper. So I’ve had to live that down a lot

DN: I think that the… Having good sides and bad sides are lessons for us. It’s part of our journey in life. Could you tell us how you grew from being a lot selling Christmas trees and flowers, to having a building on Clark Street?

RC: I could start with a couple of things first. In life, I’ve learned there are many opportunities that come your way. All you need to do is assess, take advantage of one. You don’t have to worry about the rest. And another thing that I’ve learned is if you take on a difficult job, you have to see it through to the end. If you see it through to the end, usually it works out to the best. Second of all, you gain strength that allows you to take on bigger and bigger jobs. I learned that not only at Gethsemane, but also at…

I was able to sell Christmas trees all around the United States. I was able to make it sell 50 semi loads of Christmas trees every year and I never had to put up a dime because I had good credit. I finally stopped that when someone failed to pay $40,000. And I decided it was best to walk away and don’t think about it anymore because when you get involved in lawsuits it’s never over. That wells up inside of you and it eats away at you. You’re better off to forget it and go on then the time is free and you can take advantage of the next thing to do. Here at Gethsemane, at first I did not want to expand because my kids were still in high school. After my kids graduated from high school, then I started expanding Gethsemane beyond the little part that I had across the street. As opportunities came to purchase different properties.

I… I will say this, there were other opportunities that came along, but I didn’t take advantage of and maybe it would have been better today. Or maybe it wouldn’t but at the time you just can’t think to do everything. So gradually it turned out better and better and also the people I hire are better people, not that I didn’t have better people working for me. But I did have and still have very good people working for me. And that really helps you, because you cannot do everything yourself. So gradually things got better and business got better. And the other thing too, you form relationships with your suppliers. Still today, I buy flowers some of the same people from the very first time. Maybe not dealing with them, but with their nephews or their sons.

DN: What would you say is important for establishing those kind of relationships? Why do you think it’s important to have those kinds of relationships? From your standpoint why are these relationships important?

RC: I think it’s important because then you have familiarity… You also form relationships with good people who do a good job. That’s the important part. If you have to keep looking around for suppliers all the time, it’s too hard. It’s better to have a relationship and then they can grow and you can go. In the same is true with your help. The same is true with your neighborhood.

DN: Could we talk a little bit about that? Your activities with the neighborhood. You said that you’ve been involved with Hayt as principal of the day. Did your children go to school in Edgewater?

RC: No, but I’ve always lived in Edgewater.

DN: So you were principal of the day at Hayt. Have you been involved in other community activities?

RC: Not so much with other activities in the neighborhood. But I have relationships with people I grew up with that still work here in the neighborhood. And I still see them every month or two in the neighborhood. But no, I have relationships with people that come to the garden center. And we have a community garden. I don’t want to go on… If you do a good job somebody wants to drive by and see it. Okay, you win they’ll be garden of the year. If people want to try it I’ll work with them.

DN: I know that you supported at least two community gardens. The WANT community garden, the West Andersonville community garden over there on Ravenswood. It looks as beautiful as it does because of your contribution. And when the Edgewater historical society was starting their garden you were also generous in your contribution. You also created a beautiful garden in this triangle between Clark and Ashland as well.

RC: That’s true. But the garden at Ashland Avenue was for the business.

DN: Yes, it was advertising for your business but it also beautifies the neighborhood.

RC: I wish I could do it better.

GS: For the community, you draw in clientele from all over the county and the area here.

RC: It’s not like you intended to be there. But it’s part of the principle of doing the best you can. I guess that’s the way it happened. We used to advertise on the Kathy and Judy Show, well, we would get people in from Wisconsin and Iowa and Indiana… So we do get people from all over. Gardeners are sometimes just love gardening. And during the summertime, they might visit a different garden center every weekend. When you’re on that you feel good about it. And we even have a doctor that comes in from Indianapolis twice a year.

DN: You know it gets to be somewhat of an addiction. As a gardener you’re always trying to figure out what you can put in your garden. If it’s… What looks pretty in this setting or that setting And you’ve created some beautiful settings areas within the whole complex. Where people can just project themselves and their yards. I’d like to go back to West Andersonville Gardens because I know you’ve supported that. How does it make you feel when you go by and see what you’ve helped create there?

RC: Well, I don’t look at it like I helped created it; I look like, I feel like we did a good job over there.… Giving somebody some plants is one thing going there and working. And setting the time aside. That requires giving of yourself. Fortunately I have enough plants that I can afford to give some away.

I hate to say too much but I do support a lot of different groups… If they come to me with a problem and they need something I will do my best. I will happily work with them.

DN: I think that that’s an important aspect of happiness. If you have something you are willing to share it… achieves something with their life. If you have a little bit extra, if you can help somebody else start on the path and share it. That gives me a good feeling.

RC: That does to me too. We all need to have a few positive things in life.

DN: You think the community that you grew up in in Edgewater is different from other communities in Chicago or places that you’ve lived?

RC: Well, actually, I’ve never lived outside the city. I’ve always lived in this area except for the time I lived in Colorado. Colorado was very nice to me. I had a lot of wonderful things but I still have friends in Edgewater here. And I did not move to Colorado. I like it in Chicago… I was thinking about that question before you came. One of when I grew up there were a lot of single-family homes, two flats, three flats, six flats. But, people who lived here were bus drivers or streetcar man before that and policemen and firemen and tradesmen. They were lawyers. They were doctors. Hayt School had large percentage of the Jewish people as did Senn. And Saint Gertrude Parish they were all Catholic. We had a great time.

DN: So, there was a lot of diversity in your neighborhood?

RC: Yes there was. But it was nice, then. You could walk down to the… You could go anywhere during the day or the night. It was a nice place to go out. Everybody that I talked to always had fun.

DN: Do you think it’s changed over the years?

RC: Yes, it’s changed over the years. When I was still growing up here, there were still mansions along Sheridan road. I can remember when they were tearing them down to build the high-rises. But the one good thing about Edgewater is that there is still a lot of good housing stock, especially west of Broadway. There are very few apartment buildings that are going to six-flats. So a lot of the people here… In those days, those people that I mentioned, they could afford to live here. Nowadays, a lot of those people could not afford to live in Edgewater, Edgewater Glen and that happens to be a problem. I feel that if they come to start destroying the housing stock here in let’s say Edgewater, such as building twenty story building over here where Edgewater hospital was, where my aunt used to work…, where I had my appendicitis out, it will further increase the values of homes, property, property values will go up and make it harder for people to reach those…

DN: So one of the assets of Edgewater is the ability of people of various incomes to find a place to live. It’s not just for upper income people. The housing stock offers the possibility for middle income people to live and even some people with lower income. A diverse range of housing stock and that’s good. That brings a lot of vibrancy to the neighborhoods. Whereas, if it’s just all wealthy people, it might increase your property value, but it doesn’t increase the possibilities, let us say for people. And not only that, it prevents the people who lived here all their lives than staying here.

RC: That’s very true. And it used to be that my help did not have any problems living around here. But this last year, rents have gone up so much that a lot of them either have to live…

DN: That’s an interesting way to look at things, that by increasing the rents. This is in a sense driving away staff. Because if you’re going to have people who work at your business, they have to get to your business. So they live here the better it is for everybody.

RC: At the garden center there, more than half the people either walk to work or take the bus or take the L.

DN: For downtown businesses you couldn’t say that at all, could you? I’d like to ask you about, about what you feel is the importance of plants in your living space. How important is a you thing for people to have plants, to have a little garden, even if it’s only a pot in their living room or something with something growing in. Does that make a difference to their life you think?

RC: I think it does one of the things I learned early when I was attending my garden, the victory garden is that plants want to live. They don’t want to die. They’re hard to kill. So most people who come in nowadays are afraid they’re going to kill. So, I caution people, don’t be afraid, they want to live, it’s easy to make it and they do add color to your lives.… Green is very soothing to the eye. And it’s like they say, get some sunshine; go out for a walk… Plants in your house. They do work just like they do outside. There is a carbon dioxide exchange right in your house. You can control a lot of household pests using a lot of green remedies. You don’t have to own something very strong for a house, even for the ones in your yard. And even if you do, depending on how valuable that plant is to you, sometimes rather than use that stuff on it. I think I’d rather throw it away and start over again.

DN: Maybe because they are so toxic for us and not just for the plant as well. For myself I have a plant or flower in every room in my house even in my kitchen for a flower to look at just because it makes me happy to have it there. Gerhard there is some other questions that you might like to ask?

GS: I was just very interested in what you said… About what happened to the mansions on Sheridan road. We are very much involved in this… Zoning for low rise. We are very, very active in that. I agree with you in that if we have high-rises on the lakefront. You are just destroying the garden space…

RC: I find today that gardening has changed a lot from having vegetable gardens in your yard to having them in containers on your deck…

DN: What do you think about the growth of community gardens? It seems like there are more people who are banding together to start community gardens. There’s the Vedgewater garden, which was started last year. It is something like 180 plots and I think 10 of those plots are devoted to growing vegetables for Care for Real.

RC: I can relate to that.

DN: It’s at Rosemont and Broadway. It’s in Edgewater. It just started last year. I think it’s an interesting idea that people can come together to create something more than just themselves and give something back to the community by… Through gardening. You know the basic idea of getting down in the soil and planting seeds.

RC: I think that’s a great idea and I thought about that a lot. And I know that there are… Building a park on Western Avenue by Rosehill Cemetery. Once it’s in place are going to have some gardens. I think that would be an ideal spot. I also know that several of the cemetery’s in this area, not full, and in the meantime while they’re waiting to sell all of those plots they can make time for gardens. I can understand that worried about people or intruders getting in… There are a lot of plots around that could be gardens. It would be nice. When I grew up there were still a lot of empty lots.

DN: And they are dwindling now, aren’t they? The Edgewater medical center, development is proposing 1/8 the Park when they tear the Edgewater medical center down. They are actually proposing to have single-family homes and a 13 story building where the hospital was but they were also proposing setting aside 1/8 for a park that would be owned by the Chicago Park district would not be maintained by them. It would be up to the community to maintain that plot. It and it will be very interesting to see how that works out – to see how committed people are to contributing money or skills or whatever to make that a community area. Until that happens until there is the developer that comes along.

The neighborhood organization, West Edgewater Association Residents was talking to the Alderman about the possibility of starting a community garden, once the whole area is torn down until the developer comes in. So in developing it, they raise the idea that maybe it could be a community garden. And it appears as though the Alderman is in favor of that. So, it will be interesting to see what happens with that area. Is there anything that you can think that would be a good idea to have over there? If you don’t want to comment about it, it’s okay we’ll just leave that.

DN: I was going to ask, you said Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger. This year is going to be Senn’s 100th Centennial Celebration and I was thinking somebody society might come back and talk to you about your memories of Senn and Clayton Moore. I like to ask if you just say a few more words about Clayton Moore.

RC: Actually, I never met Clayton Moore. My dad… He was on the apparatus at Senn.…

DN: Did you say your dad went to Senn also? So you are a two generation Senn high school family, then.

RC:…

DN: You have any pictures in the family album?

RC: You mean Clayton Moore? No. It was when my dad. I was maybe 18 years old.

DN: It was more your dad’s memory than yours. And he was passing it down to you.

RC: I do know that he lived down over there where the Park…

DN: Regas, this is your story. This is your story. They were talking about now. So are there any other thoughts or things you want to share with us? To wrap it up. I mean, are there any other memories of Edgewater or about your life or advice that we haven’t touched on that you like to share?

RC: I just feel like when I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in Chicago or some people I’ve talked to,… it was a great time to grow. There were a lot of things that kids could do. You know, we were outside every day and if we weren’t over at Hayt right now and then tomorrow over to Peirce. Or the young people’s club at Saint Gertrude’s or the young people club at… And so we had plenty… Formed a lot of good fast friendships and I felt very fortunate that I… Nowadays you have to lock the door and watch over them all the time. And as a consequence you can only do… You can’t just go right now…

DN: Do you think that also you were talking about the different things that you would do, they were all neighborhood organizations or groups that you could just spend time with – whether it was Saint Gertrude’s or Hayt or something. Do you feel that those community organizations are still utilized as much as they were? Are racing here and there and taking their kids in cars here and there and they don’t stay in the neighborhood as much. They don’t take advantage of what the neighborhood has to offer as much.

RC: Well, the reasons for that are multiple and that’s kind of tough. But I kind of feel that you are really correct in what you said. I don’t know, things like this are not going the way I’d like them to.

DN: Do you think they’re using the neighborhood as a resource as much as they used to?

RC: They don’t feel like they can let their kids loose. Nowadays, kids have gotten into… I could say another thing to if you went by Hayt right now. Not only were the kids all different nationalities and things like that… The parents used to dump them off at the Park…They came and played with their brothers and sisters. You saw that…

GS: Do you think that there was a greater sense of community at that time?

RC: Oh, yes. The parents would come out. You know, when you had your Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts… they had a game, the parents would be there. When they used to have big softball tournaments… You didn’t just have 18 or 20-year-olds playing you had people 40 and 50 years old playing. So, it was a community event in those days. I still see some of those people… When you go to the playground you might see some little kid…

DN: You know, somebody else. I interviewed said the same thing. They live on Hood Avenue. The children grew up in the house and then the children bought a house on the same street, because they had such a sense of community and belongingness that area, to where the playgrounds were, to where the church was to where the businesses were.

But they just want to come back and be there because it was a special feeling for them to be there. Betty Barclay, I interviewed Betty Barclay and put it in. I interviewed Horace Fox, Tom Robb. I interviewed a couple of other people, Troy McMillan. Actually, Troy McMillan said that she grew up on the South side of Chicago. She was an Army brat, in the military. So she lived all over the world. But after she became a widow, she came back to Chicago to live because she had family there and she picked Edgewater to live in because she wanted to live in a place where there would be a neighborhood and where there would be a community to support herself and her children as she was going to this transition. And she thought Edgewater was a special place because of that.

RC: I was in the military for two years.

DN: So is there anything else you want to share with us at this time?

RC: Yes. I think that in my experience, I tried to live my life in accordance with principles that I developed in me through the years. I think that everybody needs to have guiding principles in their life and also one other thing, try not to use alcohol. Alcohol is a terrible choice for people.

DN: It can get you in trouble, that’s for sure. What values do you think are important for people? You said you live your life according to some internal principles. What would those be for you?

RC: I believe that you have to show some kindness in your life. There are times in your life when you have to be generous. There are times in your life where you have to live up to the problem. You can’t run away from it. You have to live up to the problem, and do the best you can. Also, you have to be as fair as you can. That’s a hard thing to do because of the type of situation and the money that you owe. And the other thing is, don’t borrow too much money. That got me in trouble.

GS: Is there any way that these values and principles will stay after you?

RC: Well, I learned them growing up. As far as he alcohol goes, I grew up in a neighborhood where some of the kids I grew up with had alcohol problems all their life. Now my grandmother was a member of the women’s Christian temperance movement. We watched the Cubs play and Jack Brickhouse, brought to you by Hamm’s beer, and my grandmother. She was in the house said turn that ad off. We had to wait for the add to be over. And I will say this that there were sometimes and I would try to hang out with the guys and have a few drinks and stuff like that, but I never liked. My brother and I we never…

DN: Are there any other questions Gerhard? I think we are going to stop the interview here now. It’s been such a pleasure Regas.

RC: Could I add one more thing? I think it’s very important to have a wife that supports you. My wife, her parents, her grandparents owned the drugstore at Broadway and… She started working there when I think she was 10 or 11 years old. And as soon as she got to be 16 he started working there making deliveries in the neighborhood and she has been very supportive… And has been a blessing in my life.

DN: And it’s very unusual I think that when a husband and wife can work together in business and have a blessed house at home. And I will conclude right now.