Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Story of Chicago's "Walking Man."

Joseph "Joe" Kromelis is known in Chicago as "The Walking Man" or "The Walking Dude.

Kromelis moved to Chicago with his family from Lithuania or Germany as a kid and grew up above the bar his parents ran on Halsted. It was near a ballpark, which one, is still a mystery. His parents sold the tavern and moved to southwest Michigan when he was about 19. But Kromelis stuck around in Chicago. He tried a factory job but didn’t like it. He got a peddlers license and sold jewelry on the street. That’s when he began wandering the Loop. 
To most of his fellow downtown pedestrians, he was just "Walking Man," or "Walking Dude," a familiar, tall, mustachioed guy who wandered around town in a V-neck T-shirt and a kerchief tucked in the breast pocket of his suit jacket, going who knows where. Occasionally, he'd stop to comb his flamboyant hair. 

“There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s not mentally ill. He just likes walking. It’s that simple. My husband couldn’t figure it out, but he accepted it. That’s Joe. He loves the city,” his sister-in-law, Linda Kromelis said.
He lived in an efficiency apartment or an SRO (single room occupancy) building in Lincoln Park for about 30 years, until he had to leave because it was turned into condos in 2012. He never married and had no children.
Joseph Kromelis, second from left, stands with his now-deceased siblings in a family photo. From left are: John, Joe, Pete, Bruno, and Irene. (Photo provided by family)
Kromelis had been a fixture in downtown street life. Walking north near the Hancock Center, south near the Sears [Willis] Tower, on the Riverwalk, and across the bridges, occasionally in more far-flung areas. He was often seen patiently browsing inside stores on the Magnificent Mile and in Streeterville. He liked peddling jewelry on the streets and preferred to keep to himself and walk the city, every day and in every kind of weather.
Walking was what Joseph Kromelis was doing around 11 AM on Tuesday, May 24, 2016, when he was attacked. He told police he was on Lower Wacker and said hello to someone he passed. That man began punching and hitting him with a bat, Chicago police said. A police officer responding to a battery call saw the attacker straddled over Kromelis, struggling with the bat, according to a police report. A witness told the sergeant the suspect also tried to throw Kromelis over a railing to the pavement about 20 feet below. Kromelis was taken by ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital to be treated for several injuries, including severe cuts to both eyes, according to the report. He also suffered leg injuries from being hit with the bat. He was listed in fair condition.
September 19, 2019
Rich Kolar writes: I ran into him today. Joe Kromelis is doing fine. We talked for a minute or so in front of the Cultural Center. A nice intelligent man who graciously let me take his photo.
Chicago’s ‘Walking Man’ lit on fire, suffering burns to half his body in a second brutal attack in 6 years: ‘To single him out for this kind of abuse is shocking and inhuman.’
                                                                                              —Chicago Tribune, May 25, 2022

Chicago police officers look at the scene where a 75-year-old man was left in critical condition after being doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire, in the 400 block of North Wabash Avenue early Wednesday morning. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)


A 75-year-old man known affectionately to Chicagoans as the “Walking Man,” was in critical condition early Wednesday after someone doused him in flammable liquid and lit him on fire as he lay on the ground overnight on Lower Wacker Drive, according to Chicago police.

Joseph Kromelis, who once told the Tribune he “roams as a way of life,” had been resting or sleeping when a man he didn’t know came up to him in the 400 block of North Lower Wabash Avenue about 2:50 a.m., police said.

The stranger doused him with lighter fluid and “then proceeded to ignite the victim before fleeing the scene,” according to a media statement from police.

A security officer working at a nearby building in the Near North neighborhood saw the man engulfed in flames and rushed over with a fire extinguisher, which he used to put the fire out, police said.

Paramedics took him to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where the man was listed in critical condition. Authorities said he suffered burns “to nearly half his body.” He was scheduled to be transferred to Stroger’s burn unit.

The attacker, who is wanted on suspicion of aggravated battery and arson, took off running west and into the Blue Line CTA tunnel after setting the man on fire.

The attacker, of an unknown race, had a thin build and was wearing a baseball hat, black pants, a black and white hooded “Hoodrich” sweatshirt, and gray sandals, police said in a community alert.

Police have not suggested a motive for the attack but are reviewing security footage.

In May 2016, also along Lower Wacker Drive, Kromelis was beaten by an attacker wielding a baseball bat. He spent several weeks hospitalized and he rallied back.

Back in 2016, Janice Riggs started a GoFundMe account for Kromelis. Reached on Wednesday, Riggs was appalled.

“I’m crushed. I think this is a horrible thing to attack someone who is nothing more than a friend to everyone around Chicago,” Riggs said. “He’s is a totally harmless individual. To single him out for this kind of abuse is shocking and inhuman.”

Strangers, who for decades recognized him by his distinctive long, wavy hair, mustache, and sport coat as he wandered downtown streets, were so moved by his plight in 2016 that they donated more than $33,000 to the GoFundMe account. Well-wishers spent another $5,500 on charity T-shirts bearing the slogan “Walk on, Dude.”

Kromelis has been a fixture in downtown street life, often seen browsing inside stores and walking the streets of the Magnificent Mile and Streeterville. He has been featured in news stories and videos, including a YouTube feature titled “Dudementary.” A few years ago, someone created a Facebook page where people post sightings.

Kromelis once joked: “I’m like the Kardashians — I’m famous for doing nothing.”

Riggs saw him most recently in Millennium Park near the skating rink about three months ago.

She decided against striking up a conversation because she didn’t want to jolt him out of his routine. But he seemed happy and healthy.

When she would stop and briefly chat with him after the attack, he never really “made the connection” that she was the person who had instigated the GoFundMe, which was later taken over by Kromelis’ relatives.

He’s always been tough and obviously in very good shape but after the beating, there were “long lapses” where she would not see him, and then, the pandemic.

He “didn’t engage” as much as he used to, and moved much slower, Riggs said. “He was more isolated with himself.”

“He used to be the fastest man in Chicago. I would see him in Palos Heights and then a half a day later see him in Edgewater or near Wrigley Field,” Riggs said.

“He was everywhere.”

When people on the street talk to him and ask how he is doing, he would respond but was never very forthcoming.

“It wasn’t like he was isolated on the street. He was always very polite and was very reticent about discussing himself. He would talk about anything in the world but not himself.”

No arrests had been made as of Wednesday afternoon and no description of the attacker had been released by police. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

17 comments:

  1. WOW.....I absolutely saw him last within the last 5 yrs...im not sure if it was 5 yrs ago or within 3 yrs ...but i absolutely saw him in Madison and Wabash where i always used to see him.....I used to work at the 29 East Madison Bldg from 1977 thru 1990.....id always see him....then i moved to Israel and was not in the city as much....that is why when i did see him again within the last 5 years...i was shocked to see that he was STILL around....Unbelievable!!!!

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  2. Interesting man, but sorry to hear he was attacked. Evidently, he likes to walk around.

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  3. I met Joe in the Early 1970's He used to come into my Fathers Pawn Shop on north Clark street and buy jewelry to sell at his hangouts. He was a nice guy and pretty knowledgeable about jewelry.

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  4. just saw him last saturday, 5/2/20, downtown

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  5. If anyone sees uncle Joe,please tell him hi from his sister Erika and his niece Jami in Alaska!Hope ur ok.

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  6. I just saw him this morning. I was so happy to see him, he has such a good spirit.

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  7. I just saw him walking this morning. He's homeless. He and I both wonder what happened to the thousands of dollars that were donated to the Go Fund Me for him after the attack. Supposedly, a nephew was managing it. I donated to the fund. Sad that he's homeless after so much money was donated. I hate to think that Joe didn't get ALL of the funds. If you're a family member and really interested, Joe is easy to find walking in the Loop.

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    1. Probably went toward the hospital bill

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  8. I met Joe when I was about five years old, been seeing him around Chicago for my whole life (now im 23). Always wanted to say something. always seemed like a good guy.

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  9. I saw Joe today in the Pedway. I love seeing him and I love a guy who walks to his own tune.

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  10. I've been crying since I heard. Such a gentle person. I'm not feeling too great about humanity right now. I hope they catch the guy who did this.

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    1. Me too, can't stop crying. I hope and pray with all my heart and soul that Joe survives and recovers.

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  11. I wonder if there is a way to help him?

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  12. A fixture of Chicago….may karma get this attacker back…god protect joe…my prayers are with you

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  13. Very sad news. I, along with many others I’m sure, wish you a speedy and complete recovery

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  14. If his money was taken from that go fund me last time, there needs to be somebody else in charge if another comes into play. Obviously somebody not related to him

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  15. I feel sadden that someone would just hurt another human being for no reason, I worked many years ago on Michigan Ave and would see him all the time. Joseph would be every where in any corner of down town at any given time. I send my prayers to Joseph. for a speedy recovery.

    Midge

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