Fame – Pam Zerba

My grandfather – my father’s father – was murdered in 1959. My grandmother was in the hospital with a broken hip. In those days, they kept you in the hospital for weeks for something like that. It was a cold, icy night in January. My grandmother called him at work, told him not to visit her that night, the roads were too bad. So he stopped to get something to eat, and went home. The garage was separate from the house. After he parked his car, he walked out to close the garage door. Someone hit him over the head with a lead pipe and took his wallet. A neighbor found him, and he died in surgery.

Because I was a kid, I didn’t hear many details about what happened. In fact, Mom told us younger kids that my grandfather had slipped on the ice. The next morning the radio news led off with, “Man murdered in alley!” and mentioned his name. Shocked, I turned to my mother, whose mouth was hanging open. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It never occurred to us…”

My father’s family was Irish, and most of the city’s cops had grown up in their neighborhood. The cops tried, pursued leads, but nothing came of it. My grandmother remembered a nurse’s aide had been in her room when she called my grandfather. The police went to interview the nurse’s aide, but she didn’t come back to work after the murder, and didn’t live at the address she had given the hospital. The police found a half-eaten sandwich on my grandparents’ front porch. Clues? Maybe. Never led anywhere, though.

My grandmother was not a kindly grandma. I remember how stunned I was when I realized my mother was afraid of her. She didn’t suffer fools, and she didn’t take prisoners. But she never recovered from my grandfather’s death. She died 359 days after he did, not able to live through the anniversary of his death.

One thing I overheard stayed with me. In 1966, a man named Richard Speck tortured and murdered eight
student nurses in Chicago. The case received national attention. Newpapers, magazines, TV were all full of details, pictures of the nurses, of Speck.

One of my dad’s cop friends told him that Speck had been in St. Louis for awhile in the winter of 1959, and had admitted to committing several robberies of the sort that killed my grandfather. There was a chance, he said, that Speck was his murderer.

This was supposed to comfort us? Why? It was supposed to make us feel better that someone famous – infamous – had killed my grandfather? Richard Speck’s fame gave my gentle grandfather’s death meaning?

The cop probably didn’t mean it that way; he probably thought we’d be happy to know that the murderer was off the streets. But I wondered if he would have bothered to mention it if the killer hadn’t been famous.


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