By Kay McSpadden
Tom Nall has led a conventional life, but he’s a very unconventional person. He’s been a cowboy and is past president of the James-Younger Gang. Currently he’s famous around the Historical Society as a hobo. In his conventional role, he’s a retired history teacher, having taught for twenty-eight years at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights. According to a St. Viator newspaper found online, many of his former students remember him as the best teacher they ever had.
As a volunteer with RP/WR HS he started small, digitizing photos under the tutelage of long-time volunteer Rob Case, saying he didn’t want to take on any large projects because in his retired years he wanted to be free to travel. Even though he’s still a free spirit and is often away traveling, he seems to have found a niche with the Historical Society. He comes in regularly on Thursday mornings to help a small group of volunteers catalog the photos of Marty Schmidt (an avid photographer of Rogers Park, now deceased, who left his photographs to the Historical Society), many of which are of buildings which are unidentified. Tom’s experience growing up in Rogers Park helps him identify the subjects of some of the photos. Rumor has it that he’s also involved with research on early residents of Rogers Park who are buried in Rosehill Cemetery, for an upcoming walking tour.
He starts his volunteering Thursdays over a cup of coffee at Charmers (a sandwich and coffee bar opposite the Historical Society), which gives him the chance to reminisce about his childhood years in Rogers Park and his first teaching job, teaching physical education and coaching basketball at St. Ignatius Grammar School. From sixth grade at St. Jerome Grammar School to graduation from St. George High School (now replaced by the St. Francis Hospital parking structure in Evanston), he lived at 1300 W. Sherwin, around the corner from the Historical Society office. “My life is cyclical,” he says. “It’s a good feeling to be back here.”
It must be, because Tom has to travel a long way from the suburbs for his volunteer gig in Rogers Park. He says that when he retired from teaching high school, he lost his audience, and his wife, who grew up elsewhere, got tired of being his “audience of one.” At the Historical Society he finds people who share his interests, “who care about the things I care about.”
And he cares about many things: poetry, sports especially basketball (He was co-captain of the team at St. George’s, and he and his boyhood friends would sneak into Loyola University basketball games.), cowboys, outlaws (He’s past president of an organization interested in the James-Younger Gang lore.), genealogy, the Civil War, the Wild West, and “the why” of homelessness. Many of his interests seem to be inspired by a poem by Robert Service called “The Men that Don’t Fit In.”
He got interested in hobos because while teaching high school, he put together a class on the history of Chicago; his research on the history of Chicago led him to an interest in railroads, which led him to an interest in hobos. He has attended the National Hobo Convention for several years because “it gives me an opportunity to listen to (the hobo’s) stories. Every homeless person has a story, how they ended up doing what they did.” He also cultivates homeless people around Chicago for their stories. These days he’s getting to know a homeless person called Steve, who lives—and possibly works—at Woodfield Mall.
Tom Nall is a very unassuming, so this interview just scratches his surface. The RP/WR HS is enriched by his volunteer activities and pleased to serve as the audience for his varied fascinations.