A Timely Conversation

Isaac Dalke

Norma van der Meulen says that she is getting old, that she can’t quite remember as well as she used to. She is modest, seated in front of a pot of tea in her Hyde Park apartment. Her eyes come alive behind her glasses. Opera comes from WFMT in the background.

A small-town Ohio girl, she fell in love with the Spanish language in college and later taught at Hope College in Michigan, where she met her husband, an architect. For a while, they traveled around Europe; he designed buildings for the State Department, she cared for their two young children. In 1956, the young couple moved to Hyde Park where she has lived continuously ever since (minus a four-year respite to the Virgin Islands) raising three children and keeping active in the neighborhood community.

She speaks lucidly of the time a student she advised offered her marijuana, of befriending the future proprietor of the Medici when he was a graduate student, of a neighborhood with strong currents of change, and brings up the racial tension in the neighborhood with a frankness that would leave some addled.

The following is an edited interview with her, on a sunny New Year’s Eve, sitting in her apartment overlooking the Museum of Science and Industry. She speaks with a soft, sweet voice, and her arms move energetically as she tells her stories.


You volunteer at the Oriental Museum?

I do! I’ve been there for thirty years. I’m behind the counter Wednesday mornings, and Monday mornings I make jewelry for them. It’s a little room that’s  stuffed with ties and carpets and boxes and all kinds of stuff. I have these metal cabinets with amber and amethyst and malphite and lapis and fish vertebrae and little hand-carved skulls from Africa–all kinds of stuff. Wonderful stuff. And a lot of Afghani pendants and beads and what-not. It’s just like Christmas, I go in there and I say, “What will I make today?” And I pull out the drawer. I make about five, six necklaces a morning. Most of them sell.

I’ve made some observations of men shoppers, vis-à-vis men shoppers. Men come in and they have a purpose. They come in and say, “I’ll take that one.” Bingo. The women: “Can I see this one? Well, no wait a minute…” It drives you nuts! It’s a different thing, a man and a woman shopper. I also learned that people in general like an even string of stuff. They don’t like kooky things on their necklaces.

So that’s what I do. I have great fun. I go down there and turn on WFMT, the classical music station, with my bottle of water and my banana, and I make jewelry. I still don’t know how on earth they make those little beads.


How was advising at the UofC?

You know who one of my advisees was? Though I take no credit. David Axelrod. Nice bright boy. Barbara Curry, in the senate here, was one too. I had a lot of wonderful kids. [Axelrod] wouldn’t remember me, but I remember him. I didn’t have that much do with him, I would have these appointments and they would come in.

Some of these kids were very dependent, they would come over and over again whether they had an appointment or not, because they were lonely and they needed some advice or just to vent a bit, you know?

I had one boy from the North Shore–gorgeous tailoring, very handsome boy. He would come to my door with his coffee Thermos in his hand and we would talk a while. He is now in New York a huge success with some sort of advice for finances, I don’t know, it’s more than I can figure out. He writes books and things. I hear from him every Christmas, he sends me a picture of his kids. They’re a very treasured lot, that lot over there. A very privileged lot I would say.


Do you know any UofC Professors?

I used to, but I don’t anymore because they all died or moved. A lot of them went to Hawaii. They weren’t going to hang around here. Saul Bellow, he used to be very apparent in the neighborhood. Good writer. He knew so many people who had lived and died and remarried and had fights and what-not. He said too many houses had ghosts so he moved to Evanston (laughs). Got a new wife and all that. He used to eat over here at Piccolo Mondo.


Harold Washington used to live around here?

I know exactly where he lived. There is a tennis court over here on 53rd Street. There’s an apartment building on the corner; he lived there. He could see the green cockatoo birds out there.

We had some trees with big nests. Some green parrots got out of their cage out of O’Hare. They made it down here and made that their home and they squawked away. You could see these cubbies of green parrots flying all around the neighborhood. Harold loved those parrots!


What was it like raising children in Hyde Park?

Well, I’ll tell you. I had them walk to school every day when they were little. My eldest daughter went to Hyde Park High School, one of the last viable classes. The day Martin Luther King was killed, she came into my office wearing a dress about the green of your jacket and she was ashen-faced. She had been with one of her little boyfriends, who had glasses on. They kicked him to the floor and broke his glasses and beat him. She was absolutely undone. That was a bad thing.

My second daughter went to the new Kenwood High School [current-day Kenwood Academy]. Because it was new, [the administration was] trying very hard. They had a wonderful music teacher, and really nice teachers. She got through that all right and then went to Oberlin.

My son, Peter, went to Kenwood. When he was a freshman in high school, about 14 or 15, we lived in a six-flat down here. He was coming down the alley and a guy from Kenwood High School came behind him, jumped on his back, put his hands in his mouth and pulled and slammed his head on the sidewalk. Peter screamed out. The lady on the first floor heard him, stuck her head out the window and yelled at [the assailant] and he ran away.

Well, the kid was the son of two doctors–Haitian–who had lied about their address to get him into Kenwood High School. We got Peter out of Kenwood right then and put him into the Lab School. But the thing is that kid still remained at that school and he attacked the son of a lawyer. The fur flew, and they got him out of there and sent him to Haiti. When we got back from the Virgin Islands, his name was a headline in the newspaper. He had just murdered a DePaul student, a tennis star.

We had some bad, bad things happen in Hyde Park. They still do… These are not politically correct things to say, but I’m telling you, well, that’s the way things are.