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The Last Word

To a Guy Who Made Chicago Work

Whether they punched a time clock or punched out an opponent in the boxing ring, scrub or stud, hero or goat, nuclear physicist or gravedigger, millions of Chicagoans make their city work.

August 31, 2014
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Chicago has a mass of nicknames, mottoes and monikers. Appropriate, I guess, for a city whose personality derives from dozens of unique neighborhoods.

Most famous among them is the Windy City, of course. A century ago, author Carl Sandburg immortalized Chicago as “the city of the big shoulders” and “hog butcher to the world.”

Nelson Algren coined the hip “Chicago: City on the Make” in the 1950s; Sinatra crooned about “that toddlin’ town” in the ’60s, and most recently during our winter of discontent in the icy grip of the polar vortex, Chicago froze into “Chi-beria.”

But there’s another phrase, one that has stuck with me since I first read it shortly after moving here. Mayor Richard J. Daley, in his unflagging love for the city, is credited with uttering “Chicago — the city that works.”

While Norm Kamikow was not a star athlete, titan of industry or even a shot-and-a-beer 'mug,' he nonetheless typified a Chicagoan who made his city work.

Interpret as you like. Many have, and derided Daley’s adage as nothing more than political spin-doctoring. Perhaps; Daley indeed was a master booster. To me, the phrase praises the people — be it part-timer, pro athlete, industrialist or entrepreneur — every mug who ever boarded a train or slogged through the snow to be on the job in this city. Whether they punched a time clock or punched out an opponent in the boxing ring, scrub or stud, hero or goat, nuclear physicist or gravedigger, millions of Chicagoans make their city work.

While Norm Kamikow was not a star athlete, titan of industry or even a shot-and-a-beer “mug,” he nonetheless typified a Chicagoan who made his city work.

See, Norm was also my boss, the co-owner of Workforce’s parent company, Human Capital Media. Norm died earlier this summer at age 70. He worked until the day he died, and his city kept right on working. And so did we. Call it a Chicago thing if you’d like, but I’m guessing it’s what Norm would have wanted, would have urged us to do.

Norm was a classic Chicago throwback. Think Ditka and Da Bears; a hard-nosed vodka-and-steak guy, where business deals were often brokered on the golf course and clinched over cocktails at the 19th hole.

The new-age employer so many consultants implore leaders to be in this era of enlightened engagement wasn’t necessarily Norm’s style. In this city of bosses — think Mayor Daley — Norm was a boss. That four-letter word defined him as a leader.

Maybe that was the Chicago in him — the “mug” in the city that works — the old-school boss who wants it done his way. He wasn’t alone. Besides mayors like the Daleys and the Kellys and the Cermaks, this city has seen its share of tough-as-nails bosses: George “Papa Bear” Halas; take-no-guff Cubs manager Leo Durocher and White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen; even former Bulls “zenmaster” coach Phil Jackson with that cocky smile. They were colorful leaders who ran their teams with no-nonsense, laser-sharp insight.

I remember meeting Norm for the first time on a chilly January morning in 2013. Soon after, Workforce was transitioning to a new culture, a new environment. It wasn’t always easy.

But as I look back nearly two years later, Norm had a vision for this publication when he acquired Workforce. He saw in Workforce an opportunity to build something great. The publication that works.

I also learned about Norm the businessman. If you didn’t have the answer Norm wanted, he let you know that you’d better get it, pronto. But then a few days later, when you thought you were deep in the basement of Norm’s doghouse, he’d enthusiastically praise you for some random accomplishment. Made your day; made your week or even month.

Maybe that is a Chicago thing, too — tough talking, but with a soft touch. I heard more of that side of Norm when I gathered with a couple hundred people at his funeral and listened to his son David deliver an emotional, heartfelt eulogy.

Norm loved his family, he loved his golf and the Chicago Bears, and he especially loved the business he bootstrapped nearly two decades ago with his partner, John Taggart. Before the funeral service, Norm’s wife Gwen told each of us how proud Norm was not just of our accomplishments as professionals, but of us as individuals.

Maybe we’re just “mugs,” but to Norm, we were part of what made his city work.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s managing editor. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

 

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