Russ Uhlman

By Dorinne Richardson


Born February 12, 1926, in Gary, Indiana, Russ Uhlman is the third of four children born to Herman and Minnie Eherenberg Uhlman. His older sister Elizabeth died before he was born. Howard, Russ and Betty grew up in Tolleston on Gary’s west side.
Russ’ early school years were spent at St. John’s Lutheran School before transferring to Beverage Elementary, ending his education at Tolleston High School.  Russ’ father was one of only three Gary policemen and the only one in the Tolleston area. When Russ was 11, his father came down with a terminal illness. The family rented out their house and moved to an apartment in Chicago.
As a student in Chicago, Russ served as a Patrol Boy. You all know about patrol boys, right? In 1920, the American Automobile Association (AAA) started and funded the program in local school districts. In the days when busing hadn’t been invented, the program was designed to help insure the safety of children walking to and from elementary schools each day. Training began in the 5th grade. Boys (no girls at that time) wore white canvas belt-like straps across their chest and waist. Stationed at various intersections, the Patrol Boy would hold his arms out and students would line up behind him until traffic cleared. When it was safe to cross, his arms would come down and kids would cross the intersection.  (Today, senior citizens provide this service in most cities and towns.) Patrol Boys received free passes to Chicago White Sox games back then. In need of kids to run the movie projectors at the school Russ attended, the school sent him to a Bell & Howell Company training program to learn how to run projection machines, an opportunity which served him well later in life. But more about that later.

The family returned to Tolleston about a year later after Herman died.  The Uhlmans were neighbors of Frank Borman’s family. That’s right, the Frank Borman. Russ recalls tossing a baseball back over the fence after Frank threw or hit it into the Uhlman yard. That was his only contact with the astronaut whose name we all associate with Interstate 80-94.

At the age of 15, with WWII underway, Russ went to work at US Steel. He didn’t get much sleep in those days. After working the midnight shift, he came home and went to high school. On payday, he would hand his check over to his mother and she would give him $5.00 to spend as he chose.  At age 17, he left high school and enlisted in the US Navy. For four years he served in the ship’s galley, first aboard the USS Kern and later the USS Guadeloupe. These fuel ships provided fuel to various islands where B-29s were stationed. They also re-fueled ships at sea. Because of the fuel on board, smoking was strictly forbidden. As an alternative, the men indulged in chewing tobacco and chomped on cigars. (Upon retirement, Russ took a class in self-hypnosis to end the cigar-chewing habit.)

For two days, The USS Kern and its crew survived a typhoon with 150-foot waves as it lay in the Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific. Until 1986, Eniwetok was part of the Marshall Islands. So severe was the typhoon that many ships actually sank. The Kern, with its heavy fuel load, remained upright.  Sailors were tied to their bunks and after delivering crackers to the men, Russ tied himself to his own bunk. Once the terror subsided and men were able to return to deck, “the sea was like a sheet of glass,” Russ said. Taking the brunt of the brutal winds, the Kern’s guns were bent and the ship had to return to a US port. It was at this point that Russ left the Kern and finished his career aboard the Guadeloupe.

During his naval career, Russ saw a great deal of the world. As a result, he has little interest in travel and doesn’t go on vacations. In addition to the South Pacific islands, he sailed into Japan Harbor, saw Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, and sailed to Singapore and Colombo, India. “Singapore is a beautiful place,” Russ said. He crossed the equator six times. “As a naval ship sailed across the equator into pirate waters, the American flag was lowered and a skull and crossbones flag was raised,” he said. “When recrossing the equator, the American flag flew again. Before crossing the equator the first time, we were called ‘pollywogs.’ After that we were known as “shellbacks.” Once he attained the rank of Ship’s Cook, he was in charge of the butcher and the baker and created daily menus. He left the US Navy in 1946.
When he returned from the War, Russ returned to Tolleston High School and earned his diploma. In 1947 he married Dorothy Joly at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Gary. Russ and Dorothy were parents to two girls and one boy. Their son, Russ, died of meningitis at the age of three. Daughter Debbie, who lives in Chicago, earned her Master’s Degree in Real Estate at De Paul University. Russ lives here in Hobart, making his home with his younger daughter Patrice. Patrice has three children ~ one daughter and two sons. One of her sons is a member of the Special Forces.  Russ’ wife Dorothy passed away more than 15 years ago.

I never knew that the exterior of some cars in 1947 were made of wood; did you? Well, they were. Just ask Russ, if you don’t believe me. On a foggy night in 1947, one of the tires on his wooden station wagon got stuck in the unlit railroad crossing near 10th Ave. and Grant St. in Gary. As he struggled to free the vehicle, a train was approaching the crossing. Russ’ friend jumped out and yelled for Russ to do the same. Seeing the futility of his attempts to free the car, Russ escaped from the doomed vehicle seconds before the train hit it and splinters filled the air. The Pennsylvania Railroad accepted responsibility for the unlit crossing and bought Russ a new car. It was a kinder, gentler time in 1947.

For a while after leaving the US Navy, Russ was the chef at the Hotel Gary for a brief time. Remember back when he was about 12 years old and he was sent to a Bell & Howell training program? Well, he was hired to manage several local theaters, including the Y & W Outdoor Theater. At the Y & W, he even hired various performing acts. Ask him about those acts; he loves to tell his stories.
Russ worked at Nipsco for 40 years. He was a job coordinator, in charge of seeing that meters were moved outside homes. It was imperative because meters inside the homes were responsible for a number of gas explosions and fires. In 1968, he took a course at Valparaiso University in order to get certified in gas and electric use. He needed the certification to purchase Freon and other items he needed on his job at the Polo Club in Merrillville. Much to the instructor’s surprise, when it came time to take the examination Russ produced results from the exam that he had taken in Indianapolis.
At some point, Russ developed a love of antiques and antiquing. His Victorian home (and its antique furnishings) in Lowell was highlighted in the Parade of Homes one year. Daughter Debbie’s apartment in Chicago is furnished with antiques that Russ acquired for her. He says his most prized antique possessions were three ceramic Phoenix birds which he sold for $50.00 each, only to learn lather they were worth $5,000 each. These days his interest lies with oriental rugs.

You may recall that last year Russ held his own “Antiques Road Show” right here in the Reiner Center. This year he plans to do four of them. Members can bring their possessions in and this antique expert will tell them a great deal about them ~ possibly even their worth. So watch your monthly calendars for scheduling of these events. And while you’re waiting for those shows, strike up a conversation with this interesting gentleman. You will find him never at a loss for words and full of fascinating stories of his life.