Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Grandfather's Part in History

My memories of my maternal grandfather, Joseph Kijak, are limited. I was born in St. Joseph, Michigan, where my grandparents lived, but when I was 18 months old my parents and I moved to the Detroit suburbs and only came to St. Joe once or twice a year to visit. The memories I do have of my grandfather are pleasant ones - he was a small man, very quiet and easy going and was always happy to have us visit. I remember him promising my younger brother at the age of 8 that he would take him fishing off the pier in St. Joe and my brother was anxious to do this but unfortunately my grandfather died before this could be accomplished.

One year in school, my class was instructed to write an article of interest about a grandparent. I struggled with who to choose to write about as I knew all my grandparents and I decided to write about the one grandparent who was at that time already deceased. I asked my mother for any interesting stories she could share with me about her father and she told me there was one incident that would make a great project for school.

It was at that same time that an article appeared in the Sunday Parade magazine that came out with the Detroit Free Press. It was an anniversary of an incident involving a henchman of Al Capone, named Fred Burke, and my mother proudly showed me this Parade magazine and told me "here is your story about your grandpa Kijak".

Al Capone??? What could my quiet, gentle grandfather have to do with Al Capone and his organization? Much, as it turns out.

Al Capone is a well known figure in history. Most people of a certain generation have heard of Al Capone and perhaps studied his organization and the crimes committed by his group. Perhaps, not so well known, was one of his henchman, Fred "Killer" Burke. Over the years, though, I have learned much about Fred Burke and how he related to my grandfather.

Fred "Killer" Burke was a participant in the infamous St. Valentine's day massacre. He then unknowingly hid out in Stevensville, MI trying to be obscure. On December 14, 1929, in downtown St. Joseph, Fred Burke happened to be driving. He struck a car driven by a resident, George Kool and Mr. Kool approached the car of Fred Burke and demanded payment for the damages. An argument took place and a police officer approached, named Charles Skelly. In the ensuing argument, Fred Burke picked up his revolver, fired three times at Officer Skelly and killed him.

Fred Burke then fled the downtown area of St. Joseph in an attempt to escape and soon abandoned his car after he struck a telephone pole. When the police later found his car and registration the paperwork showed the car was registered to a Fred Dane who was later identified to be Fred "Killer" Burke of the Al Capone 'family'.

Enter my grandfather who was driving along Cleveland Avenue in St. Joseph on his way home. While driving, my grandfather noticed a man hitchhiking. In those days of 1929, it was not uncommon for people to frequently pick up hitchhikers (these were all country roads at the time and farmland) and my grandfather picked up this gentleman. He later recounted that they spoke briefly, the rider said he needed to be driven several miles down the road which my grandfather did. At one point, near Glenlord Road and Cleveland Avenue, the rider suddenly announced "let me out here" and my grandfather did and the last he saw of his hitchhiker was when the man went through the farmland and disappeared from view heading toward Lakeshore Drive and Lake Michigan. Thinking nothing of it, my grandfather returned home.

The next morning, the local newspaper carried the report of the shooting of Officer Skelly and there was a photo of the man accused of killing him - Fred "Killer" Burke. My grandfather immediately recognized the photo as belonging to the hitchhiker he had transported the day before. He showed my grandmother and together they went to the local police and my grandfather gave his report.

Some time later Fred Burke was arrested, convicted of multitudes of crimes and imprisoned where he later died.

Whether this incident propelled my grandfather into discontinuing driving OR whether the effects of the Great Depression had a part (they lost their farm and property in the depression), my grandfather sold his car and never drove again.

Over the years books have been written about Fred "Killer" Burke and his part in St. Joseph history though my grandfather's part was obscure enough to not warrant mention. Life as my mother knew it (she was only 4 at this time) could have been tragically different if the automobile ride my grandfather gave Fred Burke had turned out differently.

Fred Burke's Stevensville home today? It is still on Lakeshore Drive and Glenlord Road but is now an office of Coldwell Banker, a local realtor. Wonder what secrets are in those walls (or buried under the foundation)!!

Above photo of Joseph & Ella Kijak - personal collection of Cheryl Schulte


Jasia said...

Great story, Cheryl! It's so different to read a story with local interest now that I live in the area. The next time (and probably every time) I drive by Lakeshore and Glenlord I'll be thinking about this story! Thanks!

Cheryl said...

Thanks, Jasia. This is an incident that was discussed many times when I was growing up.

Greta Koehl said...

Your grandfather's "interaction" with the criminal world is a fascinating story. Some of my husband's distant relatives were "connected," but apparently all that meant is that they did small-time jobs for the crime bosses.