Gasoline cost 19 cents a gallon.
Chicago’s public broadcasting station WTTW has just begun. A former University of California-Berkeley professor of criminology was elected Sheriff of Cook County in a freak reform movement. The largest supermarket in the US was being built by the Hyde Park Co-op, a consumer-owned corporation. Laura Fermi, the widow of the man who invented the atom bomb, started the first clean air anti-pollution campaign and Early Wynn was pitcher for the White Sox World Series winning team.
The year was 1959.
All of these people, and more – some famous, some not – bought their gas, oil and car service from Sam Bell – a guy who changed his last name to rhyme with his Shell service station. Sam’s and his gas station became a famous institution in the annals of Chicago urban renewal. He began his long association with Shell Oil as an accountant in their Loop offices. Unhappy with a desk job, he talked his way into a service station franchise. Sam located his Shell station at the northern end of Hyde Park- Kenwood at an intersection of two arterial streets with access and egress to the Outer Drive, Chicago’s lake front freeway. He had a fully equipped service station with three service bays, two gasoline islands, an inventory of tires, batteries, parts and accessories – with plenty of parking. Sam was compulsive about cleanliness. A grease spot was acceptable, but a rolling bottle cap was taboo.
Bell attracted drive-in customers with a bright red and yellow sign, “Buy Shell From Bell” showing the Shell logo superimposed on a bell. He joined and supported the local civic and business organizations: Lions Club, Kiwanis, Kenwood Chamber of Commerce, Hyde Park Business and Professional Association. His photograph appeared regularly in Hyde Park Herald news stories showing Sam as champion fund raiser for the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cancer Prevention, etc. Sam was attentive to these ‘extra curricular’ activities from his desk, leaving the station for an occasional business luncheon or to attend all the White Sox home games. An ardent fan, he had box seats at Comisky Park. I, a mother as well as an ad rep for the Hyde Park Herald, was among numerous customers who presented Sam with a brand new baseball seeking signatures from the White Sox winning team Since nearly all the players were Sam’s regular customers. The autographed ball was delivered within a week to a delighted boy or girl.
Sam’s rules for service: never let a customer drive away without having his front and rear windshield cleaned, always check the oil, radiator and battery water; always check the tires. If a child were in the car, he or she was given a “Buy Shell from Bell” balloon. If one of Sam’s “boys” forgot any of these things, he got a thorough reprimand if not probation.
“This is not a filling station,” Sam yelled across the drive. “This is a service station. That’s service, S-E-R-V-I-C-E”. he spelled with a roar.
“Both windshields. Front and back. Got it?”
“Check the tires and water. Got it?”
“And every kid gets a balloon . Got it?”
If one of the “boys” didn’t get it, they weren’t at Bell- Shell very long. Sam had a record of the lowest turnover in personnel of any service station in the Midwest.
The Bell-Shell logo was ubiquitous on Sam’s give-aways: ice scrapers, matches, balloons, charge slips, service orders, shirts the “boys” wore. He managed a service station and that meant service: He kept a file to remind customers when they were due for an oil change, new tires before the tread wore thin or when battery warranties were almost up. He was a top-notch sales person but he was also a warm and caring mensch.
One blustery snowy January day I was in Sam’s office, just off the service drive, waiting for enough time to talk about his ads when we both looked out the window to see a new Cadillac trying to manipulate its way along the icy streets toward the station. Barely missing a telephone pole, skidding past a parking meter, an impatient driver pulled into the station, demanding gas in a hurry. Sam reached for his jacket, left the office with a hurried “excuse me”, and headed toward the sedan. He chatted with the driver through a slight opening in the window. Pretty soon, Sam motioned one of the boys over, whispered something, then invited the customer into the office to warm up with a cup of coffee while snow tires were installed.
The first time I met Sam had been on a similar freezing day. I’d recently joined the staff of the Herald and was getting to know new accounts – who they were, what they required. I was beginning to get a feeling for different kinds of merchants – the kind who was undecided and who took a great deal of time trying to figure out if they wanted an ad, and if so, what merchandise would they put in it. There was the passive- aggressive kind who would welcome me warmly, then immediately become busy with anything that wasn’t an ad, full well knowing that my job was just to be patient – forever, if necessary. There were the efficient ones who knew exactly what he/she wanted, what an ad should say, how it should look; Sam, who was always busy, knew precisely what he wanted in his Firestone ads: always his picture and the Buy Shell from Bell logo. It took time to get it all together. He would start a sentence, run out on the drive, come back, almost finish the sentence before he ran out on the drive again, only to return and complete his thought – as easily as if there were never an interruption. Sam was like an eight-armed Shiva.
There were times when Sam, or his boys, appeared to be literally, angels. If one were a Bell-Shell customer, they didn’t fool with AAA emergency service. AAA took five to six hours to come out and recharge a battery on a cold morning. Sam took at most an hour and a half. On just such a cold morning, my 1951 Plymouth wouldn’t start and I had the pre-school carpool that day. I called Sam – all four phone lines were busy. When I finally reached him, he told me he couldn’t possibly get to me for over an hour. He was really backed up. “But listen,” he said, ” if you can’t find anyone to pick up the kids, call me back”. Which I did. “Okay, okay,” he said, probably holding the phone with one hand and ringing up the register with the other. “Don’t worry,” his voice rushed. “Just tell the school to pin addresses on the children and I’ll send one of the boys over in my car.” Like Sam said, “we give service – S-E-R-V-I-C-E”
I get a lump in my throat whenever I remember that beastly cold day and the wiry little man (Sam wasn’t tall by the tape measure, but miles high by the heart) seeing that my kids and all the other kids got safely home. He was like that, not just for me, but all his regular customers. We were his family. Oh, he could get angry and he had a temper, but the edges were soft and tender, I either didn’t notice or forgot. Once he grew angry with me, not over advertising – he was always pleased with the Herald – but because I had brought a bottle of Scotch for the boys for Christmas. Sam rightfully blew up and made the boys return the whiskey to a sorely embarrassed me.
Sam’s photograph appeared in all his ads next to his “Buy Shell from Bell” logo. This self same photograph, in connection with one civic group or another appeared at least bi-weekly in the Hyde Park Herald. If there were ever to be a prize for the most photographed person in Hyde Park surely Sam Bell would win. Late one evening, after putting the paper to bed, my boss, Bruce Sagan, looked at the previous week’s sixteen page Herald and guffawed. Sam’s picture appeared four times: once in his ad, once with the YMCA, once for the Lions Club, and once for the Chamber of Commerce. “I think we ought to do a series of full page ads with just Sam’s picture on it”, I suggested in jest. Bruce could take the silliest of ideas and make them sail. “Hey”, Bruce said, “that’s a great idea. We can start off the series with some big-shot -like the Southeast Chicago Commission’s Julian Levi. We could picture him blowing up a Buy Shell from Bell balloon, with a headline that read: “Hyde Park Windbags gas up at Sam Bell’s.” After we finished laughing, we simultaneously said, “well, why not?” We knew it was not politic to ask Levi, who probably wouldn’t have admitted to being a wind bag anyway, so Bruce himself volunteered to be the windbag.
Our second ad showed Sheppard Lehnhoff, first violist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, getting a tune-up while Sam held battery leads to the fiddle. This particular ad also publicized a local chamber music concert.
Rus Arnold, a Hyde Parker and professional photographer, knew the ins and outs of photographing service stations and, an added asset, previously had worked for Shell. In a short while, Sam Bell’s ad pages became a community project. Organizations who wanted publicity for an event would call Sam or me, pleading for an ad. “Sam, we’re having an exhibit at the Art Center, can you give us a plug?” We placed a local artist with her easel and her palette filled with motor oil in the middle of Bell’s drive. The caption: “Painting with oils at Sam Bells”, For the Kenwood Annual Open House, we posed Sam at the station as a welcoming committee to two little girls with their a doll house. We had strict guidelines: each person (identified in ads with a Shell Credit Card) and had to be a bona fide credit card holder and the organization had to be not-for-profit.
We – sometimes my family, sometimes the Herald staff, or sometimes Rus – had a great time inventing relevant and amusing ads. My favorite page regrettably, had an extraordinarily poor press run. One cold, snowy December day, my colleague, Ellen Shira, and I dressed up in choir robes, placed aluminum halos on our heads to pose with Sam in his Buy Shell from Bell uniform and cap. Sam held an oversized book, the cover of which read:, “Hyde Park Herald Angels Sing Season’s Greetings at Sam Bells.”We kept the series going three years, every other week, thinking up clever headlines. It wasn’t easy. Often quick-minded Rus saved the day, with Johnny-on-the-spot creativity, like the time it rained on an American Cancer Society shoot. Rus handed me the proof sheet, with his suggested caption: “Sam Bell Rains Support for cancer”. The photograph showed everyone under umbrellas.
The series ran until Shell refused to share costs anymore – Sam could not afford full pages without the help of the parent company. I made a special appeal to Shell national office for continued cost sharing which they refused. Even though a third of Sam’s customers had left the area, his total charge customers had increased by 40% – in part with new people moving into Hyde Park and in part with expanding his base within the community. In 1961, three years after the termination of the series, the first thing our new across the street neighbors wanted to know was, “where is that gas stations everyone says is so great?”.
The city planner maps and the claws of urban renewal bulldozers attacked Sam’s station. The street was to be re-routed, making it more efficient. A group of Hyde Parkers testified before the Planning Council urging that Sam remain at his present location and that the street be re-routed otherwise. Sam was, they felt, an important community institution. An uncomfortable compromise was reached. Sam was allowed to remain at his old location only until a new site could be found. Neither Sam nor the community knew at that time that Mr. Buy Shell from Bell was obligated to accept, without question, whatever location the city offered. Soon demolition began on the two main arteries which intersected at Sam’s corner, 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue. Streets were blocked first by demolition, then by construction. Furthermore, motorists never knew which streets would be open when. Sam lost customers when people changed their driving habits. Within a year, Sam was offered a temporary location: a contractor’s-type trailer adjacent to where his new station would be. It was heated by a kerosene heater, Sam had one gasoline island, only one service bay and parking space for a few cars. Worst of all, the site was in the middle of the block, making left turns in or out almost impossible. Only the vision of his new station under construction on a lot next to the trailer kept Sam going. He lost some of his “boys” because he didn’t have the service business to keep them. Faithful customers often had to wait in line. Sam’s former “Buy Shell from Bell” station was a pile of rubble.
That winter was as bitter as Chicago winters can get – especially as near to Lake Michigan winds as is Hyde Park. Snow, freeze, melt, snow, ice melt and thus the cycle went. Sam had difficulty getting snow plows on and off his drive. With his reduced crew of boys, he couldn’t keep up battery charges as he had once done. Bad times fed one another. Sam had a heart attack. A year and a half after Sam vacated his 47th Street and Lake Park location, he moved to his new permanent quarters. Despite the mid-block location and only two service bays, Sam opened the new station with fanfare. Members of civic organizations, elected officials, important people and neighbors all came. Sam’s small office was filled with flowers. Champagne flowed. Many people who had changed their gas buying habits, returned. Some did not. Sam tried to keep his old verve, but friends and loyal customers sensed a slowing down of energies.
Six months later, while greeting a customer Sam had a second heart attack. He never recovered. For a while, Sam’s son, Dennis, took over the station, but Dennis preferred indoor work. The station was sold.
I am sure that Sam is up there somewhere, at the Pearly Gates, watching as the angels come down to earth.
“Hey, you can’t let that angel out without polishing her halo.”
“Hey, be sure you preen those wings before you leave the Pearly gates.
“Remember, this isn’t just any old gate. This is the Pearly Gate to Heaven, where things are always done right.
“ Got that, Heaven. H-E-A-V-E-N !”