ELMHURST – When three Chicago-area historians decided to spend a day exploring a local stretch of the original Route 66, they stumbled upon long-forgotten stories that demanded retelling.
“We keep running into these great stories, and how can you not tell them?” independent journalist Maria R. Traska said.
She, and two geographers – Joseph Kubal and Keith Yearman – decided to write a guidebook to the metro Chicago span of Route 66 from its origin in Chicago to Joliet.
With one story in particular, they felt compelled to give a happy ending.
A story that demands a happy ending
On the west edge of Elm Lawn Memorial Park, under dirt and grass, lies Bruno Schustek. A headstone does not mark his forgotten grave.
“Here’s an early hero who has no recognition right now,” said Yearman, an assistant professor of geography at College of DuPage.
Schustek died July 6, 1930, trying to rescue the heiress of Peter Fahrney’s pharmaceutical fortune. “Madcap” Merry Fahrney departed Stinson Airport, in what was at the time considered La Grange but now is the Vulcan Materials Company quarry in McCook. The 20-year-old Cough Syrup Heiress, as she sometimes was called, decided July 6 would be as good a day as any to try skydiving.
“She was like the Elizabeth Taylor of her time,” said Traska of the woman who would go on to marry and divorce eight times.
That Sunday began Fahrney’s headline-grabbing, heartbreaking future. Her chute caught on the wing of the plane and in prime damsel-in-distress fashion, she dangled for two hours while others tried to save her. As the plane burned through gas, former German war pilot Schustek and Charles “Bud” Geiger devised a plan.
With Geiger as pilot, Schustek climbed down a knotted rope from the side of the plane. Accounts vary on whether Schustek actually untangled Fahrney’s rigging, but just as he reached the wing of her plane, Fahrney’s chute opened. She drifted safely to the ground, but an exhausted Schustek fell 600 feet to his death.
“It’s one of the stories of courage along the route, I think,” Kubal said.
According the trio’s research, more than once a memorial service of planes showered Schustek’s grave in flowers shortly after his death. Unsure if an original grave marker fell victim to anti-German sentiment during World War II, or possibly vandals, Yearman, Kubal and Traska are determined to give Schustek’s grave a proper headstone.
“He’d been one of those flying aces during World War I,” Traska said.
Group starts fund to honor hero
The Bruno Schustek Memorial Fund is just one of the side projects to emerge from the book venture, but the team feels strongly about it. It hopes to have a proper headstone and dedication ceremony by the 85th anniversary of his death in July 2015.
Intrigued by the physical remains of the original 1926 Route 66 landscape, the researchers think background stories like Schustek’s are just as valuable.
“This is what geography is all about in my opinion,” Kubal said. “It’s man’s impact on the landscape.”
While the authors have not yet completed their book, The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago, those interested can visit curioustraveler66.wordpress.com to read stories or to donate to the Bruno Schustek Memorial Fund.