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Today’s Question:
Sept. 7, 1979

Dear Cecil:

At last I have a question for you! Who was "O'Hare," and why was the world's busiest airport named after him, instead of Amelia Earhart, whom everyone has heard of, and who was a Chicagoan (graduated from Hyde Park High School around 1916)?

Janet Mezgolits
S. Blackstone

Dear Janet:

Amelia was raised in Atchison, Kansas, and Des Moines, Iowa. She worked in a settlement house in Boston before taking up aviation, and however she may have spent her high school years she isn't widely associated with Chicago. I suppose it might have been a nice idea to name an airport for her on general principles besides being a famous aviatrix, she was a real cutie  but that's not how things are done in Chicago. The story of how the city's biggest airport got its name is an interesting example of how things are done in Chicago.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Edward H. (Butch) O'Hare was a World War II hero who shot down five Japanese bombers within about five minutes one day early in 1942, while defending the aircraft carrier Lexington. As the first Navy ace of the war, O'Hare received the Medal of Honor and toured the country to widespread acclaim, at a time when the nation had little else to cheer about. A highly respected squadron leader and an innovative flyer, he experimented with the use of radar to seek out enemy aircraft during night patrols. He was reported missing in action after a dogfight in the South Pacific in November 1943.

Remarkably enough, considering how closely his name is linked with Chicago now, O'Hare was neither born nor raised in the city and spent relatively little time here. He grew up in St. Louis and went to high school at a military academy in Alton before entering Annapolis. His principal connection with Chicago lies with his father, Eddie J. O'Hare, wherein resides the nub of our story.

Eddie O'Hare was a millionaire front man for Al Capone, who was shot to death by (it's thought) Capone gunmen while driving up Ogden Avenue on November 8, 1939. The elder O'Hare had gotten his start as a young attorney in St. Louis defending liquor dealers during Prohibition, and had picked up a liquor conviction of his own in 1924. He was involved in numerous shady dealings around St. Louis and elsewhere when Capone hired him in 1928 to come up and run a dog track in southwest suburban Stickney. When Capone backers opened Sportsman's Park in 1933, O'Hare became president. Smart, well-educated, and socially adroit, O'Hare belonged to all the right clubs and took part in many prominent social activities. His girlfriend (he was divorced) was the sister of a state legislator and one of his business partners was a municipal judge.

During the 30s, while Capone was in jail on a tax conviction, O'Hare ran the gang's racetrack holdings in Chicago, Massachusetts, and Florida. But after a few years as a prominent citizen, he began to regret his gangland ties and became increasingly uppity with his boss, which reportedly enraged the imprisoned Capone. More important, O'Hare was known to be talking to the FBI. He was killed just before he was scheduled to fly to Washington for one of his little conversations.

In 1949, the Chicago City Council voted to name the airport, then called Douglas Field, after Eddie's son Butch. There's little doubt that Butch was a legitimate hero who was famous in his own right; the only point at issue during the debate was whether the word "Chicago" ought to precede or follow "O'Hare" in the airport's official title. But it seems likely Eddie O'Hare's wide connections  licit and illicit with the city establishment may have played a part in prompting a commemoration for his son. Which may explain why "O'Hare Airport" is in Chicago and not St. Louis.

Cecil Adams

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