Mr. Katz usually took Howie and me to the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor on Irving Park and Pulaski after we saw the Blackhawks play at the Stadium. We loved Buffalo’s with its delicious homemade ice cream and candies, and its wooden booths surrounded by a menagerie of stuffed animals. Howie always had a hot fudge sundae, and I usually stuffed myself with two scoops of strawberry ice cream and a couple of chocolate-covered cherries.
Although the Mighty Hawks finished in third place during that 1960-61 season, they were dominant in the playoffs, winning their first Stanley Cup in twenty-three years. Howie Katz was an incredibly enthusiastic Blackhawks fan and his dad must have taken us to at least twenty games that season, including two games of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings. Despite my parents’ protestations, Mr. Katz always paid my way.
Howie was my best friend since the fourth grade of elementary school when we moved into the West Rogers Park neighborhood in 1955. A sweet and kind boy, Howie suffered from cystic fibrosis, a disease that he would eventually die from at the age of twenty. Cystic fibrosis causes mucus to block the airways in the lungs, often leading to bacterial infections. Mucus also clogs the pancreas, frequently leading to abnormal digestion and malnutrition. Even today, with all the advances of modern medicine, fifty-five percent of those born with cystic fibrosis die before the age of eighteen. Howie was extremely thin, and every now and then a kid would make an insensitive comment about his skinny arms and legs.
Following sports was Howie’s passion, especially cheering for his favorite teams, the Cubs and Blackhawks. He could answer almost any trivia question, past or present, about both teams. He had team pennants and posters hanging on the walls of his bedroom. A signed Ernie Banks baseball and a signed Stan Mikita hockey stick also adorned the room.
The cystic fibrosis didn’t seem to slow him down too much until his senior year of high school. He was home a lot, using his ventilators more frequently. Despite missing quite a few school days, Howie was diligent in completing his course work and managed to attend his graduation ceremony in June, 1963.
After graduation, Howie enrolled in several courses at Mayfair Junior College that fall. He truly wanted to be an accountant, and he did complete a year’s worth of courses. Then, in late 1964 and early 1965, his disease was getting worse and he had to be hospitalized several times. Things took another turn for the worse that spring, and Howie passed away in June, a few weeks after his twentieth birthday.
At the shiva, Mrs. Katz held my hand for nearly an hour, thanking me for being such a good friend to her beloved son. Mr. Katz, who came to the States as a refugee from Nazi Germany, sat quietly and stoically in his grief. Emotionally I still had not processed the reality that my best friend had died.
Howie was buried in West Lawn cemetery, where today he rests beside his parents. Whenever I visit my parents’ graves at West Lawn, I visit Howie’s grave and place a small rock on his tombstone that has the inscription “forever in our hearts” written on it.