Fred Gorniak, of Lake Village, can no longer walk or talk because of multiple sclerosis and throat cancer. "I always remember someone out there has it a lot worse than me," he said. | Jeff Manes~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 14, 2013 6:08AM
“My happiness grows in direct
proportion to my acceptance.”
— Michael J. Fox
Fred Gorniak, 50, spent the first 30 years of his life in South Chicago. For the past 20 years, he has lived in Lake Village.
Gorniak used to play the drums and worked as a millwright, but not any more. Because of multiple sclerosis and throat cancer, he can no longer walk or talk.
Gorniak wrote his replies to me on an erasable board. It’s not the first time I’ve conducted an interview in such a way.
Growing up around 93rd Street in Chicago?
“I remember rolling down the railroad hill in an empty refrigerator box with my buddies,” he said.
Did you fish Wolf Lake as a kid?
“Oh, yeah. I fished Wolf Lake, Calumet Park and Powderhorn.”
Did you catch a few channel cats?
“We caught everything.”
Several years ago, I interviewed a musician named Eric Lambert who grew up near where you did. He’s probably a few years older than you. I believe Eric attended Mendel Catholic High School.
“That name sounds very familiar. I’m Catholic, but I don’t brag about it.”
Is Gorniak a Polish name?
“Yes. My father worked as a meat cutter, in heating and air conditioning, and was a steel worker who ended up in the millwrights. My mother’s maiden name is McGregor. After retiring as a nurse practitioner, she became a lawyer. Mom is my power of attorney because I can’t speak.”
Life after George Washington High?
“I got into the Chicago Millwrights, Local 1693. I did that for about 17 years.”
Did you enjoy being a union millwright?
“I loved my job. I worked on a lot of conveyor belts in steel mills and coal mines. I also spent a lot of time at Dresden Generating Station in Grundy County.”
The first privately financed nuclear power plant built in the United States. I’ve boated right by it. The plant is near the confluence of the Kankakee and Des Plaines rivers, which forms the Illinois River.
How old were you when got into the millwrights?
“I was 18.”
Did you serve an apprenticeship?
“No, I bought a card. One day, I couldn’t spell millwright and the next day, I was one.”
When did you realize you had multiple sclerosis?
“I started feeling it when I was 20; the doctors didn’t know what I had until I was about 26. Thank God for MRIs.”
How long were you able to work?
“Until I was about 38.”
Have you ever been married?
“No, I’ve lived on my own since I was 20.”
Can you use a walker?
“Not since 2010. After my throat surgery, I had to lay in bed for almost three months. The muscles in my legs went flat like a tire. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Your inability to speak?
“In 2010, I suffered from Stage 3 throat cancer. But I won’t let things bother me; I deal with it. Hey, I can drive; my car has hand controls.”
You have a good attitude.
“I try to keep a positive outlook and stay happy. I always remember someone out there has it a lot worse than me. My doctor asked me, ‘Why are you so happy?’ I said, ‘Why not?’ ”
After having to put down his wrenches because of his disease, Gorniak attended culinary school from 1998 to 2001. He told me lamb is his speciality and he continues to cook for small parties and weddings. At Thanksgiving, he prepares turkeys for his friends.
In 2007, as a participant in Skydive Boogie for M.S., Gorniak jumped from 14,000 feet. On his board, he wrote down for me: “It was a RUSH!!”
And, then, Freddie Gorniak smiled.