Jerome Fifer | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 23, 2014 6:11AM
“If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice.”
— Benny Goodman
I first met oboist Jerome Fifer near the lagoon in the Marquette Park area of Miller. He was conversing with actor-artist Jeffrey Baumgartner while Baumgartner oil-painted al fresco. Birds of a feather ...
“Romey” jotted down his contact information for me and agreed to be interviewed in the near future, but at a price. I had to take him fishing on the Kankakee River. He’s also an avid angler.
Fifer, 77, is a bachelor who came from Chicago to Gary when he was appointed as city engineer by former Mayor Richard G. Hatcher during his last administration.
“I was born in Cook County Hospital,” Fifer said. “For many years we lived at 4014 S. Dearborn. My father was a railway mail clerk. He went from Chicago to Evansville.”
At what high school did you attend?
“I’m very proud to say that I went to Tilden Technical High School. At the time, it was an all-boys school. There were two technical schools in Chicago back then. Lane Tech was on the North Side and Tilden Tech was on the South Side.”
“The Illinois Institute of Technology. My core curriculum was chemical engineering.”
Tell me about working as an engineer for the city of Gary.
“The position dealt with energy improvements, sanitary landfills and road building. One of the projects was the Grant Street project. I was there for seven years.”
“I got a position in the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. It’s the sanitary district that serves Cook County. My first title was assistant sanitary engineer. I stayed with them for more than 20 years. The job titles that I had as I progressed were sanitary engineer, industrial waste engineer, assistant engineer of treatment operations and, finally when I retired, I was senior environmental engineer.
“My job involved evaluating the amount of money that the industrial users in Cook County would pay the district to treat their waste.”
Industrial users such as?
“Jay’s Potato Chips, Karo Syrup, Ford Motor Co. ... They all use a lot of water, and a lot of different chemicals go into where they discharge. They have to report to the district every year what the volume is. The strength of their waste is much higher than we discharge from our homes.
“The amount they pay to treat these wastes at the treatment plants gets to be in some cases millions of dollars. They take their measurements and make their reports and we may disagree. We have the right to measure their waste just like they do. They might say, ‘OK, we discharged 30 million gallons per day,’ and we might say, ‘No, we measured in July and it says you discharged 70 million gallons per day.’ ”
Without a watchdog making sure big business stays in compliance, they would get away with as much as they could get away with. You’re a fisherman; would you eat a fish that came out of the Chicago River?
“Twenty years ago, I would say it was definitely not advisable. Today, the river has been cleaned up considerably. I would say you could eat some of the fish out of the Chicago River, but I’d restrict the amount you’d eat in a given time.
“That is one of the accomplishments of the sanitary district of Chicago. We’re the ones who reversed the flow of the Chicago River a century ago. The waste from the stock yards and manufacturers went into the Chicago River and were dumped into Lake Michigan, the same lake that we swam in and withdrew our drinking water from. The level of communicable diseases was very high. The district created a barrier between the river and Lake Michigan.”
By reversing the flow, it would take the waste downstream from the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River to the Illinois River to the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
Let’s switch gears. Music?
“My father was a musician who played euphonium and viola. He introduced me to classical music at a young age. I started out on piano and clarinet. I really enjoyed the clarinet.
“Then my father said I should learn to play the oboe. I said, ‘No, Daddy, I want to play the clarinet like Benny Goodman.’ He eventually bought me a Loree oboe, which is like a Cadillac is to cars. I started enjoying the oboe.”
Always in the crossword puzzles: hautboy — four letters.
“Yes, ‘hautboy’ is the French word for ‘oboe.’ Besides playing in the band at Tilden Tech, I also was involved with another organization, the Chicago Youth Symphony, where you have to compete with all the other students of the Chicagoland area to get in. The orchestra was comprised of about 75 musicians; only three of us were African-Americans. Most of the kids were from the suburbs and had had private lessons on instruments such as the French horn and harp.
“I worked hard. Our concerts were at Symphony Hall. One of the most memorable musical experiences of my life was playing the principal part in Brahms’ first symphony when I was 13 years old. The hall was filled. It’s a very difficult part.”
“For 50 years, I’ve been with the Jeanne Fletcher Mallette Music Studios of Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts. For 30 years as an instructor and as director for the last 20. I’ve been a member of the American Federation of Musicians since 1951.”
“I’m the leader of a group that is called The Montage Ensemble. It’s a string quartet augmented with a flute and sometimes me on the oboe. We do weddings, receptions, retirements and anniversaries. I enjoy doing that. We have a nice sound.”
“I enjoy fly fishing for bluegills and bass the most. I caught a 12-inch bluegill out of a lake in Portage and I caught a 15-pound northern pike out of Wolf Lake.
“I’m quite concerned that there is no access to Lake Michigan in the sections of Gary where there is publicly owned property. Public access would enhance tourism in this city and it wouldn’t cost a lot of money.”
Fifer is a regular member of the Gary Civic Symphony Orchestra, which is sponsored by the Gary Historical & Cultural Society. He supports the Shirley Heinze Land Trust with financial donations. He also is a member of Perch America.
Romey Fifer is quite a guy.