Conrad Albert Wennerberg, a familiar figure to many Hyde Park residents, died at his home on the afternoon of September 8, 2016. Wennerberg was a fixture at the Promontory Point dating back to the early1960s. “Connie was the ‘old man’ of the Point in the great Hemingway tradition,” recalled his friend, Sherry Gutman.
“His decades’ long relationship with Lake Michigan and the Point gave each of us a sense that we had a richer, deeper relationship with this special spot than we had. It was his gift to us — to welcome us and make us feel at home and come to cherish the unique experience of slipping into the Lake and swimming freely in open water for as long as we wanted, or could stand the temperature.
“Connie led the way for those of us who for whom the Point is sacred place to respond to the coming of winter by putting on snow clothes and sitting in the feeble winter sunlight of the Point, to dream together of the next time we could get in that water and swim away,” she added. Neighbor Steve Wood admired Wennerberg’s wit and charm. “He kept us laughing and listening as he spun his jokes and told his stories. Hyde Park has lost a little bit of its history and character with his passing,” Wood said.
Wennerberg was born on June 20, 1932, to John and Frances Wennerberg. He grew up at 63rd and Winchester, in the neighborhood of Englewood, in a family of five. His parents owned Wennerberg’s Bakery, which operated even during the rationing of World War II. Wennerberg graduated from Lindblom High School and attended Wilson Junior College. He was accepted into medical school at the University of Chicago, with an interest and focus on what would later become known as sports medicine. He dropped out and became attracted to marathon swimming.
He moved to Hyde Park in 1969. He held night manager jobs, at the Illinois Athletic Club and the local Walgreens, so he could swim four to five miles each day. Beyond working and taking his daily swims, he coached marathon swimmer Dennis Matuch and worked with Ted Erikson, the first double-crosser of the English Channel. Wennerberg also traveled to Canada’s La Tuque, where he coached and explored marathon swimming. He developed a keen interest in cold water swimming, which is an element he brought to his coaching. Cold water swimming became a norm for him, as he had swum in Lake Michigan every single day of the year for seven consecutive years. He was so devoted to his daily regimen that he would take an ice pick or axe to chip away ice from the lakefront, to gain access to the water.
In 1974, he wrote “Wind, Waves, and Sunburn,” a book chronicling the history of marathon swimming. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1977. Next, he spent the decade between 1980 and 1990 working as a crossing guard for the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Many locals still remember him from those days.
Wennerberg was a man of many passions.He was an avid bird watcher and enjoyed spending time in Jackson Park’s Japanese Gardens and Bobolink Meadow. He had a fascination for sewing machines, which took root at the age of 8, when his mother taught him to sew. He quickly mastered the skill and soon became curious about the machines themselves and how they operate. He began collecting and repairing them. He scoured the Maxwell Street flea market, searching for a good find.
His friend Laura Pedelty appreciated Wennerberg’s intellect. “He was a self-made polymath — his interests and expertise ranged from birding through anthropology and neurosciences to ancient Egyptian history, and he was always reading or thinking about something new,” Pedelty said. “He had no end of opinions and loved to share arcana and anecdotes. She also enjoyed his warmth. “Conrad had charm in abundance,” Pedelty added. “He was larger than life, and the world will be a smaller place without him.”
He was a man with lifelong friends, including cobbler Constantine (Gus) Lukis of Hyde Park Shoe Rebuilders. Wennerberg repaired leather goods for the shoe repair store. He’d fill a large red knapsack with items, would carry them home, fix them and bring them back to his friend, Gus.
Perhaps his deepest passion, though, involved his family. He and Christine Vollmer were married in 1981 at University Church in Hyde Park. Their daughter, Ingrid Wennerberg, was born in 1989. Their daughter, Dana Wennerberg, was born in 1992. Wennerberg remained devoted to his mother, too, nursing her during her early 90s, while caring for two pre-school daughters. He became a full-time dad in 1990 and spent his daughters’ childhood years walking them to Sinai, Akiba Schechter, or William H. Ray School, and picking them up. He relished getting his daughters out-of-doors daily, rain, snow, or shine. The little girls also knew they could always count on their dad for some tasty morsel – some nuts or fruit – that he would fish out of the many pockets of the vest jacket he was wearing.
Wennerberg never tired of learning. He was a voracious reader and derived great pleasure from working crossword puzzles. He even picked up the violin during his 60s. Perhaps it was to learn alongside his daughter, Ingrid, or maybe, just maybe, so he could learn to play “Beautiful Dreamer,” his favorite song. Wennerberg went on many travels during his life, but best liked the comfort of his own home. He tackled many jobs, too, but he frequently said that being a full-time parent was the best job he ever had – and the hardest.Print Obituary & Condolences