In Memory

John Wolens

John Wolens

Date of death:  December, 1997

Residence at time of death:  Glencoe

Occupation:   Inventor, promoter, entrepreneur

Family:  Wife, Heather; two children, Nancy and Craig; sister Nancy (Cook)(HPHS class of 1956)

Circumstances of death:  John suffered a fatal heart attack while boarding a plane in New Orleans to return to Chicago from a business trip.

John's Life:   First of all, he loved his family, his friends and a good (Cuban) cigar.   Next, there was the love for pranks, improbable adventures and telling tall tales, skills he perfected at HPHS.  "Never a dull moment" is a phrase that seemed invented for John, the inventor.   Somewhere between Edgewood and the U. of Colorado he picked up the nickname "Red Wollini."   The reasons for the monicker have been obscured by time, but probably have their roots in some over-the-top fairy tale John invented to undermine some staid institution or stuffy representative of authority.  Thrown out of the Alcyon as a teen for loud talking during a movie, John proceeded to lecture the usher on how this was his last day at home before being sent abroad by the Army to "fight for his country."  He omitted the fact that he was not in the Army.

An inventor of toys and household devices, John held nine patents.  One of them was for a hot air popcorn popper which John failed to interest any manufacturer in producing.  Then one day he saw that a popper suspiciously like the one he had designed was being sold by Woolworths and J.C. Penney.  He sued the two retailers and the manufacturer of the allegedly purloined popper, Wear-Ever Aluminum, in a case that dragged through the federal courts for years.  Ultimately, John lost his patent infringement case, but the lengthy slog through courtrooms provided him with a cherished opportunity to play the little guy fighting the system.  He enjoyed every minute of it.

Typical of John, he filled out one of the previous reunion information forms by proclaiming he had been elected "Father of the Year" by some non-existent magazine and that he was president of the equally fictitious "American Meat-eaters Assn."   It was all published in that year's Buzzbook.   John was restless in both mind and body.  He never stayed beyond the 5th inning at a Cubs game, no matter the score, because there was too much going on outside the park....too many places to foment trouble and fun.  He was a dynamo pixie in a constantly roving Jaguar.

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12/08/08 02:34 PM #1    

Michael Addison

John was a dear friend. He lived down the street from me. When we went to Edgewood, we biked to school every day - rain or shine. When we got to HPHS, I drove him to school. I would wake up in the morning to see his smiling face at our kitchen table. I remember coming home from college and being taken to his basement to see his invention: a popcorn popper using a hair drier. I think he did well with that. I recall coming home from time to time when I was in the submarine force and being asked EVERY TIME "how fast? how deep?. His frustration was palpable when I would not tell him. I recall John proudly showing me his newborn son, Craig, in a car with his wife Heather in the middle of winter in some parking lot. We all miss him.

01/19/09 09:10 AM #2    

Heather Wolens


John and I met in the spring of 1972......he had
me at "Hello." We married in December of 1974. We were
married for 8 years before starting a family. During
that time we traveled in-between John inventing a
popcorn popper, toys, appliances, etc.; all of which were built and tested in the kitchen & bathrooms of our condo
downtown. He never stopped thinking up new products or
a better way to do any and everything. His mind was like
a "Rube Goldberg Machine," it kept on going in many
different and new directions. Life was so much fun and
never boring.

John was a reluctant father, but once home with
Craig in his arms he said this was the best thing I
ever made him do. (He told any and everyone I made him
marry me - but that's another story.) Nancy was born
4 years after Craig. John never stopped being in awe
of fatherhood and loved every moment with Craig and
Nancy (yes, he did change a lot of dirty diapers!!)

He continued inventing in the basement of our
home in Glencoe. He never ceased to amaze me. John
would not like the fact that he is married to an
older woman now - but he doesn't have any say in the

We miss John. He will forever be alive in our
memories and our hearts.

Heather, Craig & Nancy Wolens

p.s. Thank you Eric for a wonderful "In Memory" of nailed him!

05/25/09 02:23 AM #3    

Gene Altman, M. D.

John was a friend and one of the funniest people I've ever known. After school at his house, while his mother would actually serve us milk and cookies. John would be devilishly "trash talking" her (long before we had ever heard of trash talking) and she would joke him right back. That must be where he got it. John also had a "Sergeant Bilko" flair that made him liberating to be around. Rules were made to be broken, as long as no one got hurt, since beneath the bravado he had the world's biggest heart. Of all of us, he would be the one to take a wounded bird home. Many, many times he tried to get my goat, and usually succeeded. One time when I was about to drive over to pick up a beautiful girl for our first date, he began telling me every made up thing he could think of that would turn any young guy off to a girl. I told him he was wasting his breath but during our date I was so nervous trying not to think about all the things he said that it became clear we would never be going out again. John was all sympathy afterwards. He asked me, since I wasn't going out with her again, if I couldn't fix him up with her. I am very sad that John is gone and I won't be seeing him again. But John, I know that heaven is a lot more fun now that you're there.
Aloha, my friend,
Gene Altman

05/25/09 07:11 PM #4    

Nancy Wolens Cook

In the March 4, 2009, Chicago Tribune, Garrison Keillor wrote: "When your brother dies, your childhood fades, there being one less person to remember it with, and you are left disinherited, unarmed, semi-literate, an exile. It's like losing your computer and there's no backup." He further suggests, "If your brother dies, improvise," suggesting that it is possible to find someone with a like voice, gait, laugh, manner of speaking. I agree with Keillor's first thought, but I could never "improvise," nor will I ever be able to "improvise" where John is concerned.
We weren't close growing up; I skinned my knees purposedly when he arrived on the scene, and remember being annoyed when he cut short our family's Smokey Mountain vacation. He had caught the chicken pox at eight and Dad and Mom had to sneak him out of the hotel wrapped in a sheet so we wouldn't be quarantined in Gatlinburg.
We got close after he married Heather and they had Craig and Nancy. Thankfully, generous and loving, he allowed me to be a big part of his kids' young lives; today we still enjoy that closeness and Heather remains my very best friend.
John had a maniacal, read acrobatic mind. He was erudite, intelligent, and obsteperous and we constantly argued politics, he on the right and I on the left. My most favorite memories are of him coming up with one patented invention after another. Some of these were totally preposterous like the "bug belt," which John tested 'down at the point' where the yard at 893 Dean met the ravine. John positioned himself in a chair, all the while smoking a cigar with a cloud of white smoke encirling him. He was positive the device worked wonderously!
We all miss him every day!! Nancy Wolens Cook

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