Monday, September 21, 2009

Romy Hammes - 1900-1981: Illinois Business Genius, Philanthropist and Good Guy -The Man from Kankakee

I taught a good many Hammes kids while at Bishop McNamara from 1975 until 1987 and the Hammes legend was very familiar to me.

However, I tripped over a story about Romy Hammes that really put the hook through my gills -it has every thing! well, aside from the Communist onslaught moving south in Vietnam no violence - yet - and no sex - though I am quite postive that procreation and adultery took place circa 1956.

Refugees, Persecution, Vietnam in the 1950's, 1950-51 Fords and Trucks, International Law, Catholic Charities, Notre Dame University, South Bend, and . . . more to come.

Romy Hammes

If there was ever one person from Kankakee, Illinois, who had it all and did it all it was a businessman with a seemingly inexhaustible Midas touch.

In September 1946, Kankakeeans who knew Romy Hammes were not surprised to discover he had received nation-wide recognition in a seven page article, "U.S. Success Story 1938-1946," that appeared in Life magazine. (This was Hammes' second appearance in Life, the first had been in a 1938 story on the automobile industry.) In 1974 the photographer that had taken the pictures of Hammes for Life, Bernard Hoffman, published a biography about "The amazing, meteoric like rise of a grass-roots American from small-town Ford salesman to international businessman" and titled it "The Man from Kankakee: The Story of Romy Hammes, Twentieth-Century Pioneer."

Born in 1900 to Anton N. and Mary Hammes, Romy Hammes grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
At the age of seven, Romy began helping out at his father's shoe store.At sixteen, having completed courses in bookkeeping, shorthand and typing at the University of Wisconsin Business School, he went to work for the local Ford dealer, Harry Dahl.

By 1926, Hammes had married Dorothy Hofweber and had won a nationwide Ford sales contest by selling 107 Model T's . He was then offered a dealership management position by the Ford Company.Given the choice of Atoma, Iowa, or Kankakee, Illinois, Hammes chose Kankakee in partnership with Dahl.
Hammes soon opened dealerships in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; DeKalb, Illinois; South Bend, Indiana, and Chicago.He also became a distributor for Ford-Ferguson tractors in fifty-two counties.

At the time Hoffman had contacted Hammes for the 1946 Life article, he learned Hammes, besides being a very successful Ford distributor owned an investment trust company, was a director of Kankakee's City National Bank; had opened Marycrest Business College.He also was dealing in real estate and building homes.When Hoffman returned in 1961 to take some pictures for Life's twenty-fifth anniversary issue, he found Hammes and his wife Dorothy, because of their generous philanthropic and charitable activities, had received the highest homage the Catholic Church can give to laymen.Anarticle in the January 1951 Kankakee Journal told the story:

"The honor of Knight of St. Gregory, conferred last week upon Romy Hammes of Kankakee by Pope Pius XII, is greater than many laymen appreciate.Not more than 100 men in the entire world may be accorded this knighthood, established in 1821 by Pope Gregory XVI. . . . "Mrs.Romy Hammes has been accorded the medal, "Pro Esslesia et Pontiface," in recognition of her services to the Roman Catholic church.The awardswere announced by the most Rev. Martin D. McNamara, bishop of Joliet diocese. . . ."

By 1970 The Hammes family had spent over 2 million dollars "in worldwide church and school construction."

Hammes expressed his credo in a 1970 Kankakee Sunday Journal interview:

"'About 20 years ago I decided to take the Blessed Virgin in as a partner,' said Romy, 'I decided to give her 25 percent of whatever I earned.After all, where do you get your good health and good fortune but from the Lord, and you must do something in return.'"Hammes's philanthropic and business projects embraced countries around the world as well several cities in the United States.They ranged from erecting a high school, church and bank building in Las Vegas and a resort hotel in Honolulu, to contributing to the establishment "of schools, orphanages, hospitals, living quarters and missions from Hong Kong to Africa."

In 1955, Hammes bought the Singer manufacturing company property in South Bend and Chicago. He planned a shopping center on the South Bend property and donated the 10-story Singer office building in Chicago to Chicago's First Church of the Nazarene.

On a local level Hammes built Marycrest Shopping Center and St. Teresa's school and church in the Marycrest subdivision of Kankakee; donated an outdoor statue of the Blessed Virgin to St. Joseph's Church in Bradley and opened branches of Peoples Bank of Marycrest in Bradley and Bourbonnais.

Romy Hammes died in December 1981 at the age of 81.

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