This big city detective led an adventurous life
Question: What do Astronaut Neil Armstrong, Hippie protester Abby Hoffman and “Spiderman” have in common? Answer: They all came face-to-face with John Nalepa, with predictable results. And who is John Nalepa? He’s an Englewood retiree who spent 33 years with the Chicago police, mostly as a plainclothes detective who matched wits with many of the unsavory types who inhabit our nation’s urban areas.
The typical real-life police detective doesn’t resemble the picture painted by movies and television. His days are spent largely doing necessary but boring tasks – manning a desk at headquarters, filling out reports, shuffling papers, walking or cruising a beat on the city streets, maybe conducting a lengthy stakeout – punctuated by an occasional hair-raising call to action that may involve risking his life. But John Nalepa’s career seemed to involve a lot more of the latter than the former.
He was born and raised in Chicago, the younger by 11 years of the two sons of Stephan and Mary Nalepa, both of Polish heritage. Dad was variously a carpenter, leather tanner and steelworker who worked days, and Mom supervised the janitorial and maintenance operations at First National Bank, spending much of her spare time evenings as an officer of the Local 29 union of building and maintenance personnel. So it was that his older brother Joe served as John’s mentor and role model. When John was 11 their Dad died unexpectedly, and Joe’s role intensified. “He was stuck with me then,” John recalls, “and I was a skinny, whiny kid.”
But he grew up fast. A good athlete, he played high school football at Lane Tech, the largest all-male high school in the country, and he hoped to get a football scholarship to attend college. That didn’t happen, and he ended up waiting 32 years to get a college degree. He decided to try for the police force, in part because brother Joe was a Chicago policeman. “Joe came home one day with an application form, and I took the exam to become a police cadet, at age 17,” John recalls. “There were 64 openings and about 5,000 applicants.” John was in the top 20 on the test and became a cadet with the Chicago PD on July 1, 1963, six days after graduating from Lane Tech.
His first day was eventful. He showed up early in the morning at the 19th District front desk, and the desk sergeant wasn’t there yet. While he waited, a man came in carrying a shotgun and laid it across the desk, announcing that he had just shot some men after an argument during a game of craps. “This was my first hour of my first day, and I didn’t know if he was just joking or what. I asked him if he was serious, and he said yes. So I asked him to wait and found someone out back who handled the situation.” No one was killed, the man was arrested, and John’s career was off to a bang-up start.
Being a police cadet involved three years of moving from department to department as low man on the totem pole, learning all the duties and responsibilities of police operations: desk sergeant, the automotive pound, printing and graphic arts, vice department, timekeeping, case reporting and the like. In 1966 John took the patrolman’s exam, finished in the top five and became a uniformed Chicago police officer, assigned to Beat 2001 along Chicago’s northern border with Evanston. Within the next year he learned to drive a 3-wheeled motorcycle, was drafted into the task force that patrolled an area including the beachfront and Lincoln Park Zoo (“It was a picnic!” he remembers) and took the exam to become a detective. He aced the exam and became a plainclothes investigator in December of 1967, specializing in burglaries. “That was my first love,” he says. “The best career men I met were burglary detectives.”
John met up with Abby Hoffman in his first year on duty. During the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968, he and his partner were parked near the International Amphitheatre early one morning when a lady approached their car. “Are you policemen?” she asked. They said they were. “Well, that man over there accosted me and frightened me half to death.” She pointed to a thin man wearing a huge, wide-brimmed hat who was entering a restaurant. John and his partner got out of their car, went into the restaurant and found Abby Hoffman at a table with Tom Hayden, Alan Ginsberg and a young woman. When they approached the table, Hoffman got up and started to leave. John took pursuit and wrestled Hoffman to the floor, holding him down and handcuffing him. They brought Hoffman in and filed misdemeanor charges against him. Hoffman was released on his own recognizance and was later rearrested at the same convention for inciting a riot. He and Hayden, along with five others, became widely known as the Chicago Seven protesters during the Johnson presidency.
John and his fiancée Ellen were married in 1968, and thereafter he embarked on a ten-year stint during which he worked variously as a burglary sleuth, served on the gang crimes unit and headed a narcotics unit in the city. Then, in 1979, he was asked to run a “mission team” for the CPD. These teams consisted of ten hand-picked men who were given specific tasks. John’s team targeted burglars. “This would have made a great TV series,” he says. “We were knocking off safecrackers, storefront burglars, jewel thieves, you name it. We’d arrest them, determine who their buyers were, recover the stolen property and prosecute both parties. No one got a break.”
John and his mission team received over 60 commendations for their exemplary work during a six-year period.
On one occasion they caught a “Spiderman” wannabee. This cat burglar would enter high-rise buildings in the late hours, take an elevator to the roof and then climb down the side of the building to balconies on each floor until he found a way through an unlocked door or window.
They staked out several buildings until they finally spotted him, caught him when he returned to the rooftop, and brought him in. They recovered more than $120,000 in jewels and cash.
In 1982, John achieved a certain celebrity status when he was asked to be one of two Chicago detectives to work with four FBI agents as bodyguards for the Chicago parade for the original astronauts who walked on the moon. John’s assignment: Neil Armstrong. He met Armstrong and was instructed, “Stick to him like a doorknob to a door.” John did so. He got to walk beside the parading convertible that carried Armstrong, Michael Collins and two other astronauts from the Apollo program. “We walked about a mile or so through the streets of Chicago, without incident–except that Neil accidentally knocked my sunglasses off when he was waving to bystanders,” John says with a laugh. “And when the parade was over, Armstrong was taken back in another car and I had to walk another mile or so back to where I had left my car.” But John’s picture, sunglasses and all, was plastered in all the newspapers along with Armstrong’s, a small bonus for his efforts.
During the last few years of his tour of duty with the CPD, John went in his off-duty time to Lewis University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice. It was ironic. “I could have taught the courses,” he confesses. “With all my work experience, I sometimes gave the instructors advice” on topics they studied. “In retrospect, I wish I’d gotten my degree a lot earlier, when it might have helped my career.”
Along the way, John also served 12 years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, his duties including translating and interpreting in Polish and an assignment as a gunnery sergeant.
John retired from the CPD in 1996, and he and Ellen headed immediately for Englewood, where they had bought a house. “I love the pace of life here. It’s sedate, quiet, but there’s something to do every day,” he says. That something includes golf, at which he and Ellen excel. Both have tournament championships under their belt. And their interest in golf extends beyond just playing: They recently ran a charity golf tournament for the benefit of Loveland Village which raised $1.4 million in donations for that worthy institution. They enjoy dancing, at which they are whizzes as well. And if you ever see John’s impeccable impersonation of “Blues Brother” Dan Akroyd, you’ll never forget it.
By the way, if you ever want to hear a good detective story, John’s darn good at that, too.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: email@example.com. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person's background.