Woo Woo News - Chicago Tribune
A Fan in Winter
One day in the off-season life of Ronnie 'Woo-Woo' Wickers
By William Hageman, Tribune staff reporter
This crack here," says Ronnie Wickers, pointing out a 25-foot-long fracture in the sidewalk outside Bleacher Gate N on Sheffield Avenue. "This has been here since I was small. In 1957, '58. I used to walk on this. Like this . . . " -- and he tiptoes across the crack like a circus aerialist -- " . . . it's always the same."
Wickers adjusts his Cubs cap, then continues his circumnavigation of Wrigley Field, a journey he tries to take every day. Once he gets back to Clark Street, he heads for the Billy Goat Tavern, where he has stored a bucket, brush and squeegee. The counterman fills the green pail with hot water. Wickers thanks him and is out the door to begin his day job: washing the windows of Wrigleyville businesses.
This is the off-season for one of the Cubs' most loyal -- and some might say most annoying -- fans. From April to October, he's that peculiar guy in the Cubs uniform who emits a relentless cheer: "Cubs! Woo! Prior! Woo! Zambrano! Woo!"
But the rest of the year, his call is muted. His audience has dispersed. And his life, which for years was a mess, moves ahead.
Recently, I met Wickers at one of his favorite neighborhood spots, the Salt & Pepper Diner on North Clark Street. There's no Cubs uniform today -- he has a half-dozen of them at home -- replaced instead by blue jeans, a sweater and a long coat. There is, though, the Cubs hat and scarf.
"I come here every day," he says, sitting by a window, looking out at Clark Street. "It's relaxing. . . . It reminds me of when I was a kid."
Wickers and his twin brother, Donald, were born on Halloween, 1941, and grew up on the South Side. Wickers' childhood was difficult -- he was sickly at birth and spent months in an incubator. He says he was physically and mentally abused by his mother, and he had learning difficulties that prevented him from getting past grade school.
His grandmother, though, stepped in and gave the boy what he would need to survive.
"She was like his angel," says Paul Hoffman, the producer of a documentary on Wickers' life that is scheduled to debut this summer. "All the stuff she was telling Ronnie, she knew he'd need it in his life. She used to say, 'God takes care of the birds, Ronnie, he'll take care of you.' And 'Ronnie, if you don't know something, go talk to somebody; go ask God.' She saved him And baseball was her love. And I think it became his love."
"My grandmother took me to my first ballgame [at Wrigley Field] when I was 8 or 9," Wickers says. "When I got older, I used to come to Wrigley Field. They had that little [Cub] mascot on their uniforms. It reminded me of a teddy bear I had at home."
Over a big breakfast of hash browns, bacon, eggs and grits, washed down by a glass of ice water, Wickers discusses the Cubs ("I'm the grandfather around here now, part of the history of Wrigley Field. Just to be part of that, I'm proud."), what he does for fun ("I'm a good dancer for 62. I like to dance. . . . Music and baseball are good for you."), kids ("I tell kids they should be teachers; that way they can get off in the afternoon and come to the game"), his goals ("I'm trying to go back to school to get my GED"), and his philosophy ("It doesn't cost any money to be nice. I try to be nice to everyone").
Baseball as an anchor
That last precept is another from Wickers' grandmother. His happy childhood memories revolve around her -- and baseball. Over the years, the game was an anchor. It saw him through nearly a decade, from the mid-'80s to early '90s, of homelessness and drinking problems. He turned his life around mostly by sheer will; he just decided he didn't want to live on the streets any longer. And he always had baseball. When life got to be too much, he says, he'd go to the ballpark and talk to fellow fans. When they asked him to cheer, he says, it would help him forget his problems.
"One of the things he always says is `Mind over matter.' It's one of his philosophies," says Janet Tabbit, who befriended him about 15 years ago after getting to know him at Cubs games, and who has sort of taken over the role of his guardian angel. "He believes you can do anything if you want to. That helped get him back on track. And his faith also played a part in turning his life around."
"I prayed," he says. "You have to make up your mind you want to do it. I see people on the street, and I tell them that -- make up your mind and you'll be able to do it."
And Wickers got help, not only from sympathetic fans such as Tabbit, but from players as well, who would occasionally assist him financially, "just to make sure he was OK," according to ex-Cub Leon Durham.
Durham, now a coach in the Detroit Tigers' system, says the players appreciated Wickers' enthusiasm, even if some fans didn't.
"It was nice to know he was in the ballpark," Durham said earlier this week from spring training in Florida. "You'd be up to bat or in the field, and the next thing you knew, 'Woo! Woo!' It didn't matter where he was, left field, right field, the upper deck, you knew Ronnie was in the house.
"It was a blessing to know that he was not just there for the game, but also to inspire the team. To cheer us on. . . . Some fans might have thought he was annoying, but you come out to the ballpark to cheer. You pay your money and you cheer. If you don't want cheering, you stay home."
Through the late '80s and early '90s, the media spotlight shined increasingly on Ronnie Wickers. He appeared onstage with Chicago radio personality Jonathan Brandmeier. He became a frequent sight on Chicago TV and radio stations. ESPN and TBS noticed him, and so did their national audiences. He's now as much a part of the Wrigley Field experience as cell phones in the bleachers.
"Who'd think that at 60 I'd be famous?" he asks. "I didn't. And I'm just being Ronnie. I'm being me."
Most people, though, think of him only as the Ronnie Woo-Woo character.
"He's a very misunderstood person," Tabbit says. "There's much more to him than wearing a uniform and wooing. If people would take the time to know him personally, they would find that he's a very kind-hearted, generous and spiritual person."
"He's not at all polluted by all the stuff in our society," Hoffman adds. "He's pure. Innocent. The innocence that comes out of him, you can't find that anywhere."
That's obvious in Wickers' daily routine.
His first duty of the day is to take his 9-year-old daughter, Yolanda, to school.
"I try to be a good parent," explains Wickers, who shares an apartment with Yolanda and her mother about 10 blocks from Wrigley Field. "I spend a lot of time with Yolanda."
A neighborhood fixture
Most of his income comes from a couple of dozen neighborhood businesses for which he washes windows.
"I make $25 or $30 a day," he says. "Some days, maybe $50 or $60."
(Wickers also makes occasional paid personal appearances at birthday or graduation parties, walks dogs, shovels snow and has even done a couple of commercials.)
On this day's window-washing circuit, Wicker's first stop is Strange Cargo at 3448 N. Clark. He gets right to work, pausing only to return a greeting from a woman ("Hello, Ronnie" . . . "Hello, lady") walking by.
"Everybody knows Ronnie Woo-Woo. Who doesn't know him? He's a local fixture," says Jay Schwartz, who co-owns the business with his brother Sheldon. "He's been washing our windows six or seven years now. Once a week. Then he comes in and gives a Woo Woo when he's done."
When he finishes the 10-minute job, Wickers collects $10 from the cashier and moves on.
The next stop is the Clarkport Pantry, at Clark, Newport and Sheffield, not to wash windows, but for supplies. Wickers goes in and picks up a bottle of window cleaner, half of which he pours into his bucket. Then it's on to Gold Crown Liquors at 3425 N. Clark, where he removes a week's worth of road salt that had been splashed on the windows.
Next is a string of businesses on North Southport. He hits Lindstedt Plumbing & Heating at 3608 N. Southport, Nick's Barber & Beauty Shop at 3704, and Cafe Avanti next door at 3706. He takes a hot chocolate break at Avanti, then heads back toward the ballpark. The walk is punctuated by some cheers.
"WE'RE NO. 1!"
There are no "WOOS!" today. Wickers says he needs to get his voice in shape, something he'll do at spring training in Arizona next month. Where, exactly, did the cheer come from, Wickers is asked.
"I started wooing in '58 or '59," he says. "It just came to be. I had fun with it. And now, with WGN a superstation, CNN, ESPN, it's gotten a lot of exposure."
Wickers, however, has not always had the smoothest of relationships with Cubs management. At one time the team wanted to ban him from the ballpark after he was blamed for a disturbance in the bleachers -- he was wrongly accused, Hoffman says -- but things have been patched up to the point that Wickers entertains thoughts of someday working for the ballclub.
"The Cubs are a good organization," he says. "They've been very good to me. I'd like to be the mascot someday, but that's another dream."
There have been, of course, jerks in Wickers' world. Like the fans who used to verbally abuse him or try to get him drunk. Or the ballpark security people who hassled him. Or the business that paid him less than promised to do a commercial. Or the guy who had Wickers autograph some photos and then resold them. But you'll never hear Wickers say anything bad about any of them.
"They teach you to have forgiveness in life," Hoffman says. "He forgives his mother. He doesn't have any bitterness about anything. I think that's the heart of Ronnie, that he has turned into this loving, kind, human being."
Black walnut shake
Back on Clark Street, Wickers drops in on a favorite spot, Sweeties Ice Cream. He offers to do the windows, but owner Noelle Bou-Sliman declines. Instead, she offers him a black walnut shake, his favorite flavor.
"My store is open year-round, seven days a week," Bou-Sliman says. "Probably six times a month, Ronnie comes by and asks if he can do the windows. Usually he just wants to talk. "
Soon it's off to the office of CPA Robert Chicoine, Wickers' last window job of the day. He first shoots the breeze with Chicoine -- one of the producers of a 2001 video, "Beyond the Ivy" (Bougainville Productions), which features Wickers -- and goes about his business.
Then it's back to the Billy Goat, where he drops off his bucket. He has one more piece of business, so he catches a ride -- usually he takes the Red Line -- north to the Loyola University campus. Near Sheridan and the lake, he visits the outdoor statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
"I try to do it every day," he says. "It's like going to church. I take time to talk to God and say a prayer; I pray for everybody in the whole world."
Like much of his life, this ritual is rooted in the words of his grandmother.
"My grandmother always told me water is powerful, and God listens to you if you pray near water," he explains.
Wickers spends five minutes at the statue, bowing his head in prayer, kneeling, embracing it.
Then he puts his Cubs cap back on and he's off again, walking back in the direction of the elevated that will take him back to Wrigleyville.
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