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Longtime reader, phone friend makes a final call

The late Mike Rosewell was a South Side newspaper reader who regularly called columnist Donna Vickroy with his ideas and opinions. He passed away April 4. (Anthony Souffle / Chicago Tribune)

He loved science, technology, history and talking.

He was a "phone pal," a guy who called just to chat, to offer ideas, to compliment and sometimes criticize my work, and to always, always remind me of the importance of this job. We never met face to face, only chatted on the phone about stories and events and ideas.

It’s hard to believe that at one time people like Mike Rosewell were ubiquitous.

That was back when newspapers landed on most driveways and reporters had time to chat casually with readers about all kinds of things. Back before the web demanded immediate attention and cell phones and social media turned us into sound byte texters and convenience communicators.

Nevertheless, when Rosewell called, we talked. About World War II, our parents, world history and the Midway Airport neighborhood he lived in.

Once the 69-year-old South Sider told me about the time he and his buddies rode their motorcycles down Swallow Cliff.

"We were young and stupid and lucky to have survived," he said.

He didn’t share much personal news, only that he’d never married but was close to his nephews.

Truth be told, there were times I’d sigh when I’d see his name on the caller ID. I was busy, even on Fridays, when he typically longed to chat. And there were many times when I wished he was on social media, so I could get back to him at a more "convenient" time — as if there was such a thing.

And then there were times I was so grateful for his calls — after my mom died, after a big news event and after I’d written a story I was particularly proud of.

Though he was in poor health most of the time I "knew" him, there was a time, he said, when he fashioned himself an inventor. He’d asked me many times to look up his patents and let him know my thoughts.

I didn’t. Just like we often don’t do the things we believe we simply don’t have time for.

We blame time constraints for not visiting people, not returning phone calls, not taking an interest in people’s problems or passions.

We are all busy people, aren’t we?

But he took the time to read the paper. And for that I was grateful.

And he took the time to not only read my column but offer an opinion on it.

Sometimes he’d throw a tip my way. After Navy SEALS took out Osama bin Laden in 2011, Rosewell called to mention that parts for the helicopters used in the raid were made in Bedford Park. I visited the plant and came away with a neat story.

If I had to call Rosewell anything, I’d call him a throwback. To a time when people paused to not only catch up but actually get to know each other.

The funny thing is I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup if my life depended on it. We never actually met.

I offered to. A couple of months ago, he called to tell me he was dying.

I immediately said I wanted to visit him. People who’ve chatted over the phone for more than a decade should meet face to face at least once, right?

Truthfully, I was a bit apprehensive about it because we’re naturally apprehensive about death.

Even as I was making the offer to visit him, I was wondering what I would say.

What does one say to someone who is dying?

Collectively, we are not very good at containing our own fear long enough to be comforting. But I wanted to be.

At first he agreed and we set a date to meet. Then he called back to cancel.

"I am sick and bloated and a mess," he said. "I don’t want you to see me like this. I don’t want anyone to see me like this."

I told him I believe every body should go to its grave "used up," that it was a sign the owner appreciated the vessel enough to give it a run for its money.

Still, he held his ground.

On April 4, he called and breathlessly told me doctors said, "It will probably happen within a few weeks."

In a flurry of emotion, I tearfully told him I was sorry and asked if he was at peace with his family and if he felt he had lived a good life. I asked if he was ready to die, the whole time wondering if anyone is ever really ready to die.

He said he was, that he’d lived a full life and that dying was as natural as being born.

He also told me he’d made all of his own funeral arrangements so that family didn’t have to.

His last words to me were, "Keep writing, keep doing what you do. It’s important. Don’t ever forget that."

He died the next day.

Before I could thank him for his insight, his loyalty and his friendship.

And before I could tell him that I’d finally looked up his patents and that they were out-of-this-world impressive.

Twitter @dvickroy