John Heflin and Delbert Elmore have been friends for nearly 50 years.
They’ve been neighbors for just as long too, beginning in the 1960s when both lived next door to one another with their families on the West Side. It hasn’t been that long since they simultaneously called the West Side their home. Today, their home is a retirement facility in suburban Oak Park. And just like their days on the West Side, they’re next door, or next room, neighbors.
“I thought he’d never come,” said Heflin, 91, who moved into the Oak Park Arms in 2006. Elmore, 89, moved there in 2010.
Elmore’s adult children, William and Aluria, were searching for a safe, secure and comfortable community for their dad. As it turned out, an apartment opened up at the Oak Park Arms right next door to Heflin, who had been cajoling his old friend to join him for some time. Since then, Heflin and Elmore haven’t missed a beat.
They discuss the pros and cons of everything, ever cracking jokes at their own and each other’s expense, and, of course, continuing to be neighborly, as they have for most of their adult lives.
It all started on the 1800 block of South Karlov in K-Town – the cluster of “K” named streets nestled in the North Lawndale community. Before that, both men would make their way from the South as part of the Great Migration generation.
The early years
Born in Birmingham, Ala., in a family of 10 children, Heflin came to Chicago via Kentucky. In the 1920s, the Heflins moved to the Bluegrass State to find work in the coal mines. When the Great Depression shut down the coal mining industry, Heflin headed to Chicago.
In 1942, John and Delbert were both drafted. During WWII, Heflin was a bugler, army engineer, and T-5 corporal. Deployed to Scotland, England, Belgium, Germany and France, his most memorable battles were Normandy and the crossing of the Mosel River.
During wartime, one of his jobs was to disassemble the “booby traps” enemy troops had planted, including land mines. He also helped build bridges.
Elmore was born in Holly Springs, Miss., one of seven children, and served his country in the Army Air Corps in India and Burma, where he traveled to Bombay and Calcutta. As a private first class, he was stationed in combat zones, living among snakes and dangerous animals and witnessing many casualties. One of his most vivid memories was when he and his unit were on a convoy of boats as the Japanese attacked.
“It was prayer time, not prank time,” he recalls.
His unit received the Battle Zone Award.
Post WWII, Elmore returned to his wife, Alma, in Mississippi, and soon after moved north to Chicago. In 1945, Heflin met his future wife, Lorraine; they were married in 1949.
“She punched me,” Heflin laughs, “and I knew what it meant.”
In 1956, the Elmores purchased a three-flat on the 1800 block of Karlov, and in 1962, the Heflins moved into an apartment next door. Lorraine and Alma became fast friends, so he and Heflin had no choice but to be friends, Elmore said, smiling.
“We’ve always done neighborly things; rake each other’s leaves, shovel snow, oversee the houses. My yard was his yard, and John was always a good neighbor. For others, that is not always the case.”
Delbert’s daughter, Aluria, recalls that Karlov, even during the turbulent 1960s, was an oasis of safety and love. The tight-knit neighborhood was anchored by Original Providence Baptist Church and fortified by extremely involved neighbors and friends who did things together – holidays, block club meetings, neighborhood parties, banquets and so on.
“I’m sure it is just human nature to be in an area where you can find love and be respected,” Aluria said, “but in that time, respect for African Americans was a totally different ballgame than it is now. On that block you actually felt like you were someone, and you knew who you were.
“It’s the truth,” adds Aluria, a 60-year-old mother of three adult daughters who now resides in Los Angeles. “I didn’t know anything about gangs or drugs until I got to college. On my block growing up, everybody knew everybody, and I couldn’t come out the door without everyone knowing everything I was doing.”
She notes that every child had a mother and a father, and they remained married for 40, 50 even 60 years. She remembers that Mr. Heflin and his wife didn’t have any children, so he became everybody’s dad.
“What we experienced is not what is written in the textbooks now, or in the newspapers,” Aluria said. “It was totally different, and my parents, as well as the Heflins, were a big part in creating that world for me. Really, I wouldn’t have made it without Mr. Heflin. He’s a beautiful man. Both of them, their whole lives, they have been very blessed.”
Heflin softly adds that through the years, he and Elmore experienced many things together – including the death of their wives.
Friends for life
Overlooking Oak Park Avenue from their comfortable retirement community, for the two olds friends, it’s like the old days on South Karlov.
“Here at the Oak Park Arms, we often say the best neighbors are our friends,” says Jill Wagner, the facility’s marketing director. “It took Delbert four years to join his old neighbor at his new address, but he came, and I don’t think it was just fate. When John and Delbert reunited, they have been inseparable ever since.”
They eat meals together and while away the hours chatting with their other neighbors, Ron, Chuck and Howard. They still attend all kinds of “neighborhood” activities: socials, wine and cheese-tasting parties, and birthday parties, usually interjecting a wry comment, followed by a slow southern smile.
“We are still taking care of each other, but there just is not a lot to take care of these days,” Elmore says, as always, smiling.