Getting to Know Winnetka’s Own Science Guy

An interview with WHS Board President Charlie Shabica

By Sally Schneiders

It all started just prior to a recent Winnetka Historical Society board meeting when Charlie Shabica plunked down on the table a replica of a Tully Monster, an antique flintlock pistol and a seventeenth century silver Spanish dollar.

Charlie passed each artifact around so we could hold them (although the pistol remained untouched), and asked us what we thought each might represent. I liked this new show-and-tell way of opening meetings! The board meeting commenced and people, myself included, checked their phones for any messages accrued during the previous five minutes, and digital life went on as usual.

However, my thoughts kept returning to this engaging man, our WHS Board President, and his enthusiasm for learning. Who was this guy? Why did he have these objects and what else did he have? I really wanted to know!

When Charles and Susie Shabica moved to Ridge Avenue with their young family in the mid 1970s, I was a teenager living with my family down the street. His PhD thesis work took him (and Susie) from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Institute to the University of Chicago. Their zest for outdoor activity and insatiable, child-like curiosity about the natural world around them was striking. Both he and Susie were active for many years in the Scouts and they prefer exploratory learning–hiking, canoeing, digging, collecting, examining, questioning—all very physical, all very Google-defying.

I subsequently came to find out that Charlie was born in Elizabeth and raised in Livingston, New Jersey. His mother Eleanor, of Puritan ancestry, loved to explore. She often took her three boys to the beach and to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer. She was also an athlete who once beat an Olympic swimming champion in the breaststroke and skied well into her 80s. Charlie’s father Tony was a Sicilian and a Golden Gloves boxer who earned his PhD in chemistry. Charlie decided at a young age: “I want to be a guy that studies rocks and beaches.”

Today Charlie is a coastal geologist, engineer, consultant, and Emeritus Professor of Earth Science at Northeastern Illinois University. He has studied beaches since he was four years old, and now he builds beaches!

A visit to the Shabica home reveals an amazing collection of things that they have gathered: antique maritime paintings, fossils, ledgers, coins, books, restored bicycles and many more items covering window seats, lining shelves and filling cabinet drawers. One shelf displays fish decoys, some hand fashioned and painted by Ojibwe Indians. On another, an eight feet by four feet wooly mammoth tooth anchors a set of books on dinosaurs. Each item prompts a question whose answer might require a walk to the kitchen, up the stairs, to the garage and uncovering such topics as the Mazon Creek Fossil Bonanza, isotherms from the Quaternary Period, Shabica’s ancestor Captain Thomas Swan and his part in the 1772 sinking of the British Schooner Gaspee, arrowheads, and/or the Vetta Man.

But the real cool story is the “beach guy” himself, Charlie Shabica. Here’s what happened when I got the chance to speak with him, one on one:

As I entered the kitchen, Charlie held up a ziplock bag of sand.

“What is this?” he asked me.

“Sand?”

He smiled and leaned toward me, from across the table: “Yeah. But where do you think it came from?”

The sand looked exceptionally pure, light peach in color, finer in texture than Winnetka beach sand and without those flecks of black. I ventured “from the Indiana Sand Dunes?”

He smiled. “It’s from an excavation on the corner of Cherry and Maple that Phil Hoza showed me.” He had a picture of the excavation. “See where they are digging into the ground with the soil zone at the top? And then about 12 feet of sand with clay at the bottom?”

“Okay, so what does this mean?” I asked.

“You tell me.”

He said that a lot, ‘you tell me’, as if I might have the answer! “That Lake Michigan was there?”

Charlie’s ‘yup’ was barely audible.

“When?”

“Well, if we found something organic in the sand or clay, like this, we could carbon date it.” He handed me a small blackened object sealed in what looked like wax. “We found it in 85 feet of water on the bottom of Lake Michigan about 15 miles off Chicago. It’s 8,300 years old.” He looked at it for a while, then at me. “What is it?”

“A piece of wood?” I replied.

“Yeahhhhhh! We had it radiocarbon dated and it’s potted in polyethylene glycol otherwise it would turn to dust.” Charlie explained the preservation process. “We wrote a paper on a drowned forest in Lake Michigan…. Suffice it to say, Lake Michigan has been variously called Lake Algonquin, Lake Chippewa, and Lake Chicago, depending on its elevation. 12,000 years ago, the lake was 60 feet higher than it is today.

If a Paleo Indian family went east down what is now Cherry Street, on their way to the lake the first thing they would have encountered was a wide beach of beautiful fine sand, 12 feet thick. This is what the Illinois shore might have looked like before people built harbors and seawalls in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries…a continuous beach from here to Indiana. The folks who would walk south on the beach, past Grosse Pointe all the way to the Chicago River were Indians, voyageurs and early nineteenth century settlers.

If we were here (Ridge Avenue) 12,000 years ago, what do you think it might have been like without the houses, leaf blowers and sidewalks?”

Silence from my end.

“Hey, it’s a RIDGE.” He emphasized. “Ever hear of the Green Bay Trail? Walk along the ridge… what would you expect to find on the Green Bay Trail?”

“Food? I don’t know, hunting?”

“Yeahhh, the woods, a path and travelers! So this would be woodland, to the east a little bit of a bluff, then a beach, then the lake. To the west a huge lagoon and marshes; Potawatomis called it the Kitchi-wap choku (big wet prairie). The remnants of the lagoon include the North Branch of the Chicago River and the Skokie Lagoons built by the Civilian Conservation Corps to control flooding. The Indians walked the ridge, a geologic feature called the Highland Park Moraine that was deposited by the Wisconsinan glacier.

It terminates at Indian Hill Club, and transitions into a long sand spit that runs south from Indian Hill toward Chicago. As recently as 160 years ago, a traveler (likely carrying a flintlock pistol and a few Spanish dollars for lodging) might have overnighted at the log house at Indian Hill.”

Map showing geological context of the Skokie Lagoons.

Map showing geological context of the Skokie Lagoons.

“Wow, times have changed!” I said.

Charlie reflected a minute and grinned. “So the pistol and Spanish dollars, and the sand and wood samples are components of our collective history…. told as a story, Sally. But unless the story is supported by evidence like the artifacts in the WHS collection, it’s only conjecture… a novel, a good yarn at best.”

Spend a half hour with Charlie and you may learn that his favorite task is to build sustainable beaches or living shorelines, stabilized with rocky headlands and native grasses. But most importantly, you will learn that an inquisitive mind paired with a generous spirit is the winning combination we have in Winnetka’s own natural scientist and first-rate storyteller, Charlie Shabica!

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One Response to “Getting to Know Winnetka’s Own Science Guy”

  1. JIMMY MCNEELY February 7, 2017 at 1:35 pm #

    How very interesting!

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