Winnetka Way: Sam Otis

Gazette Article by: Louise Holland
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1997

Winnetka Way articles are written by guest columnists who have been asked to share their memories of an aspect of Winnetka that they remember fondly. Winnetka Way articles debuted in 1994 and continue to the present.

“Happy is he who grew up with a good name, and departed this world with a good name.”

Such a man was Samuel Shackford Otis. Born in Chicago in 1891, he was a lifelong resident of Winnetka. A graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Graduate School of Architecture, Otis was also editor of the Harvard Lampoon. Sam practiced architecture for almost 40 years in the Chicago area. His signal contribution to our village is the Cenotaph on the Village Green, dedicated in 1927.

I first met Sam Otis in the fall of 1970. Having just moved to Winnetka, I was asked to host a meeting of those who favored the Democratic Party. There were only six of us in my living room that evening; one guest was Sam Otis, a 79-year-old gentleman who was a storehouse of Winnetka lore. He regaled us with anecdotes of village history. He loved Winnetka with an intensity that could have been ignited only by belonging to one of the first village families.

The projects that attracted Sam’s attention were varied. He was active in the Winnetka Historical Society, the Save our Electric Plant Committee, amateur theatricals, Winnetka Caucus, and Democratic Party; he was also commander of the American Legion Post. One of his last visions was a pedestrian bridge from Spruce Street over the train tracks to the Community House. Many were delighted by his oratory on these subjects. I remember Sam’s tongue-in-cheek eloquence when he addressed a Town Meeting about the color of Winnetka leaf bags. He was most proud of his Memorial Day assignment. Standing in his best suit and V.F.W. cap on the Cenotaph that he designed, Sam read the roll call of our honored war dead.

In later years Sam devoted most of his time and effort to the children of the neighborhood. Every afternoon a group of all ages would gather outside Otis’ home on Walnut Street. The treat of the day would be candy, Bugles, or occasionally, a cold hot dog from his refrigerator. If weather permitted, Sam would gather the children and take them on a field trip to the Village Green. He would stop every so often to show them a tree he had planted with his sister. He would describe the interior of one of the homes on the Green that was built by his father, architect William Otis. The children were totally entranced as he shared his vivid recollections of playing on what he believed to be the wreckage of the Lady Elgin, which sank in 1860. A photograph in the archives of the Winnetka Historical Society shows Sam and his sister scampering over the timbers that had washed up at the foot of Spruce Street. What an adventure! Sam was a hero to these kids, and their memories of his kindness and stories remain with them to this day.

Webster’s defines the word integrity as “soundness of moral principle and character; uprightness; honesty“—an accurate description of Sam Otis, a special friend and neighbor. A man who truly believed in word and deed that Winnetka was and is a “beautiful land.”

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2 Responses to “Winnetka Way: Sam Otis”

  1. May 6, 2022 at 10:07 AM #

    My memories of Sam Otis go back to the 1960s when I did his yard work and snow removal. He prepared a written contract on a legal pad, plus a carbon copy that he gave me for my records. In it, he introduced me to the concept of “retainage.” My hourly rate was $1.35 from which 35 cents was deducted and retained. The idea was to ensure that I faithfully completed all of my duties. At the end of each calendar quarter, Sam released the retainage to me. A big bonus!

    Sam was constantly inventing things that would make life easier and more efficient. For example, one device was a scanner machine that would enable a shopper to place the items to be purchased on a conveyor belt. Each item had a “code” on a label that the machine would
    “read” as it went through and record the price. When all the items had been scanned, the total price would be displayed and the shopper would pay the clerk. Sam prepared detailed drawings and a written description of the equipment and its operation. This was decades before bar codes and scanners that are so common today. I don’t think Sam applied for a patent. He was definitely a man before his time.

    One fall, Sam showed me a mushroom that grew on one of his trees. He said it was laetiporus sulphureus, and if one fried it in butter, it tasted like chicken. He hacked a big piece off with his pocket knife, put it in a paper bag and told me to bring it home to my Mom. Sure enough, it was delicious!

    Those were the days when dogs ran free throughout the neighborhood. Invariably some of their excrement got deposited on Sam’s lawn. So he had a shovel that was devoted to picking it up. He told me it was the “sh*t shovel” with his signature chuckle.

    Sam’s wife “Gert” became hospitalized and underwent major surgery.
    Because Sam didn’t own a car, he hired the older brother of one of my classmates to drive him down to Evanston Hospital and back every day to visit Gert. After Gert was discharged from the hospital, she was unable to walk uptown to shop for food and other necessities. So, Sam bought an electric golf cart and convinced the Winnetka Police to allow Gert to drive it on the local streets. She decorated the cart with hand-painted flowers.

    Sam’s and Gert’s yellow cottage is long-gone; but every time I’m in the vicinity, I stop there and think about happy days gone by.

    • May 17, 2022 at 2:28 PM #

      What wonderful memories to share John. Thank you so much.

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