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Writer Jean Shepherd dead at 78
Works captured life in 1930s, 1940s Hammond

Jean Shepherd, whose "A Christmas Story" and other works rang true for many local residents, died early Saturday in a hospital near his Sanibel Island, Fla., home. Shepherd, while best known for his radio work, excelled as a multimedia performer. His films included the 1983 Christmas classic, a sardonic look at the holiday that he wrote and narrated. He had hoped to call it "Satan's Revenge." Shepherd, 78, was a prolific author and radio and television personality whose storytelling has been compared to that of Mark Twain. He died of natural causes, his longtime friend and business adviser Irwin Zwilling said. Shepherd's health had been failing, but he had been working on a new film recently, Zwilling said. "A Christmas Story" was called "one of the greatest Christmas classics of all time," by TV Guide. It tells the story of Ralphie, a boy living in a town a lot like Hammond, who tries to convince his parents that a Red Ryder BB gun would be the perfect Christmas gift. The movie, set in 1940s "Hohman," depicts the fantasies, hopes and fears of a young boy in an almost-functional household during the Christmas season. Mike Plinovich of Portage was hooked on the movie the first time he saw it and has watched it with his family many times since then. Like the boy in the story, he yearned for a BB gun for Christmas. He had a friend whose tongue got stuck to a drinking fountain in sub-zero weather, much like the boy in the story whose tongue was frozen to a flag pole in the schoolyard. "Being 62, I can relate to a lot of the things in his writing," Plinovich said. "Like going to school in snowsuits, dressed up so tight you couldn't even walk." Plinovich's wife, Irene, chuckled as she recalled reading Shepherd's "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories." "I laughed so hard I was rolling off the couch," she said. "I could understand all of the things he said about some of the ethnic experiences in the area." Just as in Shepherd's story, there were families in her Gary neighborhood who kept a room reverently closed off in case of a possible Papal visit, she said. The basement of a bungalow-style home in the story was painted entirely turquoise, including the furnace. "We knew people who kept their houses like that," she said. Mike Plinovich was so taken with Shepherd's "A Christmas Story" that in 1997 he rigged up a leg lamp just like the one featured in the movie. Using a mannequin leg, Plinovich slipped a fishnet stocking on it, painted a black shoe on the foot and added black fringe to the shade. The lamp has become part of Plinovich family lore, he said, just as lines from the movie have. Charles Tinkham, a Purdue University Calumet English professor, praised Shepherd's works. "I enjoyed the vivid detail about so many of the things I knew," said Tinkham, who grew up across town from Shepherd. Tinkham giggled remembering Shepherd's story about ordering a decoder ring from a popular radio show, only to decode the message to find an advertising slogan for Ovaltine. Shepherd's stories "covered all my important experiences growing up," Tinkham said. Local television personality Tom Higgins said he interviewed Shepherd after the writer received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Indiana University Northwest in 1995. Higgins had come prepared with photos from the Hammond High School yearbook, one of them featuring Shepherd in the school marching band. It reminded Shepherd of how the band's drum major had accidentally flung a baton onto overhead trolley wires. Shepherd joked that electricity across the region was wiped out, and said he'd never liked the drum major, whom he considered pompous. Shepherd was born in 1921 and grew up in Hammond's Hessville section. He attended Warren G. Harding Elementary School and Hammond High School. During World War II he served in the Signal Corps. He attended Indiana University before launching his radio career as host of a show named "Rear Bumper." He began his career on stage in Chicago as a performer at the Goodman Theatre and performed nightclub acts on Rush Street. In 1981, he received the Hammond Achievement Award. He returned to Hammond in 1996 to give a talk to aspiring student authors at Purdue University Calumet at the annual Sigrid Stark Writing Awards. His original written works were under the title "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash." In addition to receiving Playboy's humor/satire award for best writing five times, his series "Shepherd's Pie" aired on PBS. Shepherd's wife, Leigh Brown, died in June 1998. The couple had no children. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Copyright: Copyright 1999 The Times Online