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Victor Banks, Sr.

August 22, 1927 February 6, 2016
Victor Banks, Sr.
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Obituary for Victor Banks, Sr.

Victor Banks, who started his career as a bricklayer's apprentice at a desperately-needed penicillin factory during the V1 bombings in London and eventually emigrated to Chicago to work on some of the city's most iconic buildings died at his home in Oak Park, Illinois on February 6 according to his family. He was 88.

Mr. Banks's memories of the Nazi bombing raids remained with him his whole life and he often talked about how the war affected him in one way or another. But he also admitted that for him and his boyhood friends, the start of the war was exciting. Strolling through Crystal Palace Park during a 2008 trip to London with one of his daughters, he happily recalled going up to the hill of the park to watch German bombers and British fighter planes dive in and out of the sky.

Wartime efforts encouraged parents to get their children out of harm's way and at the age of 12, he and other students from Penge Oakfield School were evacuated to the coastal resort town of Exmouth in the south of England. Mr and Mrs Sandcraft chose him from the crowd of children because the headmaster said that he was a star student and could tutor their son, Archie, with his schoolwork. Victor was not only an able tutor to Archie but became a surrogate brother and son.

Life was not always peaceful in Exmouth. The first night he slept in the bed he shared with Archie, a rogue bomb was dropped near the Sandcraft house and the explosion left rubble and what Victor thought were "crumbs from Archie eating biscuits in bed." It was an inauspicious start considering he had gone to Exmouth to escape the war.

Victor easily settled into life with the Sandcrafts and often enjoyed long chats with Archie and Mr Sandcraft in the evening while taking the dog for walks along the scenic coastline.

Victor described one afternoon outing in Exmouth with friends along the shore where they spotted a Zeppelin in the skies over the ocean. The vision of its slow-moving shape and the swastika that appeared on it were undeniable. During WWII, Germany used Zeppelins to carry out electronic scouting missions along the British coast, and Victor and his friends had unwittingly spotted one. The looming Nazi symbol was an ominous sign of things to come, as Germany was on the eve of deploying its most deadly weapons on Britain.

Victor and the Sandcrafts remained in contact for many years after the war, and Victor visited them occasionally throughout his life. He often described this period as one of the happiest times of his life but that may have been in part because his evacuation was abruptly cut short.

By August of 1940 Victor had to leave Exmouth and return to his home in London. By then the bombings had devastated his native town of Penge due to its location south of London where many of the bombs fell short of their intended mark, central London. When he walked from the platform of the train station at Penge East, tired from a long day of travel, carrying his gas mask, and not pleased about having to return, he looked down at what was his neighborhood and there lie piles of rubble. Some places were still smoldering and there was a strange smell. He described Penge as "a scene out of hell."

Soon after returning home, Victor's father found him employment cleaning up debris from explosions, and patching damaged buildings. The experience gave him a window into the widespread destruction and the power of the V1s. That same month he witnessed the German air attack which destroyed Croydon Airport just southwest of Penge. The attack was meant for the more strategic Henley Airport four miles south of Croydon. Nearby factories and homes took the biggest hit in this raid in which 62 civilians lives were taken and 192 people were injured.

In later years Mr Banks recalled a traumatic incident from August 1944 which haunted him for the remainder of his life and which he recalled just a few days before he died. "My father and I were going to work and there was a hill and we came over the crest of the hill and this flying bomb came down and by the time we got up from flattening ourselves down on the ground, the bomb hit the pub. There were two friends, identical twins, that used to go there for their food every day and when we came down over the crest of a hill, we had heard a screeching noise and there was nothing we could do about it. The two twin brothers were 16 each." The explosion near the clock house on Beckenham Road killed 44 people that day including everyone in the pub. The blast extended hundreds of yards in each direction.

Mr Banks enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1945 and it was during this time that a friend introduced him to classical music. Consequently, Mr. Banks enjoyed a lifetime appreciation of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. His enlistment was a two-year affair that trained him to become an air mechanic and assistant pilot while doing flight runs from an aircraft carrier off the coast of Scotland.

With the war over, the rebuilding of London was in high gear and after leaving the Navy, Mr Banks returned to Penge to continue working as a bricklayer. Making a steady living allowed him to purchase a classic British marque motorcycle called Matchless. At the same time, he also invested in dance lessons and it was this winning combination that attracted Paula Zyto to him. Ms Zyto was a Holocaust survivor from Poland with her own extraordinary story, and one evening they found themselves at the Beckenham Baths, an indoor swimming pool that once covered would transform into a dance floor. Mr. Banks asked Paula to dance and she accepted. At the end of the evening Paula told him that she had a strict curfew at the children's home where she lived and worked, and Victor offered to take her home on the back seat of his Matchless. The couple soon fell in love and spent weekends touring the English countryside, while summer days took them to Brighton and Margate along the British coast.

In 1952 Victor and Paula married. Paula however was restless and had bigger dreams beyond what England could offer them. Having heard that bricklaying jobs paid better in Toronto, they obtained visas and booked passage on the RMS Georgic. They would take a boat to American and a train to Canada. Mr Banks recalled that the moment he stepped off the boat in New York they were nearly swindled. "Luggage was unloaded at Pier 90 where inspectors checked the insides of bags. This inspector wanted $25 for our 9 bags which contained all our worldly possessions. I called a customs official on it, for charging the $25. There was no $25 fee. And we didn't give it."

That first American experience did not stop the couple from packing up and moving to Chicago a year later. Mr Banks wrote a letter of introduction to the bricklayers union in Chicago and through that communication he was assured that Chicago's union wages were better than Canada's, and that jobs were easy to find. They arrived by Greyhound bus and he landed a job his first day in America working on apartment buildings in Maywood. They rented a basement flat on Washington Blvd from a friendly couple who invited them to their first Thanksgiving dinner that memorable year.

Mr Banks was a skilled conversationalist, a trait that came in handy as a tradesman who needed to be a good networker and have a group of loyal friends. The nature of his work meant he went from job to job; as soon as a building was complete he was out of work. The extreme weather also made the work sporadic and it was difficult during long spells of harsh winter weather to find steady work. Mr Banks persevered, often finding side jobs on the weekends to supplement his income. In 1962, now the father of five young children, he and his wife bought their own brick building, a bungalow, in the Austin neighborhood known as the Island where they lived for almost 50 years. Eventually Victor went on to contribute to such great Chicago landmarks as the Hancock Tower, The Standard Oil building, the Sears Tower, and the Monadnock building, the tallest brick building ever constructed.

He had endless affection and admiration for his late wife whose own psychological trauma as a Holocaust survivor he understood. Whereas Mr Banks spoke frequently about his war experiences, his wife never did. When asked by his children why he thought she could never talk about her past, he often said we should never expect Holocaust survivors to be normal. He credited her with giving him the confidence to go to Canada and then to the United States and subsequently achieving what they both considered to be the American dream.

Perhaps Mr Banks's greatest passion in life was swimming. When his family was young he often took his wife and children for afternoons at the lakefront. Later in life, his summer home-away-from-home was the North Avenue bend at Lake Michigan near the chess pavilion where he spent many hot summer days conversing with his tight-knit group of friends, and, as long as the waves were calm, going for lengthy swims in the lake. For him there was nothing that could compare to the glorious combination of lakefront and skyline. His appreciation of Chicago, nature, and his friends were all bound together for many years there.

Regardless of having to end his education at the age of 13 to start his apprenticeship, Mr Banks was known to his friends as something of a scholar. He studied and spoke French, Russian and German, and had a philosophical and thoughtful way of looking at life. And while he loved art, literature and classical music, he understood the immigrant experience and enjoyed talking about his own past and humble beginnings. This remarkable combination of traits drew many people close to him and gave him a wisdom and sincerity that will be remembered and greatly missed by many.

Mr Banks is survived by his children Michael (Andrea), Judy (James) Patterson, Monica (Robert) Zinn, Ben (Asami Imai), and Victor Jr. (Linda Dare); and his grandchildren Eliana and Sarah, Louis and Oliver Patterson, Maya and Aaron Zinn, Everett, Liam, and Graeme; and his sister Joyce (the late John) Harrison. He was preceded in death by his son David.

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