Look back at streetcar's last ride a reminder of days gone by
Omaha World-Herald - 12/29/2017
The autistic man loves trains and he loved streetcars, and long has told his brother and sisters that he rode on Omaha's final streetcar in 1955.
"The claim was always suspect to his younger siblings," said Denny Hanley (SEE CORRECTION), "because he had a tendency to exaggerate."
John Hanley Jr., whom his family calls "Johnny," is now 77. Recent public discussion of a possible streetcar line in Omaha reminded the Hanleys of his tale.
"It seemed unlikely," said sister Kathleen McGahey, noting that the final run was only for dignitaries.
Johnny was 14. He was the oldest of the Hanley kids who grew up at 50th and Chicago Streets on the Dundee line.
He loved riding, and Kathleen said he had a savant-like knowledge of streetcar routes.
Said Denny: "This was his freedom, his escape, his joy. Everything else in his life was complicated, confusing and difficult."
Streetcars went away, and life in the city moved on. Johnny lived at home with parents Kathleen and John Sr., an attorney, and worked at the downtown post office, loading bags into trucks.
He rode buses to and from work, retiring after more than 30 years. He never grew to love buses and often reminisced about streetcars and "the last ride."
Despite the family's doubts about his being there, there was no doubt about their love for their developmentally disabled sibling.
"I have often said the world would be a better place if everyone could spend 10 minutes with my brother," Denny said. "He will be your best friend in a matter of minutes. He is the kindest, sweetest man."
Never married, John Hanley Jr. talks about rock 'n' roll history, streetcars and trains, and current events.
After his mother died, he and his dad moved to a retirement center. And at the 2007 funeral after John Sr. died at 90, a representative of the VFW presented Johnny the flag that had draped the World War II veteran's coffin.
As the family walked away, Johnny said: "I guess we're orphans now."
But still a family.
Last summer, Kathleen attended the annual Dundee Day celebration and came across a copy of "Dundee, Nebraska: A Pictorial History." She bought it to give to Johnny, and then flipped through the pages - until she was startled by page 31.
It showed a photo of a streetcar near 50th Street and Underwood Avenue with a banner on the side,
"Official Last Trip." Three official-looking men stood in front - and in the background stood the unmistakable form of 14-year-old Johnny Hanley, wearing earmuffs and a tan jacket.
So he was right all along! Here was proof that he, at the least, was present.
Did he make the actual final ride on the streetcar with the dignitaries? He told the family the streetcar operator knew him by name and invited him on board.
The photo was shot by train enthusiast William Kratville, and the Hanleys contacted his daughter, Cate, in Wisconsin. She searched her late father's negatives and found it.
His files didn't identify the people in the photo, nor did a caption in the Dundee pictorial book. World-Herald coverage in 1955 mentioned streetcar operator Joseph McCabe but showed different photos and no listing of the final riders.
Richard Orr, a streetcar enthusiast who died in 2013, shot film of streetcars, including the final ride. In the late 1990s he transferred the film to a video, "Streetcars of Omaha and Council Bluffs, 1947-1955."
The Hanleys recently watched the video and saw a slender figure through a window that looked like Johnny, wearing the same color of tan jacket as in the photo. They no longer doubt that Johnny made the final ride.
Said Denny: "We believe 100 percent that he was on it."
To celebrate, all four of his siblings, including sisters Margaret Ross and Mary Sindelar, took him to dinner this month at Cascio's Steakhouse for "Johnny's Christmas party."
They surprised him with a framed copy of the "last ride" photo.
"He wept when he saw it," Kathleen said. "I had never seen my brother cry tears of joy. Sad tears many times. A boy with autism was often misunderstood back in the '40s and '50s."
The family also took him to the Durham Museum in the old Union Station. As he has before, he got on the old streetcar on display and waved out the front window.
Last week another framed copy of the last-ride photo went on display at his favorite lunch spot, Shirley's Diner in Millard.
"Johnny," Denny quipped, "thinks he's famous now."