Home / News / Wendella’s Bob Borgstrom dies at 89 after a lifetime in the river

Wendella’s Bob Borgstrom dies at 89 after a lifetime in the river


Robert Borgstrom has spent most of his life on the Chicago River as one of the owners and captains of the Wendella pleasure boats. He made the last of his thousands of voyages down that river on June 2, 2020, standing on the deck of the fleet’s newest boat as he watched the city go by, saying: “Fifty, 60 years ago this was an ugly, filthy river and 20 years ago it wasn’t so good. Sometimes I found corpses floating around. But look, the river is now clean and the shores come alive with trees, little parks and restaurants. All of this has helped me appreciate him more.”

Robert Borgstrom, whom everyone calls Bob, died early August 24 in his home nursing home in Glenview. He was recently hospitalized after his second heart attack this year, a condition complicated by advanced kidney disease.

“My father’s fall was quick but he was not in any pain, and we made him as comfortable as possible,” said Michael, son of Wendella’s president. “His death occurred just before his 90th birthday.”

“My father is the main reason why the tour boat industry here is so vibrant and successful today,” said his son, Steven, the company’s former vice president, before retiring a few years ago. “In fact, the name Wendella has become synonymous with sightseeing boat trips in Chicago, the generic name for boat tours, like Kleenex or Scotch tape. Our family mourns for this man who gave us everything we need in this life.”

Wendella has always been a family business. It all started in 1935 when an imposing 1.8-metre, 4-inch Swedish immigrant named Bo Albert Borgstrom began operating a 97-passenger wooden boat that traveled from Navy Pier for 25 cents. Within a few years, the boat was moved into the shadow of the Wrigley Building, which remained its riverside home, and was built after World War II. Apart from World War II, he successfully carried out sightseeing tours touting “The World’s Most Beautiful Skyline”.

Robert Borgstrom was born on September 9, 1933, one of three sons of Bo Albert Borgstrom and his wife, Alice. She started working for her father when she was 14, stopping off on Michigan Avenue trying to persuade passersby to take a boat tour. These were rough and bumpy times, and Borgstrom recounted hand-to-hand fights with rival boat companies’ employees, stolen boats, and worse.

In his youth he fell in love with a girl named Lila Hanna Olson, one of three daughters of a German-Swedish immigrant couple. They both went to Senn High. “I first saw him at Foster Avenue Beach,” Bob said. “We really grew up together. That’s when we fell in love and we never stopped falling in love.

They married in 1952 and eventually embraced their sons Michael, Steven and Robert (who died in 1959) and settled on Chicago’s North End. Lila, who served as the company’s secretary-treasurer for a while, worked from home but took her younger sons with her when she had to go down to the river. “I know you’re very proud that my brother and I got into this business,” Steven said.

Lila’s death in 2011 was hit hard, and Bob began to devote less time to the day-to-day operations of his company.

“He had mostly started the company alone, and when it came time to leave, I think his ego was at such a level that he happily and confidently allowed the next generation to continue it,” said Michael. “Not just to preserve, but to grow even more.” (The fleet currently consists of five tour boats and five water taxis).

Bob spent more time in Florida, where he loved to play golf and fish and spent some of the winter months with Lila.

Whenever he was back in town, he would visit old friends like Sam Sianis, owner of Billy Goat Taverns. They were the same age, and Bob was proud to be the salon’s first client when he opened the underground location on Hubbard Street in 1964.

Receiving the news of Bob’s death, Sianis said, “I am so sorry to hear that Bob passed away. He was such a close friend, almost like a family member. There were many mornings where we had breakfast together, sitting down and talking about work, but mostly family.

Bill, the eldest son of Sianis, who now runs the operation, says: “Bob was a kind and generous person who always tried to help you in any way he could. My father and Bob had a similar work ethic. … There are endless stories.”

Robert Borgtrom, Wendella president and captain of the Wendella Sunliner headquarters, offers riders a free ride and free coffee on July 24, 1987, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company's transportation between Chicago's Madison Street and Michigan Avenue piers.

Borgstrom had been the healthiest-looking member of the crowd that had gathered in Billy Goat’s “Wise Men’s Corner” for decades. There he became close to Mike Royko, a columnist and frequent visitor to Billy Goat. Both men can be difficult to approach, “but once you get to know them,” said Sam Sianis, “they had such soft hearts.”

“Bob is the only person who knows more about fishing than I do,” Royko told me before he died. “I’ve never had a bad word with him either.”

Bob was also part of the so-called “Beer Club for Men” regular Friday afternoons at Laschet’s Inn in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. Like actor and writer Brendan Sullivan, his sons were also part of the “club”. Sullivan said: “Actually, he was there a few weeks ago and he looked fine. It’s a shame, of course, but I have very good memories. He was kind of an expert on films noir from the 40s and 50s and always spoke of his family with great pride.”

As time passed, Bob started to get closer to home.

“She would always come in and sit alone,” said Jill Crane, a Glenview native and author who works as a hostess at the Gusto restaurant. “I never wanted to offend him but over time we became friends.”

This friendship developed into an even deeper relationship, and the couple have lived together for the past nine years. “He’s a great guy, great,” Crane said. “He was always very confident and protected me. He liked Sinatra, I was Led Zeppelin, but we got along very well. He was just a lover.”

She was with her son Mike when she died, and she said: “It’s wonderful that my father found love twice in one lifetime.”

Borgstrom has four grandchildren and nine grandchildren, Christie, Valerie, Grace, and Katherine, three of whom work for Wendella, as well as sons Michael and Steven. A memorial service and celebration of life are planned.



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