If this were an obituary for Ed Gombos of Addison, we’d probably identify him as a man who ran a quixotic campaign to become the U.S. president in 1996 after seeing an image of Jesus in the wood grain of a door eight years earlier.
But Gombos, sole proprietor of a silk-screen business that produces T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts, approaches his 85th birthday with the same energy, vigor and head full of ideas he had back then. Plus, he has other stories to share.
“I taught Charlton Heston how to do a handstand against a wall,” Gombos says, explaining how he met the actor in 1970 on the set of “The Omega Man,” in which Heston played the survivor of a biological warfare pandemic. Gombos supplied the warm-up suit Heston wore in the movie.
The two became friends, and Gombos kept Heston in warm-up suits for decades.
“You’ve taken good care of me over the years and I’m grateful,” Heston wrote to Gombos in a 2003 letter, kept in a binder of nearly two dozen letters the men exchanged from the 1970s until Heston’s death in 2008.
Reaching into a wall of shelves containing his collection of more than 3,000 VHS tapes, Gombos pulls out a copy of “The Omega Man,” pops it into his VCR/TV combo and loads up the moment where Heston, wearing the warm-up suit he got from Gombos, explores an abandoned sporting goods store of mannequins wearing more of the 300 warm-up suits provided by Gombos.
“After the movie, I sold all those suits to James Garner, Lorne Greene, a lot of the Hollywood people,” Gombos says, dipping into another file filled with receipts that he has saved for 50 years.
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“You know who John Wayne is?” he asks as he plucks out a receipt from the time Mrs. Wayne bought her husband one of those warm-up suits. Glen Campbell’s receipt is in the same file.
“There’s a lot here, an awful lot,” says Gombos, who provided outfits worn by Robert Redford in the movie “Downhill Racer,” Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy in the movie “Snow Job,” and Clint Eastwood in his classic “Dirty Harry” movie.
“I’ve had interactions with a lot of Hollywood people.”
Gombos had his moment in front of the camera in a 1964 television commercial for Alberto-Culver’s Command Hairdressing, which he has on another VHS tape.
“Maybe they called the Olympic Committee and asked if there was a gymnast who had long hair,” Gombos says as the black-and-white tape shows the former Mid-Western Gymnastics Champion rubbing the gel in his locks, performing a routine on high bar and landing a perfect dismount with his hair still in place. “I made $5,000 in residuals.”
In his USACO business where he makes silk-screen apparel, Gombos hangs a banner from the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and an official warmup suit he supplied for the USA Gymnastics team. The Elgin watch he received as a member of the 1958 national champion University of Illinois gymnastics team and perennial Big Ten championships still works, but Gombos wasn’t quite good enough to make the Olympic teams.
He did, however, provide official outfits for several U.S. Olympic squads.
Standing near a banner from the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Gombos points to a poster for the movie “Miracle,” about the U.S. hockey team that shocked the heavily favored Soviet Union team on the way to the gold medal. “They wore my USA Hockey shirts,” Gombos says.
Having taken a vow of poverty, Gombos still travels to high school sporting events to sell some of his inventory of more than 5,000 shirts and donate some of his profits back to the schools.
He makes shirts representing dozens of sports and featuring more than 40 nations. In February, the Illinois High School Girls Gymnastics Coaches Association presented Gombos an award “in recognition of valuable contributions and dedication to Illinois High School Gymnastics.”
Gombos has saved more than a thousand thank-you letters from schools, athletes, movie stars and presidents.
“He truly wants the world to be better. He does want to make a difference,” says his daughter Debbie, who with her sister, Julie, has tried to help their dad get a handle on his collections and might be willing to part with some of it through his firstname.lastname@example.org email.
“He has impacted so many people, and he does it for the kids. Dad is Addison’s Forrest Gump.”
Oh, and that presidential run was Gombos’ way to raise participation and bring everyone together to work for the common good.
“I regret to say that I did not find the answers,” Gombos says. “But I think the effort was sincere.”