PORTAGE PARK — In the hospital, Don Breede wanted nothing more than to see his kids and his grandkids — and eat a fish sandwich.
Breede, a second-generation owner of Hagen’s Fish Market, a longtime family business in Portage Park, died April 14. Breede had pancreatic cancer for 19 years, but he died from complications of the disease, his daughter Tammy Jesse said. He was 77.
Breede was the “ultimate family guy” and a “quiet leader,” Jesse said. While Breede was experiencing pain in the hospital, Jesse said she didn’t need to bring her dad “anything that fancy.”
His favorite meal was a fish sandwich from Hagen’s.
“I brought him one for his dinner, and he beamed and said, ‘Ah, this is so, so good! This is the best one ever,’’” Jesse said. “I turned around for a second and his sandwich was already gone.”
Hagen’s Fish Market is a fixture in the Portage Park community that celebrated its 75 anniversary over the summer. It has one of the few fish smokers in the city — and that’s where Breede could often be found working.
Breede grew up in Portage Park on Grace Street, where he met wife Charlene Hagen. He then married into Chicago’s first family of fish. He served in the Vietnam War, got a business degree at Loyola University and was “a perfect fit” to lead the family business, Jesse said.
“He was just really proud to be carrying on a family business, to be part of a community,” Jesse said. “He loved it. He worked hard.”
Breede started at Hagen’s in the ’70s and helped turn the community shop into a nation-wide operation. He expanded the business by bringing in the freshest fish from “The Gulf, Boston, Alaska, West Coast, all over,” Jesse said.
“He knew that everybody eats fish, you just gotta find the right fish for the right person,” Jesse said. “But if you asked him, he’d say his legacy is his grandchildren.”
Breede is survived by his wife; children Jesse, Julie Johnson and Ben Breede; and seven grandchildren. He was known for taking his family on adventures, from cruises across Europe to countless impromptu romps to Disneyland. He called his granddaughters “princesses,” Jesse said.
“He was that kind of dad, you walk into a room and his face lit up,” Jesse said. “To know you’re the spark in your dad’s eye, it’s a gift.”
Most of Hagen’s full-time staff started working for Breede when they were in high school, went to college and came back to work for him again, Jesse said. Breede cared for his employees, kept it light and filled in every odd job at the shop, Jesse said.
“He made it a good place to be. And he always quietly ended up in leadership roles,” Jesse said. “Suddenly at church he was the president, and also president of our school board.”
When Breede was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he was told he had a 2 percent chance of living another year, Jesse said. He continued to come into Hagen’s and lived another 19.
“He’s in case studies now,” Jesse said. “Because he was still here.”
Breede made quips with customers and “told jokes with this huge smile,” Jesse said. One time at the shop, Jesse’s grandfather, co-founder Bennett Hagen, struck Breede “accidentally in the butt with a needle.”
“My grandpa was like, ‘Do you need me to suck out the poison,’” Jesse said, laughing. “My dad said, ‘No, I don’t need you to kiss my ass.’
“They were silly, and they loved the shop.”
Hundreds of customers commented on the Facebook post announcing his death, and many have stopped by Hagen’s to give condolences, Jesse said. The family is asking for donations in Breede’s memory to go to Samaritan’s Purse and Ralph Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.
Jesse said she’s overwhelmed by the support for the neighborhood fish guy.
“We didn’t expect all this,” Jesse said. “He was just Dad.”
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