Suiting Science to a T (Shirt), Two Chicago Bar Owners Set Up a Stephen Hawking Fan Club

updated 09/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

They were talking it up at Chicago's Gold Star Sardine Bar a while back when the cabaret's co-owners, Susan Anderson and Bill Allen, came to a clear, if not very original, conclusion. What the world needs now, they heartily agreed, are some "real heroes." Not just the sports kind or the movie star kind, but heroes
like, well, like Stephen Hawking.

So two months ago the club owners had 500 T-shirts made up proclaiming the STEPHEN HAWKING FAN CLUB, at a Cost of $1,500, in honor of the British physicist-mathematician considered by many to be the greatest mind since Einstein. A victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ("Lou Gehrig's disease"), Hawking is confined to a wheelchair and can talk only with a voice synthesizer, yet he has become a world-renowned scientist and best-selling author of A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes.

The Hawking Fan Club's founders gave away their shirts free, but even so, they were not prepared for the overwhelming response: Since the first batch, they have given away an additional 7,500 shirts to date. They have been spotted all over Chicago and requests have come from as far afield as France and the Soviet Union. Then a couple of weeks ago Anderson, 46, received a special order from Professor Hawking's office in Cambridge, England. "We would be pleased if you could send us some samples," it read. Eight T-shirts were on their way to Cambridge University by return mail.

The heroic-T-shirt innovators are affronted by any suggestion that the whole idea was a publicity ploy. "The name of our place isn't on the T-shirt, not even in small print," Allen, 65, protests. Hawking's name by itself is an attention getter. "Physicists aren't usually sexy, but look at what he's overcome and contributed to the world," says Madeleine Paley, a writer and proud Hawking T-shirt wearer. But high school senior Matt Amati admits that being Hawkingized creates a little confusion among his peers. "My friends look at the shirt and ask, 'What rock group is this Hawking in?' " Amati says. "Worse, I have friends who claim they have his latest album."

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