'Teacher of the Year' brings agriculture to Oak Lawn classroom

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

The lack of farms in Oak Lawn has not stopped St. Germaine teacher Carole Scannell’s fourth-grade students from learning how their lives are touched by agriculture every day.

An Evergreen Park resident with 32 years of teaching experience, Scannell has been incorporating farming and agriculture into lesson plans for the usual subjects of math, reading, language, social studies and science since getting involved in the Illinois Farm Bureau’s Agriculture in the Classroom program five years ago.

Illinois Farm Bureau officials recognized her efforts last Thursday, naming her 2015 Teacher of the Year. Keven Daugherty, education director of the Agriculture in the Classroom program, and Maureen Burns, surprised her in her classroom in the school at 9735 S. Kolin Ave. with her award and a bouquet of flowers.

As the Illinois nominee for Teacher of the Year, Scannell also will get a trip to the 2016 National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference in Litchfield Park, Ariz.

She was among 40 nominees statewide, chosen from the more than 7,000 Illinois teachers involved in Agriculture in the Classroom.

Scannell also participates in the IAITC Adopt a Classroom program, which matches her class with farm families in rural Fulton County, in western Illinois.

“The students have a lot of great pen-pals in Fulton County,” explained Agriculture in the Classroom presenter Linda Dunn, a resident of Chicago’s Garfield Ridge neighborhood who visits Scannell’s classroom periodically to share agricultural information.

Each May, the fourth-graders at St. Germaine, with their teacher and parents, take a bus trip to visit their farming friends in Fulton County.

“It gives them a chance to see working farms up close,” said Scannell. Like her students, Scannell doesn’t come from a farming background, “But I’ve been interested in it since I was a little girl,” she said. “I think I was a farmer in a former life,” she added.

“It certainly shows that we are teaching more than reading and math here,” said Principal Kevin Reedy. “We don’t teach agriculture as a subject, but she finds a way to incorporate it into everything.”

Reedy said that during the school year, St. Germaine students don’t visit the working farm attached to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in the nearby Mt. Greenwood neighborhood. But he said Scannell volunteers at a summer program at the Ag School, which gives her pupils a chance to see the crops and livestock there.

A runner-up last year, Scannell is only the third teacher from Cook County to receive the Teacher of the Year award.

“Now you’re legendary, Mrs. Scannell. One of the best teachers in the state,” said student James Mahia. “I don’t know about that,” she said modestly.

James and his classmates enjoyed pumpkin sugar cookies in honor of their teacher’s award, after showing off their considerable knowledge about agriculture in Illinois, including the fact that Illinois produces more pumpkins than any other state.

With the Cubs in the playoffs, they were also asked how baseball is connected to agriculture. They were able to reel off everything from the game being played on grass, to the bats made of wood and the clothing and shoes of players coming from plants and animal products.

“Getting this award is really a big honor,” said Scannell, who was nearly brought to tears by the surprise visit and presentation.

“But it’s really because of all these people that it is such a success,” she said, pointing out Daugherty, Dunn and Burns. She thanked them for providing course material and a smart board for her classroom, and said the active participation of the Fulton County farmers is another key.

Oak Lawn trustee: Crime has not risen

  • Written by Joe Boyle

The Oak Lawn Police Department officials said that despite some home break-ins during the past year, residents should not feel that this is a trend.

Oak Lawn Trustee Alex Olejniczak (2nd) also said that he sees no increase in crime in his district or the village as a whole.

“Since I’ve been a trustee there has been times it was higher during some times of the year and lower at other times of the year,” said Olejniczak, who has been a trustee since 2005. “But I can honestly say that there is no rise in crime.”

A debate took place during the Oct. 13 Oak Lawn Village Board meeting regarding crime reports. Trustee Bob Streit (3rd) said that he is not receiving all of the information and implies that some incidents are not being reported. Other trustees disagree, stating that they have always received the reports they have requested.

Olejniczak said he can’t understand what Streit is referring to.

“I have never had problem getting police reports,” said Olejniczak. “Now there may be ongoing investigations or if juveniles are involved. But I have never had problems getting reports. Never.”

Olejniczak said that he does study the reports to see if any patterns have developed. He admits that there are some establishments that have more reported incidents, but overall he sees no significant changes.

“If you are a trustee, it’s good to read all of the reports,” said Olejniczak. “You want to know what’s going on in the neighborhood. This way you can do something about it by talking to people.”

And that’s what puzzles Olejniczak about Streit’s claims during the last village board meeting. He added that Streit’s actions are only frightening residents about an alleged rise in crime.

“It concerns me when he uses that information that way,” said Olejniczak. “What he should be doing is meeting with people to try and solve some of those problems.”

Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury said that information about vehicle collisions and domestic-related incidents are not provided. However, information is provided to news reporters.

Streit said during the meeting that he “can see no reason why all these reports should be kept from the public.” Streit, who has been a trustee since 1991, said the board of trustees should make a decision on this.

Olejniczak said that the information from the reports can be beneficial in other ways. Blocks that have empty residences could be a sign that problems may appear in the future.

“You start looking at homes that are a little shabby or in disrepair,” said Olejniczak. “My biggest scare is squatters coming in. That’s why it is good to look at the reports and know as much as you can about the district.”

But Olejniczak said that his district and the village as a whole are not going through a crime surge.

“I can tell you honestly I feel secure about the village,” said Olejniczak. “I have every bit of faith in our police department. I think they are doing a great job.”

Family awaits news on missing relative

  • Written by Joe Boyle

MaryAnn Bielski waits every day for the phone to ring for news about her missing son.

Jim Vasquez has not been seen since Sept. 16, according to family members. Bielski is anxious and worried about Vasquez, 39, who is homeless and described as a paranoid schizophrenic.

Vasquez has been living for the past couple of years on the streets of Chicago Ridge. He and other homeless men have been living under a bridge near 107th and Harlem Avenue near the shuttered Aldi’s store and White Castle.

BIelski now lives in Georgetown, Texas, which is just outside Austin. Her 33-year-old daughter also lives nearby and they wait to hear from relatives or the police about any news. So far, there has been no word.

“I hope and pray every day that he calls,” said Bielski.

Vasquez lived in Burbank for his first 18 years before his family moved to Indiana. His parents divorced when he was 8 and Bielski believes this had a great impact on him as he grew older. As a child he had friends but would soon drift away from them.

“He was very quiet,” said Bielski. “He was a loner. He would have friends for a while and then he just did not want to see them anymore.”

Bielski began to believe that his son’s anti-social behavior was not normal. She asked a grade school teacher if there was anything wrong with her son. The teacher’s response surprised her. She told BIelski that her son was quiet and was no problem in the classroom. But problems began to arise in high school.

“He wasn’t able to hide anymore in high school,” Bielski said.

The family moved to Indiana but Vasquez preferred to stay with his father, who now lived in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. But when the father and his girlfriend moved to Las Vegas, Vasquez was not asked to tag along. While staying briefly with his father after that, he came back for a while to Indiana.

Bielski said his condition continued to worsen. In one fit of range, he attacked his stepfather. Bielski said it was unlike him to do that. She has been married to her second husband for 26 years and he used to take Vasquez to Boy Scouts and ballgames.

“I think a lot of what has happened to Jimmy is because of the breakup of my marriage,” said Bielski.

Since then, Vasquez’s life has been a roller coaster. After attacking his stepfather, he served some time in prison. He was also incarcerated in Cook County Jail for various offenses.

His mental health and time in prison resulted in Vasquez becoming increasingly paranoid. BIelski said he would engage in conversations where he made no sense. She brought him too many doctors and institutions, pleading for help.

She gets angry when people say that the parents of mentally ill children are their responsibility and their fault when they become homeless.

“I went to psychiatrists every week,” said Bielski. “I’ve been to hospitals everywhere. No one wants to do anything for him. They give him some medication and in two weeks, they let him go.”

Compounding her frustration, BIelski said that Vasquez often refuses to take his medication. He may take it for a two-week span and then stops, thinking he no longer needs to, she said

And for the past couple of years, Vasquez has been seen walking the streets of Chicago Ridge. A niece and other relatives have dropped off food, water and occasionally clothing for him.

BIelski and her daughter saw Vasquez over the summer. Vasquez’s sister bought him some new clothing. Bielski then pleaded with Vasquez to get help and telling him this is no way to live.

“He just laughed at me,” said BIelski. “But I noticed there were tears in his eyes.”

Chicago Ridge Det. Anthony Layman said the family reported him missing Sept. 21. Layman has checked with local PADS shelters to see if had been there. The detective has also supplied information on Vasquez with various national data bases. Information includes his fingerprint and dental records.

“We don’t have a lot of leads right now, but nothing seems to be suspicious,” said Layman, who believes maybe that Vasquez may have checked himself in somewhere. “It’s not unusual for transients to move around. We have even checked with a data base in Indiana, in case he went back there.”

Vasquez has moved around several states over the years and has been on disability when not serving time in jail. Layman said that if anyone sees Vasquez, he said people should not approach him.

“With his history and being a schizophrenic, you don’t know what he can do,” added Layman.

Vasquez is about 6”0 and weighs between 150 to 180 pounds. He often wears a hat and sunglasses, day or night.

Anyone who has seen him should call 911 or Layman at (708) 425-7831.

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: Reinsdorf says Sox championship was bigger than Bears Super Bowl

  • Written by Jeff Vorva




Monday will mark the 10th anniversary of the White Sox winning the World Series and Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said that celebration was bigger than any other sports celebration in Chicago sports history, including the Bears’ Super Bowl title in 1986.

Reinsdorf, the boss of the Sox and the six-time NBA champion Bulls, brought seven top trophies to town and he is not bashful about stating the importance of the White Sox sweep of Houston, which concluded on Oct. 26, 2005.

“The impact on the community of winning a World Series was far greater than winning a basketball championship,” he said. “It was far greater than winning a Super Bowl. Baseball is the one sport that spans generations. Everybody remembers their first baseball game he or she went to and who they went with and who was playing. You ask people about basketball or football, they don’t really remember their first game. Everybody remembers their first baseball game.

“And if the Cubs win a World Series, it will be even a bigger effect on the community because there are apparently more Cub fans. But our fans are better baseball fans.’’

Reinsdorf sat down with this newspaper at a lunch at Schaller’s Pump in Chicago brokered by Oak Lawn legend Ed McElroy. I am on the wrong side of 50 and was the pacifier sucker at a table featuring Reinsdorf  (age 79), McElroy (90) and restaurant owner Jack Schaller (91). That’s 260 years between this trio.

 I covered the playoffs and World Series in 2005 and have my own stories about getting drenched by champagne in the winning locker room in Houston, a sportswriters’ postgame meal at 4 a.m. at a Denny’s after the 14-inning Game 3 and other amusing tales.

But when McElroy offered a sitdown with Reinsdorf, I figured he would have better stories to tell and he didn’t fail to deliver.

After the clincher, Reinsdorf said he finally got to bed at the team hotel at 4 a.m.

At about 6:30 a.m. the phone rang.

“Some woman said ‘hold for the President of the United States,’ ” Reinsdorf said. “[George W. Bush] got on the phone and apologized for waking me up so early but he said he and Laura were going someplace. He told me what a remarkable achievement it was to win a world championship in two sports.’’

A couple of days later, Reindsdorf and some of the players were supposed to appear on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.’’

The players made it.

But not the Chairman.

“I overslept,” Reinsdorf said. “I didn’t wake up until noon.”

As soon as the final out was made and I witnessed the clinching of the first Chicago World Series championship in my lifetime and in 88 years, I turned to whoever would listen and said “Well, the coyote finally caught the Road Runner.’’

Reinsdorf said that immediately after the game, things were hectic with the trophy presentations and celebration. It took a little while to sink in.

“Obviously I was excited and happy,” he said. “But it didn’t hit me and I didn’t realize the enormity of it until the parade. There were two million people on that parade route. And there wasn’t one arrest.

“The other thing was that you could have gone to any cemetery the next day and the graves were decorated with White Sox stuff – including Mayor (Richard J.) Daley’s. That’s when it hit me. It was surreal. It was hard to believe.’’

Like him or hate him, Reinsdorf brought championships to a city that had been starving for the sports title for years.

He has no plans on stepping down anytime soon.

“I want to do this until I reach his age,” Reinsdof said, pointing to the 90-year-old McElroy. “The business of the Bulls is pretty much run by my son, Michael. I have that off my plate. I’m still active day-to-day with the White Sox. But I don’t see any reason to stop unless I die or get feeble. I have a lot of time before I retire.’’

This year’s Cubs team is having a magic year so far and despite biting a rotten apple in New York this weekend, has a chance to win a World Series of its own in the near or distant future and if that happens, it will push the Sox’s accomplishment further in the backs of the minds of a lot of Chicago sports fans.

“Look, if the Cubs win the World Series, it would be a great thing for the city of Chicago,” Reinsdorf said. “But most White Sox fans don’t look at it that way and my allegiance is to the White Sox fans.’’


With demolition of The Plaza comes promise of better things

  • Written by Dermot Connolly


Evergreen Plaza Shopping Center’s walls started tumbling down last week, when demolition of the largely vacant landmark at 9500 S. Western Ave. began, in order to make way for a new retail development now in the planning stages.

“It’s a sad day but a happy day too. We had to move forward with the project,”” said Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton, who watched as demolition equipment started tearing down the walls of the former Montgomery Ward department store Oct. 7. He and a few of the DeBartolo development team actually put the first few dents in the walls by swinging sledgehammers at the bricks before the heavy machinery moved in.

“Do I need a (union) card to do this?” Sexton joked.

Evergreen Plaza opened in 1952 as an open-air plaza, and was enclosed in 1966, making it one of the first suburban shopping malls. Like many of the people who gathered to watch the demolition start, Sexton grew up in the village and recalled spending a lot of time there growing up.

He described real estate developer Arthur Rubloff as a genius for designing and building the shopping center. During its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, Evergreen Plaza had more than 120 stores, as well as a movie theater, but vacancies led to the main mall being shuttered in 2013.

Carson’s department store, which was an anchor of the shopping center since it opened, has remained open and will remain open throughout the construction process. The existing building will only be razed after the business relocates to a new site within the new development, to be called Evergreen Park Marketplace, which will include 30-40 stores.

Applebee’s restaurant which is also located on the site, will also remain open. Sexton said that because negotiations are ongoing, he could not say exactly which stores would be coming, but some big names are under discussion. He and other village officials said earlier this year that a movie theater will not be included.

“I think it is good for the whole area, not just Evergreen Park. It is big for the Southland, from our neighbors in (Chicago neighborhoods), Ashburn, Mt. Greenwood and Beverly, to Oak Lawn and all the southwest suburbs,” said Sexton.

The redevelopment is expected to take about two years to complete. Jay Adams, a representative of DeBartolo, said the demolition will be done carefully because of asbestos and other hazardous materials must be handled in an environmentally correct manner.

“We’re going to miss it, but we’re looking forward to what is coming next,” said Evergreen Park resident Carol Simpson, who was watching the demolition with her longtime friend, Shirley Hudson. Both said they have many happy memories of shopping at the mall, particularly during the holiday season.

“It’s been closed for a while. New is always good, and it will bring positive changes to the area,” said Simpson.

Hudson noted that she belongs to a group that used to walk the mall for exercise every morning, and still continues to walk outside, weather permitting, since the interior mall was closed.

“Carson’s is very welcoming to us when the weather is bad,” she said.

“I’m sad to see it go. This was always my favorite mall,” said Bianca Jones, as she came out of Carson’s and saw the machinery at work. “If something new is being built, that is good too.”
          Shanita Hester-Morgan, who said she shopped at the mall for more than 20 years, was among a group of laborers and tradespeople who came seeking jobs with demolition and construction crews. “I’m so glad that something new is coming here. I am trying to get a job with the demolition company,” she said.

“We’re trying to put the (job-seekers) in touch with the right people, so everyone can benefit,” said Sexton.