They are diving in for Coach Stu

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

Photo by Jeff Vorva
Richards, Argo and Oak Forest swimmers had a massive group pose before their meet in Oak Lawn Tuesday. The meet honored Richards coach Joel Staszewski and his family. Staszewski is in a hospital in Chicago after nearly dying this summer.  
Richards hosted its first home girls swimming meet of the season late Tuesday afternoon in Oak Lawn.
But 20 miles away, in the heart of Chicago, the man who helped build this team was in a hospital bed at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago starting a journey where he will try to eat and talk again.
Longtime Richards swimming, diving and water polo coach Joel Staszewski , a.k.a. Coach Stu, had gastric bypass surgery performed in June and complications from a bacterial infection gave him stroke-like symptoms, robbing him of his ability to eat and speak. He nearly died because of those complications.
During Tuesday’s meet with Argo and Oak Forest, shirts designed by Bulldogs swimmer Sarah Coffman were sold, along with “The Stu Crew’s Lemonade Brew” and proceeds will go to the family. The coach’s wife, Jill, and children Emma (age 12), Timothy (4), Claire, Nora and Lillian (triplets who just turned 2 at the end of July) were the guests of honor.
Jill teared up when talking about the support the family has received during this trying summer.
“We don’t like being the center of attention, but we feel really blessed,” she said. “We may not be money-rich, but we are people-rich. The Richards community and the other teams have rallied around us. People are coming out of the woodwork who we never met to help us.  They’ve been sending cards to the hospital and cards to the house. We’ve had meals for months.’’
Some of those meals came from one Richards’ opponents – Argo.
Argo assistant coach Theresa Kelsey, a Shepard graduate who was coached by Stazewski on the age-group level, said her players donated money for food via Meal Train and has helped interim coach Cora Umecker by sending her some drills for practice.
“If you learn how to swim from Coach Stu, you learn a lot,” Kelsey said. “He’s always willing to help. He’s a nice guy and he’s been around our swimming community for so long that everybody is going to want to help him.’’
Oak Forest's team presented a check of $500 for the family.
Umecker, who said she had not coached in 13 years when she was an assistant at a high school in Georgia, expressed gratitude for the outpouring of love shown by opposing teams, but she also heaped praise on the Bulldog swimmers.
“Everyone wants to help out on this team because they love coach Stu,” she said. “They are trying to make things as easy as they can on me. This is a great group of girls.’’
The goal for just about everyone involved is for Staszewski to be healthy enough to make it to one of the meets late in the season.  Jill said “it’s a long road ahead.’’
She said the coach has lost between 65 and 70 pounds. He has spent his nights either at Little Company of Mary, the University of Chicago and, as of last Thursday, RIC.
He was not at his Mt. Greenwood home for his 41st birthday and missed Father’s Day, Timothy’s birthday and the triplets’ birthday.
Jill said he was in pretty good shape, was a ‘meat and potatoes kind of guy” and chose the surgery to relieve pain in his knees and ankles .
 “He was a heavy guy but he was very active,” she said. “He would swim and play water polo and come home and take our kids for bike rides every night and take family walks.’’
What figured to be a three-day stay in the hospital turned into three months at three different hospitals so far.
Jill is crossing her fingers that RIC is the best place for Joel.
“They’ve been voted No. 1 in the nation for 26 years in a row,” Jill said. “So we’re hoping for a miraculous improvement. He has a long way to go.’’
Jill added that prayers are welcome.
“We’ll take prayers for any religion – I think we have them all covered,” she said.

Kids go wild over animal encounters

  • Written by Kelly White

john basile photo 8-25

Photo by Kelly White

John Bastile, founder of Big Run Wolf Ranch in Lockport, talks to students, parents and faculty at Southwest Chicago Christian School in Oak Lawn about animals such as this coyote at left. The discussion and chance for kids and parents to observe animals took place on Friday during Family Fun Night.


One local school tied family fun with wild animals, including the feared coyote.

The staff at Southwest Chicago Christian School, 10110 S. Central Ave. in Oak Lawn, hosted a Family Fun Night on Friday night at the school.

The event was open to the public and was free except a minor charge for a bounce house, hot dogs and chips.

The night highlighted with an educational animal program presented by Big Run Wolf Ranch. Big Run Wolf Ranch, based out of Lockport, is a non-profit, federally licensed, educational facility that specializes in the education and conservation of North American wildlife. The facility has been running since July 1986 by John Basile, president and founder.

Basile led Friday’s presentation, introducing animals with not the best reputations to children and their families. Basile wanted to show the public that wild animals do not have to be feared.

“I love animals and I’m hoping there is a giraffe with (them) tonight,” said Timothy Steward, 4, of Oak Lawn.

No giraffes made an appearance. However, several other animals did, including: an 11-week-old black British Columbia Timer Wolf, a skunk, a groundhog, a porcupine and a 5-year-old coyote.

“All of the animals that travel with me are very tame and safe,” Basile said. “They have been appearing before the public since they were only a couple weeks old. These animals I have with me today are my regular crew of animals that always travel for live shows with me.”

During his presentation, Basile let children meet and mingle with the skunk, groundhog and chipmunk as they walked around on stage. The skunk has been de-scented and both animals are extremely social, according to Basile.

“The skunk was really cool,” said Brooke Lowczyk, 8, of Oak Lawn. “I’m happy it was de-scented and it did not spray us.”

Lowczyk attended the event with her mother, Nicole, her 11-year-old sister, Alexandra, and her grandmother, Andrea Mariotti, of Schaumburg.

“Brooke will be attending school here this year and we wanted to start joining in on some of the activities the school has to offer,” her mother, Nicole, said. “This was a great family-friendly event and Brooke absolutely loves animals.”

Another one of Brooke’s favorites was the wolf puppy. Basile allowed the puppy to come out on a leash as she rolled and interacted with the public no different than an everyday puppy would.

“She (the wolf) is great and so loveable,” Basile said. “Kids have so much fun with the animals when they are still puppies.”

The highlight of the evening was Basile walking an adult coyote on a leash in front of the crowd. The coyote was found as an orphaned puppy in Chicago Ridge after its mother was hit by a vehicle and left on the road.

“We took the coyote in, raised her and cared for her,” Basile said. “Coyotes have such a bad reputation among people, but they are only doing their best to survive. The world would be overrun by rodents if it weren’t for coyotes, who feed rodents to their young. Rodents attack the agricultural industry and create a deflation in food and produce supply, resulting in higher prices at the grocery store. Coyotes help to maintain this sense of balance in the food chain.”

Basile discussed safety issues for parents as well during his presentation, including how to safe guard children and pets against coyotes.

“These issues need to be discussed because not everyone understands that as we build new subdivisions and neighborhoods and highways, the coyotes have nowhere to go and their food supply is depleted,” Basile said.

Information was not just meant for the parents, but for the children as well, according to Basile.

During his presentation, spending 15-20 minutes with each animal, Basile quizzed the kids on what the animals were and answered any questions about them that were presented. He also covered any animal myths.

“There is so much information out there that can easily be tied into the classroom,” Basile said. “I have received nothing but positive feedback from children from any presentation.”

Palos Hills would like to see former health club site to be developed

  • Written by Michael Gilbert

Palos Hills officials are hoping to meet with the new owner of the site that formally housed the Palos Olympic Health & Racquetball Club to get a better grasp of what is in store for the vacant 1.8-acre property.

Palos Hills Building Commissioner Paul Hardison told the city council Aug. 18 the property at 11050 S. Roberts Road was sold within the last 30 days but attempts to contact the new owner have so far proved futile.

“We’ve sent him letters and I phoned him and left voicemail messages but we haven’t been able to contact him,” Hardison told the council. “We have no idea what his intensions are (with the property).”

The property has been void of business since the racquetball club closed approximately nine years ago, Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett said. City Attorney George Pappas told Hardison he will also reach out to the new owner in an attempt to find out what he has planned for the property.

The building that once housed the racquetball club remains on the site although Bennett said it is in poor condition and would almost certainly need to be demolished when redevelopment of the property occurs.

“The biggest problem over there is that we believe the only way that property is going to be developed is that the building has to come down,” Bennett said. “It’s obsolete and because of the size of the building there is no way you are going to try to rehab it.”

The property is best suited for residential as it does not appear to be large enough to support commercial, Bennett said.

“The end goal is to have somebody come in, purchase the property and come to us with a proposal,” Bennett said. “More than likely we are leaning toward residential like multi-family homes or townhouses because we don’t think it is big enough for a commercial development.

“Until that happens we are sitting there with people flipping that property back and forth. Hopefully someone will come to us with a serious proposal.”

The property has been sold several times since the racquetball club closed and Bennett said the back taxes on the property are now around $160,000.

“You could probably purchase the property for nothing now but $160,000 is the value of the back taxes, plus we have liens on it that are probably up to about $10,000 for having to maintain it at times,” Bennett said.

Another issue hampering the redevelopment of the site is the cost of demolishing the building, which Bennett said could cost around $80,000. The building was built around 40 years ago, he said.

“It’s kind of frustrating because personally I really believe that once the building comes down somebody can then come in and take a look and decide what can be done,” Bennett said. “Certainly a continuation of the townhomes in that area would work out the best.”

Earlier this summer Hardison said there was a problem with teenagers going inside the building but that issue has since subsided as the prior owner put up a fence around the property and also installed surveillance cameras.

Bennett said if “worse comes to worst” and no one moves into the property the city may take a look at having the building condemned and then pay to tear it down. Palos Hills would then check with Cook County to see if the tax situation could be alleviated, purchase the property and then resell it.

In other news, Ald. Dawn Nowak (5th Ward) told the council five new businesses have been approved along Roberts Road. They are: café casino Doddy’s, 10602 S. Roberts Road; My Med Pharmacy, 9838 S. Roberts Road; SSAID Services, 10612 S. Roberts Road; Studio Cuts, 10148 S. Roberts Road and salon Be-You- Tiful, 10707 S. Roberts Road.

Chicago Ridge firefighters agree on contract with village

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

While labor negotiations are so often fraught with arguments and accusations, Chicago Ridge officials seem to have found a way to agree on a firefighter contract without even involving lawyers.

The village board voted unanimously to approve the three-year contract on Aug. 15 to the applause from scores of people in the audience, including a contingent of firefighters. The firefighters were also there for a presentation of a watch to the recently retired Deputy Chief Scott Durling, who had been with the department for close to 30 years.

Police Chief George Sheets noted the current contract doesn’t expire for another year.

“Because of the very positive labor/management relationship, we were able to negotiate a three-year extension of the current contract,” said Sheets. So the new agreement will be in effect through 2020.

“This contract was negotiated by labor and management, and without attorneys.  This alone, saved the Chicago Ridge taxpayers thousands of dollars,” said Sheets. 

International Association of Firefighters Local 3098 Union President Chris Schmelzer, who has held that position since 2000, said in a prepared statement that “this negotiation was the most amicable, most productive, and least stressful I have ever been a part of.”

Schmelzer couldn’t be at the meeting because he was representing the village at an IAFF convention, but Senior Lt. Chris Bennett read his statement to the board.

“Traditionally, the union had always come in asking for more than we thought we could get, and the village was always looking for concessions the union felt were unfair. I can assure you that this more recent ‘interest-based bargaining’ is much less taxing on the mindset and pocketbooks of both parties.”

He said the agreement represents “cooperation between labor and management on a scale that we have never enjoyed.” He said it “literally has something for everyone,” and will allow firefighters “to serve the residents and visitors to Chicago Ridge for years to come, all while maximizing the productivity of the Fire Department as a whole.”

Mayor Chuck Tokar and various trustees, as well as Bennett, gave a lot of the credit for the cooperative spirit to Fire Chief George Sheets, who is also the fire chief in neighboring Oak Lawn. Bennett also said that instituting seniority levels within the command structure has been helpful in retaining staff because those seeking advancement have to wait for someone above them to retire.

Tokar noted that Sheets has been leading the department over the past year, overseeing the successful implementation of a part-time firefighter program and the reopening of the Lombard Street fire station, among other things. Having the second station open, at least for 12 hours a day, and part-time firefighters training and working alongside the full-time crews has been credited with bringing down emergency response times while still saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even replacing several aging vehicles with a five-apparatus quint firetruck was a cost-saver.

In a related matter later in the meeting, the board also approved the purchase of a replacement ambulance, a 2016 Ford F450 Demo.

Court favors Oak Lawn in union dispute

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

The Cook County Appellate Court sided with the village of Oak Lawn in a ruling issued Aug. 12 against the local firefighters union that village officials say will save taxpayers $3.2 million.

The union has the right to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the decision, but union President Lt. Vince Griffin said this week that the union will abide by the ruling.

This decision effectively settles a dispute over staffing levels dating back to 2008 when the firefighters union filed a grievance against Oak Lawn after the village started staffing engines with three people instead of four.

A grievance arbitrator sided with the union and ordered the village to maintain a minimum of 21 people per shift and provide $286,000 in back pay the nine months that staffing fell below that. The village complied with that and paid the amount ordered. But the latest judgment stems from a subsequent compliance petition filed by the union arguing that that the village should actually be staffing 22 people per shift.

The Illinois Labor Relations Board initially found in favor of the union and awarded it $3.2 million in back pay and accrued interest last year. But the Labor Relations Board reversed its own ruling on appeal, and the Appellate Court’s decision upholds that decision that Oak Lawn was not liable for the back pay and interest.

“We are, of course, thrilled that the Appellate Court ruled in favor of taxpayers and rejected the union’s efforts to win more than $3 million for work never performed. It is frustrating that the union has steadfastly refused to bargain in good faith over this issue,” said Village Manager Larry Deetjen.

Mayor Sandra Bury said, “Despite the union’s history of constantly rejecting our proposals, the door remains open to any proposal from the union that would address our staffing concerns and let all parties move forward with a productive relationship while protecting the interests of our taxpayers. We have tried and will continue to try doing what’s best for our residents.”

Bury noted that Oak Lawn shares Fire Chief George Sheets with neighboring Chicago Ridge, where the village board unanimously approved a new contract with the firefighters union last week.

”Chief Sheets was able to successfully negotiate a new union contract in Chicago Ridge ahead of schedule and with little drama…Lack of good faith bargaining and continued litigation initiated by IAFF Local 3405 in Oak Lawn not only hurts taxpayers but also tarnishes the reputation of an honored profession,” she said.

The mayor asserted that village made at least seven compromise offers to solve the issue, but the union rejected them all without making a counter offer.

While Griffin said the union will abide by the latest ruling, he expressed his displeasure with it.

“Currently, the staffing trajectory is a downward trend. Our calls are up and our staffing is down. That definitely raises some questions about safety.”

Griffin rejected the theory that staffing levels are more than adequate, especially considering the mutual aid agreements in place with surrounding fire departments.

“I think that is a smokescreen,” said Griffin. He said that of the 8,000 calls received annually about 6,000 are medical emergency calls, which the fire department handles itself.

“Some people think that MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) is a cure-all, but we are concerned with safety of the worker. If there are three people on a truck sent out, rather than four, that could pose a safety issue.”