Learning about giving for Christmas

  • Written by Joe Boyle

Christmas is just 10 days away. It’s funny how time goes by so quickly when we grow older. For a child, 10 days is an eternity. St. Nick’s arrival seems like it will never get here.

I can’t recall all of my earliest moments of Christmas. But I knew I was getting a little older when my mother suggested that Christmas is also about giving. She reminded me that it is better to give than receive.

Well, I knew she was right, of course. But I guess there was the part of me that liked that receiving part. When you are very young, Christmas leaves you in a euphoric state. Little kids receive the gifts and are excited about the prospects the big day brings. Parents are delighted to see their kids excited when they are opening their presents for Christmas.

But that one year my mother suggested that maybe I should buy some gifts sticks out in my mind. My older sister was already buying little gifts for my parents and siblings. So, I got in the spirit of things. The main obstacle was money.

The weather could play a large role in having additional money to purchase gifts. A heavy snowfall like we have been experiencing this December could be lucrative. I would grab a shovel and ask neighbors if they needed their sidewalks cleared of snow. The majority of residents would say yes. During the 1960s, we had more stay-at-home moms. In many cases, those moms could not work because they had several small children to take care of. The dads were usually still out working. That seemed to be the majority of residents I would shovel snow for.

My mother realized my dilemma. She would suggest chores I could perform that she would pay me for so that I could go Christmas shopping. During my early years, I lived in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood at 100th and Michigan Avenue. I think the first time I actually went shopping was at a Ben Franklin store that was east on 103rd Street. I recall that I purchased a small doll for my younger sister and a large pink cup for my mother. I just felt they were going to be thrilled when they opened their presents.

Well, let’s put it this way. It’s a good thing that Santa Claus makes house calls. I imagine my mother got a chuckle out of that.

While living in Roseland, my father would often drive us to 111th and Michigan Avenue, where the main stores were all located for shopping. We would drive into the Gately’s Peoples Store parking lot in the back. Large crowds of shoppers can be seen walking up and down Michigan Avenue. The parking lot was on several floors. I remember seemingly going in circles before my father found a parking place

Gately’s was great in that it was a family-owned operation that had several floors and a variety of goods. I recall the toys were at the bottom level and I spent a lot of time down there. My mother would often look over my shoulder and ask if I liked something. Amazingly, those gifts were often under our Christmas tree.

But a trip to Gately’s provided opportunity for all of us to do some shopping. I could buy some little gifts for my parents and my brothers and sisters in one trip. A trip to Gately’s might also mean that our parents would buy us some popcorn. I always remember the popcorn machine at Gately’s. They had a dinette as well.

Even after we moved to Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood, we still would occasionally go to Gately’s. But a lot of our Christmas shopping was now done at the Evergreen Plaza. We actually went there a couple of times when we lived in Roseland. I recall being there once with the snow coming down and looking at the long series of retail shops and restaurants. I remember my mom telling me that they were going to put a roof on it. I thought that was amazing. In 1966, they did just that.

The Plaza allowed for plenty of opportunities for shopping because there were so many stores. Many times I would go with my sister, taking the bus from 95th and Throop to 95th and Western. At that point, I had more money over the holidays. I would continue to shovel snow and sometimes receive a couple of bucks for pushing drivers out of snow drifts.

The presents I bought were of a higher quality, too. But I don’t always remember the presents. I just remember having a good time. Those days of Christmas shopping at Gately’s and the Evergreen Plaza were a special time.

Joe Boyle is the editor of The Reporter. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Smalling and Niego are our football and volleyball Players of the Year

  • Written by Anthony Nasella



Photo by Jeff Vorva


Ricky Smalling/Brother Rice

Brother Rice senior wide receiver Ricky Smalling has proven his ability as a marquee athlete throughout his career for the Crusaders.

But Smalling also made strides in the classroom during his senior year which demonstrated his emergence as a student athlete whose leadership and impact on the gridiron led to his selection as the 2016 Reporter/Regional Football Player of the Year.

“We’re all proud of Ricky not just because of the player he has become but more importantly his improvements in the classroom,” Brother Rice head coach Brian Badke said. “He’s grown so much over these past four years.”

On the field, the Illinois-bound Smalling caught 80 passes for 1,336 yards and scored 18 touchdowns while helping Brother Rice to a state playoff berth and a 9-3 record.

From Week 1, Smalling was off and running. In the Crusaders’ first game at the Kickoff Classic at Soldier Field against Marist, he caught touchdown passes for 56 and 39 yards in Brother Rice’s 31-7 romp over the RedHawks.

Smalling racked up 186 yards and hauled in three touchdown passes in the Crusaders’ 42-7 rout of defending Class 6A State Champion Montini in week 4. His 170 receiving yards and two touchdowns helped Brother Rice to a thrilling 49-42 win over Mt. Carmel in week 6.

“Big-time players step up in big-time games, and Ricky stepped up whenever we needed a big play” Badke said. “The statistics speak for themselves. He had a tremendous career here at Brother Rice and a great senior year.

“He made a name for himself that people will never forget here at 99th and Pulaski. He was part of a group of seniors who went 35-8 in four years. I think his future is bright down at Champaign and beyond.”

The 6-2, 195-pound Smalling, who has a 4.4 40-yard dash time, improved on his junior numbers of 1,165 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. He humbly deferred to the talents of quarterback Dino Borrelli, who also had a monster senior year with 3,377 yards passing with 40 touchdowns.

“I had a great year thanks to Dino throwing me the ball so effectively,” Smalling said. “Everybody contributed. I wouldn’t have had the year I had without those guys. I just kept focused on my plan of excelling in football and my studies, and everything has turned out well.

“I thank Coach Badke for pushing me to become the player that I am.”





Photo by Jeff Vorva


Charley Niego/Mother McAuley

For as much as Mother McAuley junior Charley Niego was a physical presence for the Mighty Macs this season – leading them to an Illinois High School Association Class 4A state volleyball championship and a No. 1 national ranking by  – one facet of her game was especially evident to head Coach Jen DeJarld.

“As much as Charley works so hard to be a better physical player for us, one of the biggest improvements in her game from her sophomore year is her mental toughness,” DeJarld said. “As a sophomore, she wasn’t required to do as much for us. She embraced the pressure this season.”

The noteworthy statistics that Niego finished with in the midst of that pressure – 498 kills, 473 digs, 69 blocks and 25 aces which figured big in the team’s staggering 40-1 record – made her the selection for the 2016 Regional/Reporter volleyball Player of the Year. It’s the second year the newspaper honored a volleyball player. McAuley’s Kayla Caffey was the first winner in 2015.

Niego delivered 12 kills and 17 digs in a three-set win over Geneva in the Class 4A Hinsdale South Supersectional that saw the Mighty Macs having to rebound from deficits in each set victory to secure the trip to the state finals. She delivered 17 kills a few days earlier in a sectional championship win over Marist.

At Redbird Arena, Niego racked up 14 kills in the two-set semifinal win over Niles West. In the 25-19, 19-25, 25-19 championship victory over Minooka, McAuley once again rallied from deficits to prevail. Niego shined with 14 kills and 15 digs in the title match to help the team with the 15th state title in school history.

“Charley is very multi-faceted in all the things she does for us,” DeJarld said. “The competiveness she brings every day to the practice carries over to the match. You really only need just one person to lead that, and she does that for us.

“Great players play great under high pressure, and Charley is that player. She raised her game to the next level – a championship level.”

Niego, who verbally committed to Notre Dame her sophomore year, simply wanted to make the biggest impact that she could.

“I made sure I was especially prepared for every game,” Niego said. “I definitely wanted to contribute more this year than last year and learn to move on from my mistakes. This season was so satisfying.”





Local heart patients receive gift of life for holiday season

  • Written by Sharon L. Filkins


kathryn brzezinski photo 12-8


Palos Hills resident Kathryn Brzezinski (second from left) gathers with her care team during a holiday celebration sponsored by Advocate Christ Medical Center. Brzezinski received a ventricular assist device (VAD) and is in a waiting list for a new heart.


The holiday season is a little brighter for patients who were honored last Thursday during a holiday celebration after receiving a heart or lung transplant or a ventricular assist device (VAD) at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.

More than 200 people gathered at the Hilton Oak Lawn for the celebration sponsored by Advocate Christ Medical Center. The event offers the patients, their families, heart surgeons, cardiologists, nurses and other staff to rejoice and celebrate the miracles of modern medicine that provides a second chance for a full life. While many of the attendees have received new hearts and in some cases, hearts and lungs, a great number of the guests were VAD patients, meaning they are on a waiting list for a new heart. In some instances, they are not eligible for a heart transplant due to their condition and are being kept alive by a VAD.

Dr. Antone Tatooles, director of the Mechanical Assist Device program at the Advocate Heart Institute at Christ Medical Center, explained that the ventricular assist device is actually doing the work of the heart, electronically.

“When the heart is unable to pump the blood through the heart due to various reasons, the VAD is implanted surgically into the heart,” said Tatooles. “It is connected by wires to an exterior computer, which operates on batteries. The patient must wear it 24/7 until they are able to receive a new heart. Without the VAD, many of the guests here today would not be alive.”

He added that the device is for very advanced heart disease. “It is actually an artificial heart. We want our patients to be able to live a normal life, return to work, enjoy their families, etc. They can do all that as long as the pump is kept charged.”

Also present was Dr. Deepak Mital, director of the Kidney Transplant Program at the hospital, who stated that six heart and kidney transplant cases at Advocate Christ Medical Center performed since 2013 have a survival rate of 100 percent.

“That is better than the national average,” he said.

Waiting for a heart is Palos Hills resident Kathryn Brzezinski, 59. She received a VAD on Aug. 26. She refers to it as “a bridge to a transplant.”

“I am on a waiting list for a new heart as I am in compliance with the criteria for eligibility because of my weight and blood type,” she said.

Although she has suffered from congestive heart failure most of her life, she also had gallbladder problems this past summer and approached her doctor about removing her gallbladder. He refused, saying her heart was much too weak and immediately admitted her to the hospital. That was on Aug. 15. She was told that her heart was too enlarged for any heart surgery and 11 days later, she received a VAD, a pacemaker and defibrillator. Two weeks later, they were able to remove her gallbladder.

She is feeling much better and is hoping to return to her job soon, where she has worked for 38 years.

“I will be elated to get a new heart and I am excited to be here celebrating life tonight with these other patients,” she said.

Oak Lawn resident Robert Hirtz, 49, has had a VAD for three years and two months. He recited the amount of time precisely.

His heart problems started in 1998 when he had a bad case of pneumonia, which unknown to him, resulted in his heart becoming enlarged.

“People don’t know that pneumonia can cause enlargement of the heart. I certainly didn’t know and I didn’t treat it seriously. I was young, I kept working, I kept smoking and I was overweight,” he said.

He said all of that was the beginning of his long, slow, downhill journey to the condition he is in now, wearing a VAD, unemployed, on disability and waiting for a new heart.

“A lot of people don’t know that heart failure is the number one killer in America. People need to be aware. It is, in many cases, preventable. It doesn’t have to happen. It can be a matter of lifestyle. Eating fast food, lack of exercise, being overweight can all contribute to heart failure.”

Hirtz said that in 2013, before he received a VAD, his condition had deteriorated so badly he couldn’t complete a sentence due to shortness of breath. He was was so weak, he couldn’t walk.

“When my doctor suggested I get a VAD, I was scared,” said Hirtz. “The thought of it was overwhelming. That was in October of 2013. Then my doctor told me that without a VAD, I wouldn’t make it through December. I agreed to the procedure and here I am, three years later, happy to be at this celebration.”

It turns out that Hirtz is an inspiration to heart patients who have been told that they need a VAD.

“The hospital often calls me to come and talk to potential recipients who are as scared as I was,” said Hirtz. “I come and tell the patients they need to submit to the treatment. I tell them to look at me, I am up walking around, living my life, and that they can, too.

“I am grateful to Advocate Christ Hospital. They saved my life and I am happy to help coach people who need a VAD. I didn’t have anyone to tell me about living with a VAD, so I want to help. I come whenever they call me,” added Hirtz.

Closing the event was Ken Lukhard, CEO and president of Advocate Christ Medical Center. Addressing the attendees as “Walking Miracles” he wished them the best holiday season ever and urged them to absorb it and soak it up.

“Life on this planet is so fleeting for all of us. Let us savor every moment,” Lukhard said.


Providing food, supplies and cards to 'Mrs. Jacky's Soldiers' overseas

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

jackys soldiers photo 12-8

Photo by Dermot Connolly

Mia Villanueva (from left), Cary Napoles and Jacky Connelly sort through cards being sent in care packages to “Mrs. Jacky’s Soldiers” serving overseas.

While some of us are inclined to forget that U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines are still in harm’s way around the world, Jacky Connelly always remembers them, especially around the holidays.

The Oak Lawn woman and a committed group of volunteers have been packing care packages for area service members since 2003 from her base at the Oak View Center, 4625 W. 110th St., Oak Lawn.

“I’ve been doing this for 13.5 years,” said Connelly, who has been an early education teacher at the Oak View Center for more than 20 years. “I started doing it in March 2003, when one of my students’ only parent was sent to Iraq in the first wave,” she explained. “I was doing it by myself at first, but it grew and I enlisted some volunteers.”

Her “right-hand person” these days is Dawn Jurewicz. The all-ages group now meets at least two Fridays per month, usually from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

“We’re not an official non-profit. We’re just a little band of volunteers. All of our soldiers’ names come by word of mouth. They are either from Oak Lawn or the surrounding area, or have connections to the area. Sometimes, when soldiers come home, we send boxes to the person who replaced them,” she said on Friday, as the group got to work.

Holiday boxes filled with decorations, cards, reading material and other items, had already been packed and mailed in November, to arrive in time for Christmas. So on Friday, volunteers were sorting and packing candy collected since Halloween. The Oak Lawn Ice Arena helped out with its Treats for Troops program, in which trick-or-treaters collected candy on Halloween for the men and women in uniform.

Some in the group got busy sorting through the donated Halloween candy, setting aside items unsuitable for mailing. Others then packed and labeled the boxes in preparation for mailing. All the mailing costs are picked up by the group, so Connelly said donated postage stamps are always gratefully accepted.

“We have 500 boxes of candy. It is not even all here,” she said, looking over at a table filled with candy that volunteers were sorting. While hard candy and some chocolate can be sent, Connelly said chocolate wrapped only in foil wouldn’t survive the trip, or the hot weather. “Twizzlers are very popular, and there are so many flavors,” she said. Boxes of non-perishable food are typically lined with magazines and comics sections of newspapers to provide entertainment, as well as protection from dust.

“I do it for the troops. I’ve got relatives in the military so I know how important it is for them to know that people at home are thinking of them,” said Ellie Tripan, who has been volunteering alongside Connelly for 12 years now.

Peg Bauer, who uses a wheelchair, also has been volunteering for several years, despite her own health problems

“We collect candy and supplies in my condo building now. Everyone has been so generous,” Bauer said. “It is great to get out and help people.”

Sara Sabadosa, 24, started volunteering with Jacky when she was in fifth grade at Kolmar School. She is now working on her doctorate in physical therapy, “and I am still here,” she said with a smile.

“This is our first day,” said Cary Napoles, who was there with her niece, Mia Villanueva, who heard about “Mrs. Jacky’s Soldiers” when looking for a way to get service hours for school.

Connelly said the group now sends several boxes per month to 11 soldiers, mainly stationed in Afghanistan or Kuwait, on ships.

“A few are going back to Iraq again, too,” she noted.

She knows the importance of care packages because her mother, Milly, used to send them to her father, Al Fillwalk, when he was in Europe during World War II. In honor of her parents, she puts “Kilroy was here” stickers on every box, replicating the drawings common in World War II, and adds a Freda the frog sticker that has become her symbol.

”There is a little bit of me and my parents on every box,” Connelly said.

Care package donations may be dropped off at the Oak View center. In addition to packaged snacks, cereal, dry soups, tea, coffee and gum, leftover packets of condiments like ketchup, mustard, and soy sauce from restaurants are also popular with the troops. Toothbrushes and travel-sized containers of toothpaste, deodorant and other hygiene products are also accepted, along with books, magazines, puzzles, playing cards, DVDS, CDs and batteries (other than lithium).

“They tell us they need things to occupy their minds in the downtime,” said Connelly, who treasures the thank you notes and photos she receives.

“What we could really use now is postage stamps, of all denominations,” said Connelly. “It costs $18.75 to mail each box, and right now we have enough for one more month.” All donations may be dropped off at the front desk of the Oak View Center between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.

New volunteers are always welcome, too. Velma Kellup, of Oak Lawn, has been volunteering for three years, since coming to the Oak View Center for an AARP program.

“It is just a nice way to give back and meet people,” she said.

Palos Hills Board wants to relieve traffic congestion near Stagg High School

  • Written by Michael Gilbert

Palos Hills officials are hoping an ordinance update will curb the traffic concerns at Stagg High School.

Ald. Mark Brachman (2nd Ward) told council members during the committee of the whole meeting last Thursday he is recommending the city fine tune its ordinance pertaining to the parking and stopping of vehicles on Roberts Road from 111th to 114th streets.

Brachman said he recently met with Public Works Commissioner Dave Weakley in hopes of creating a solution to the gridlock that occurs in the morning and afternoon around the high school, 8015 W. 111th St. The alderman said many drivers are not entering the school’s parking lot to drop off students but instead stopping along Roberts Road from 111th Street to 114th Street to let students out. The high school’s policy is for drivers to enter the school parking lot to drop off or pick up students.

“It’s causing some problems,” Brachman said of drivers not abiding by the drop-off and pick-up guidelines.

Palos Hills Mayor Gerard Bennett said those who use Roberts Road as a pick-up or drop-off point then typically make a U-turn, which congests the intersection.

“The problem is on the west side of Roberts right past the light people are stopping, parking and letting their kids off and then making U-turns,” Bennett said. “The school is asking us to regulate that so there is no stopping, parking because there is a designated area for parents to pull in and drop off their kids. When cars pull to the curb they start backing traffic up into the intersection along Roberts Road and it becomes a mess.”

The city has a few ordinances on the books related to that portion of Roberts Road but “they are very disjointed and segmented,’” Weakley said.

“There are some contradictions within the various ordinances,” Weakley said after the meeting. “There’s just a mishmash of ordinances that need to be consolidated into one.”

That consolidation, which is expected to go before the council for approval on Dec. 15, will result in the ordinance being “real simple,” Bennett said.

“No parking or stopping on the entire west side of Roberts Road,” he said when asked the basics of the ordinance.

Tidying up the ordinance should result in the city reaching “its ultimate goal,” Weakley said.

“Everyone is in a hurry and the residents or parents don’t like getting tied up in the designated drop-off line,” Weakley said. “They drop their kids off on the west side of the road and then swing a U-turn and maybe there are some kids being dropped off on the east side of the roadway that are running across the street and the general concern is that someone is going to get hurt or worse. We don’t want that to happen.

“The new (consolidated) ordinance is going to govern the idea of stopping, standing, parking and passenger pick-up and drop-off on Roberts Road.”

Bennett said once the ordinance goes into effect violators could receive a ticket of $80.

In other news, the Dunkin’ Donuts planned at the corner of 111th Street and Roberts Road will not open until the spring of 2017 at the earliest, Ald. Dawn Nowak (5th Ward) said after the meeting. Nowak said a little more than a month ago that she hoped the coffee and baked-goods shop could open by the end of 2016 but that is no longer the case.

Nowak had better news to report on Bertucci’s restaurant, which closed without warning around a year ago. The Italian eatery, 10331 S. Roberts Road, is slated to reopen on Dec. 11, she said.