Jeff Vorva's Im-PRESS-ions: The top 10 cool people I met in 2014

  • Written by Jeff Vorva


Jeffs Col Impressions


Some people in our business love year-end lists.

Some hate them.

Me? I’m in between.

They are a pain in the neck to compile but sometimes when you are compiling them, you forget about some interesting things that happened in a calendar year. It’s a nice look back.

This is the second time, I’ve compiled a top 10 list of people I met over the past year and seeing these names and remembering them once again is a unique experience.

 The criteria is simple. I had to meet them in 2014 and it had to be related to my job with the Reporter or any Southwest Regional Newspaper. Thus, if I was walking down the street and bumped into the President and we had a quick chat, he would not make the list.

But these 10 – in alphabetical order – did make it:

Kate Bradley

For months, I kept reading library press releases about this woman named Kate Bradley teaching cooking classes at virus libraries. She seemed to be everywhere.

In my mind, I pictured her to be like low-key kindly Kate Bradley on “Petticoat Junction,” an older heavy woman with three daughters who had the middle names of Jo who swam in the Hooterville public water supply.


This Evergreen Park resident is a younger, energetic skinny woman who can not only captivate an audience of adults, she has a way of making students of various ages and backgrounds pay attention. 

Ella Chaffee

Oak Lawn’s wheelchair basketball pioneer was named to the National Wheelchair Basketball Hall of Fame in April. “Back in 1980, the WNBAS didn’t have a women’s team, so I started my own,” she said. “When we first started, we had six players, just enough to have a sub. Let me tell ya, I played a lot of minutes.’’

When she was six, she contracted polio but never let it get in the way of what she calls her “tomboy” activities. She has also been a top swimmer and marathoner.


Rona Cox

The 90-year-old former Evergreen Park resident was in the Air Force before it was called the Air Force, was a roller skater until she was 83 and volunteered for various veterans’ organizations for 63 years. 

When she was married, her dress was made out of parachute material.

She even has a wicked sense of humor about her own death, saying “It’s a far drive from Evergreen Park to my cemetery and I don’t want people hungry. So I told the funeral director to serve lunch first.”

Kendall Coyne

It’s not the fact that she is one of the best female hockey players in the world that impresses me.

It’s not the fact that she brought home a silver medal from the Olympics that impresses me.

What impressed me is that she made countless appearances when she got back from Russia and each time, she remained upbeat and gave feel-good speeches day after day and never seemed to get tired of making them.

Bonnie Cruickshank

OK, you know her as Bonnie Blair.

The Olympic hero was at Stagg High School in January and after the speed skater was done giving a speech, I had a chance to interview her and had a lot of fun talking not only about her past triumphs but her present adventures. She’s a hockey mom from Wisconsin who wears bells and blows horns at her son’s game.

“You have to come with your toys,” she said. 

Jack Dematteo

The 11-year-old Oak Lawn student who is battling Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is beloved so much by his peers and members of the St. Catherine Alexandria School and Parish in Oak Lawn that an elevator at his school was built for him and other students with physical needs.

As a side note, since we went to a new website in spring, 2013, Jack’s tale ranks fifth on Reporter stories with the most hits.  

Sarah Dynia

Another young Oak Lawn treasure, this Mother McAuley student started the “Stuffed Love” organization which helps bring comfort to people of all ages.

She makes stuffed hearts plus animals, flowers, stars and even some stuffed monsters. “If it can be sewn and stuffed, I can make it!” she said.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. She has received letters from Governor Pat Quinn and President Barack Obama recognizing her efforts.

Theresa Rebersky

Even though she and I have had e-mail exchanges in 2013, I technically didn’t meet this Worth woman in person until spring at a – what else? – Worth event. She loves that town.

She and her husband, George, have had a lot of fun with our WHATIZIT? game over the years and this year she was asked to throw out the first pitch before a White Sox game in June to “some guy named Chris” which turned out to be ace pitcher Chris Sale.

She had her ups and downs this year, but every time I’ve seen her or corresponded with her, she was probably the most upbeat person I’ve met in a long time.

Linda Stearns

Like Chaffee, this woman proves that if you live in Oak Lawn and are in a wheelchair, you just don’t sit around and have people feel sorry for you.

Stearns has become a tireless volunteer whose door was falling off of her van and was awarded a new van after winning a national Local Heroes Award contest. 

My favorite part of the Linda Stearns biography is that she goes to funeral homes, snarfs up discarded flowers and gives them to people in hospitals. She told me people in the hospitals think she is full of money because she is always giving flowers away.

Viola Strupeck



The 92-year-old who is a regular at Curves Fitness in Hickory Hills puts most of us to shame with her work ethic in the gym.

OK, she’s not lifting 200 pounds over her head or running marathons, but she is energetic and inspires the other women at Curves.

Now, I’m not the type that ever asks permission to a story subject for a headline, but I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t balk at my idea of “At 92, she’s still using her Curves.’’ I didn’t want her to be embarrassed or to find it in bad taste.

She laughed and gave me her blessing.



It's a Happy New Year for Worth family

  • Written by Bob Rakow

DR-PAGE-5-FAMILYThere was a time when Josh and Alicia Cook wondered how everything could go so wrong.

“What did we do? Who did we make angry?” Alicia recalls thinking as her family faced one serious dilemma after another beginning in early 2012.

The Worth family’s world was shaken in February, 2012 when their son, Chase, now 16, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Two years later, his father, Josh, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma and was unable to work.

Josh does not smoke or chew tobacco, so the diagnosis came as quite a surprise. It also came as Alicia’s husband of 17 years was about to start a new job.

While Josh underwent chemo and radiation treatment after tumors were removed from his tongue and cheek, Alicia lost her job as a schoolteacher.

The past two years were clearly challenging ones for the Cooks. They faced overwhelming financial struggles coupled with the anxiety that accompanies serious illnesses.

“It was a roller coaster of ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to do now?’” Alicia said.

Still, the Cooks refused to buckle during trying times, and employed a one-day-at-a-time approach.

“Basically, it was ‘Today is Monday. What do we have to do to get through Monday,’” Alicia Cook said.

Alicia stood by Chase and later, Josh, 41, during their treatments at the University of Chicago Medical Center while at the same time taking care of her four other children: Zane, 14; Ariana, 12; Xavier, 9; and Blake, 6.

“They felt distracted, but I’d like to say they handled really well,” she said of her children.

But this story has a happy ending that has the Cooks entering the New Year in a more hopeful place than they were three years ago.

Chase’s cancer is in remission, and Josh’s latest cancer scan was clear. He continues to gain his strength, and has a lead on new job when he’s ready to go back to work.

Alicia, meanwhile, is back in the classroom, teaching high school students in Cicero.

To top it all off, the Cooks won’t have to make a mortgage payment in 2015.

Instead, Gradient, a Minnesota-based financial services company, and its Gradient Gives Back Foundation, will foot the bill.

Alicia Cook found out about the foundation after meeting with a social worker at the University of Chicago Medical Center about assistance for families facing drastic illnesses.

“That started me looking,” said Alicia, who learned about the Gradient Gives Back Foundation via a web search.

As part of the application process, she chronicled the family’s struggles, and outlined all the Cooks had done to give back to the community despite their own obstacles.

“We give back and that’s what they ask about, and they were touched by all that,” Alicia said.

Many families have fundraisers when a serious illness strikes and causes financial hardships. Not the Cooks.

Instead, they continued to help others.

The boys mowed the lawns of elderly relatives and neighbors.

Ariana accompanied her dad to chemo sessions.

Chase, while battling his own disease, organized a fundraiser at Worth Junior High with all the proceeds, going to cure it and the foundation his doctor started.

As part of the application process, Alicia went through a series of phone interviews with Gradient officials during the summer. In December, the family was invited to Mokena to meet with foundation representatives.

The Cooks were told they were one of five finalists for the annual award and the 30-minute, videotaped interview would help Gradient make a decision.

It was tough interview for Alicia.

“I started talking about Chase and my emotions came out and I started crying,” she recalled.

What the Cooks did not know during their December interview was that they had already been chosen to receive the mortgage payment award.

“It was very exciting,” said Alicia, who said she knew something was up when WGN News cameras were on the scene along with some other photographers.

“It was kind of a dead giveaway with the news cameras,” she said.

The mortgage payments begin in January and for an entire year the Cooks can focus on regaining a financial foothold. Gone are the days when Alicia has to count every penny or decide which bill could be put off so another could be paid.

Josh is regaining his strength and his sense of taste, which he lost as a result of radiation treatment.

“He was able to enjoy Christmas dinner,” Alicia said.

It’s safe to say all of the Cooks enjoyed Christmas dinner.

And they hope that they will enjoy their outlook for 2015 even more.



Trustee's 'thanks' is more than welcome

  • Written by Bob Rakow

Last week, Reporter editor Jeff Vorva used his column, ImPRESSions, to write about his favorite moment of 2014. Not his favorite story, per se. Rather, he wrote about a behind-the-scenes moment he experienced while on a photo assignment for a story that ran on our front page.


Jeff suggested that I borrow the theme for the B-Side. It sounded like a good idea, but I couldn’t think of any particular moment or story during the year that was especially moving or touching.


The more I thought about it, however, there was one moment I experienced this year that was unique.


It happened several weeks ago during an Oak Lawn Village Board meeting, and it had nothing to do with the opposite sides of village government going at it again over an issue like the 911 dispatch center or some other point of contention.


Quite the opposite.


Trustee Tim Desmond (1st) used a portion of his report to thank all the reporters who cover the community.


Some simply attend village board meetings, others cover the village on a day-to-day basis, writing stories about the village, schools, park district, crime, break news and features. Either way, Desmond wanted to give us a moment of recognition.


He wanted everyone to know that we work hard at what we do, strive to write fair and balanced stories and sometimes face resistance in our effort to do our job.


It was a surprise, to be sure.


I’ve been in and out of the newspaper business since 1987. I covered Park Ridge in the late1980s, Roselle and Bloomingdale in the early 1990s, the LaGrange area for a brief period in 1998-99 and towns throughout the Southland as a freelancer for the SouthtownStar for many years.


I’ve sat in many a meeting, cultivated relationships with numerous public officials—even angered a few—but never has anyone taken a moment during a meeting to say, “Hey, you folks in the media. Thanks. You do a good job, work hard, strive to be objective, provide a service.”


But Tim Desmond did.


I suppose one could argue Desmond was trying to curry favor with reporters, but that’s not my sense. It wouldn’t work even if that were his goal.


Desmond’s been a trustee since 2013 and not long after he was elected, I wrote a story about his failure to file the required paperwork with the Illinois State Board of Elections before running for office.


I called Tim when I was writing the story and he responded to my questions. He didn’t put me off, avoid my calls or fall back on “no comment” when I asked about the misstep.


In the weeks and months after the story broke, I called Desmond for other stories and spoke to him at village board meetings. He never treated me differently or acted as though he was angry about the initial story.


That’s good. He gets it. If you choose to run for office or hold elective office, facing questions from the press is part of the deal.


It doesn’t always work that way. There are elected officials who harbor grudges and don’t forget about the bad press they receive. Those are the ones who typically don’t return phone calls or do so only if getting a quote in the paper serves their interests.


It’s all part of the game we play, I suppose. My stories are better if they include quotes from all parties involved. Conversely, local officials have much to gain from the media and getting their message across.


Desmond is up for re-election in the spring. He faces a challenge from Cindy Trautsch, who he defeated in 2013 for a two-year term on the board.


Trautsch was the one who filed the complaint with the state about Desmond’s missing paperwork. Clearly, she’s kept an eye on village politics and was aiming for rematch with Desmond.


Good luck to her. Good luck to him.


We’ll write stories about all three trustee races in Oak Lawn and give all the candidates a chance to complete surveys, be interviewed and explain their platforms.


Desmond might tout the jobs program he created or talk about the regular district meeting he’s hosted for residents. Look for Trautsch to tie Desmond to the Bury administration, bring up the ongoing 911dispatch center saga, among other issues. It will be interesting.


Rest assured, I’m not going to go easy on Desmond because he said “thanks” during a board meeting. But I do appreciate the gesture because we all like to be thanked or recognized now and then. It’s human nature.

Chicago Ridge Mall to go PG-17 in March

  • Written by Bob Rakow

PAGE-3-police-guard-mall-2In the coming months, teenagers won’t be able to hang out at Chicago Ridge Mall unless accompanied by an adult following a Saturday evening melee that led to a significant police response and forced the mall to close early.

Chicago Ridge Police Chief Robert Pyznarski met Monday morning with mall officials, who said they would adopt in March a policy similar to the one in place at North Riverside Mall.

North Riverside Mall officials in 2013 announced a youth escort policy designed to reduce the number of unsupervised teens hanging out at the shopping center on weekend nights.

Under the policy, after 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, anyone under 17 years old is required to be accompanied by a parent or supervising adult, age 21 or over.

Chicago Ridge Mall officials have not yet ironed out the details of their proposed policy, but the goal is to eliminate unsupervised teens from wandering the shopping center, Pyznarski said.

Teens coming to the mall to see a movie will be required to go straight to the theater area and leave immediately after the movie. They would not be permitted to linger in the food court or enter the mall shopping area after movies are over, he said.

Pyznarski said the youth escort policy might be tough to enforce at first, but over time the details will be worked out.

At North Riverside Mall, for example, security checks photo IDs of unescorted teens who enter the mall. Those under 18 and are required to leave.

Contact cards would be created for teens that repeatedly violate the policy, Pyznarski said.

Additionally, the mall has decided to hire uniformed, off-duty Chicago Ridge police officers to enhancement mall security.

“We work pretty well together,” Pyznarski said.

The decision to implement the youth escort policy and beef up security comes after Saturday’s skirmish, which quickly escalated when some patrons believed shots were fired inside the mall.

As it turns out, a restaurant worker in the food court banged pots together several times in an effort to disperse the crowd that gathered when a fight broke out, officials said.

“There were no shots fired,” Pyznarski said.

Police from several surrounding communities—some carrying rifles, others accompanied by canine partners—were at the mall within minutes. Patrons were told to leave the building and the mall shut its doors a few hours before its traditional 9 p.m. closing time.

Pyznarski denied that the incident was the result of flash mob.

Instead, he said, the incident grew out of a fight in the food court between two teenagers or men in their early 20s. One of the men was escorted out of the mall but returned to resume the fight. It was at that time that the incident escalated, Pyznarski said.

Both men eluded security officers and police, he said. No arrests were made and no one was injured.

“It was just an isolated incident,” he said. “I don’t think anything was preplanned. It was between two individuals. I think everything worked out as well as could be expected.”

Pyznarski added that the mall was especially crowded because it was a Saturday night, shoppers were returning gifts or seeking post-holiday bargains and teenagers are on break from school.

Post-holiday flash mobs were reported over the weekend at malls in several cities, including Pittsburgh, Memphis, Nashville, and Kansas City. An incident also occurred last Friday at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Police in 2013 put the kibosh on a group of youth flash mobs who were planning to run amok at Chicago Ridge Mall.

Police were notified of the planned mob by teachers and administrators from two Chicago high schools and the Chicago Police Department’s gang unit, Pyznarski said.

Three hundred youths planned to meet at Ford City and take public transportation to the Chicago Ridge Mall, he said.

But police officers were at the mall in anticipation of the mob’s arrival. The mall tripled its security personnel and brought in security officers from nearby malls. The police presence caused most of the teens to reboard Paces buses rather than enter the shopping center.

Neither Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar nor mall officials could be reached for comment on Monday.



Fire issues still burn in Chicago Ridge

  • Written by Bob Rakow

The Chicago Ridge Fire Department remain at odds with village officials over a variety of hot-button issues including what the firefighters union describes as a “staffing crisis.”


“We are currently faced with more issues than I care to count,” Chris Schmelzer, president of the Chicago Ridge Firefighter's Union, wrote in an Dec. 13 email to Trustee Bruce Quintos obtained Monday by the Reporter.


“First on the list is the absolutely outlandish possibility of staffing a second station using only current personnel resources. To staff a firehouse with two people is unsafe, reduces services to the entire town, and just simply doesn't make sense,” Schmelzer wrote.


In an interview Monday, Schmelzer said poor communication between Fire Chief George Sheets and the firefighters remains a serious problem.


“There is no communication. We’re coexisting. We’re doing things under threat of discipline,” said Schmelzer, who added the teamwork that existed at the house has transformed into a ''dictatorship.''


Sheet was unavailable for comment Monday, but at last week’s village board meeting he said firefighters’ feedback is included in all his decisions.


Mayor Chuck Tokar said Monday that plans to reopen the Lombard Avenue fire station by Christmas have been delayed until the end of January.


But he contends that the decision is a good one.


The station will be open 12 hours a day during the period that the fire department receives the most calls, Tokar said.


The decision to reopen the Lombard station was made because it is located closer to the village’s residential area than the fire station in the village’s industrial park.


Additionally, providing ambulance service from the Lombard Station would reduce the number of times service is provided by neighboring communities—a service for which residents must pay, Tokar said.


But union officials said there are drawbacks to the plan to decrease response times.


“While some residents may see a short decrease in response times for an ambulance, under the new plan, fire protection is eliminated within the entire town every time we get an ambulance call.


“The new plan calls for two ambulances to respond to every call, reducing fire response within the village by 100 percent. Nobody is left to answer the next call,” Schmelzer wrote in his email. “To blindly place all of the village's already limited resources into an ambulance response is short-sighted at best.”


He added that two firefighters who retired in 2014 and were not replaced, a move that places a strain on the department.


“We run with a four-person minimum per shift, as anything less than that would be unsafe, according to all applicable consensus standards, past practice and common sense. Two of the three shifts are currently staffed with four people, creating overtime whenever a member is off,” he said.


“The bottom line is that our fire department has been defunded by two positions,” said Quintos, who cast the lone vote against the village’s 2015 budget for that reason.


“With all but one member having over 10 years seniority on the department and having the commensurate accrued time off, someone is scheduled off the majority of the time. On these shifts, overtime is created every single time someone is off,” Schmelzer said.


Tokar would not respond to Schmelzer and Quintos’ remarks.


“Don’t believe everything that you hear,” he said, adding that decisions regarding the fire department with “the input and cooperation of the union.”


“I understand the union’s position, but I represent the taxpayers of Chicago Ridge,” Tokar said.


The union also has issues with the village’s recent decision to purchase a quint, a fire apparatus that has a pump, water tank, fire hose, aerial device and ground ladders.


Purchase of the quint led the fire department to remove from the fleet an aerial truck and two pumper trucks, one that is badly rusted and requires significant repair, Sheets said.


Those vehicles will be sold and the proceeds will be used to help pay for the quint, he said.


The quint will cost $685,000, which will be offset by the $250,000 the village expects to receive for the sale of the three vehicles it is removing from the fleet. A $350,000 state loan could be used to pay for the bulk of the balance, Sheets said.


“To spend three quarters of a million dollars on a vehicle that will, according to the new response plan issued by the department, only be staffed with two people seems like an improper use of resources,” Schmelzer said.