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Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: 'Greatest' stories of vets, eggs, muscles and magic

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

 

ALI AND COMMANDER

Photo courtesy of Ed McElroy

Muhammad Ali, who died last week, and Oak Lawn’s Ed McElroy pose during an event in 1978.

 

 

This was like bringing Donald Trump to a Mexican Pride meeting.

In the early 1970s, Muhammad Ali was a hated man by many white veterans for refusing to go into the military during the Viet Nam war era. The controversial boxer was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title and sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion. He spent a lot of time in Chicago during and after his boxing exile.

White veterans back then didn’t like what Ali stood for and the n-word plus some cuss words were fairly prevalent when his name came up.

Chicago radio personality and public relations guru Ed McElroy, a longtime Oak Lawn resident and a veteran, wasn’t exactly in Ali’s corner about refusing to serve. But he met the former Cassius Clay through legendary politician Ed Kelly and McElroy’s jobs required that he interact with the pugilist.

They formed a relationship close enough that McElroy coaxed Ali to do something no one else would likely ask the Champ to do.

Ali, who died at age 74 last week, agreed to head out to the Maywood area with McElroy to Hines Hospital to meet some veterans.

“I brought out people all the time to meet with the veterans,” McElroy said. “I brought out Tommy Dorsey and Sammy Kaye and other celebrities.’’

Yeah, but those guys were bandleaders and not political powder kegs.

Yet, McElroy pulled it off. Ali may have been against the war, but he wasn’t against veterans who served in battles. And that’s what a lot of people didn’t realize at the time.

“No one said a thing,” McElroy said. “I said ‘if you tell me no, I won’t bring him out.’ No one booed or hissed him. There may have been some people who didn’t look at it as being a good idea, but the majority of the veterans said ‘bring him here.’ So I brought him and it turned out great.’’

There was no blowback after the fact. In fact, McElroy said he received more guff for another sports appearance under his watch.

“I brought White Sox players out there and people took more offense to that because a lot of the veterans were Cubs fans,” McElroy said.

McElroy had a few funny stories about Ali. McElroy was a guest one morning at his house in the 8500 block of South Jeffrey Avenue.

“He must have had 20 mirrors in his house – there were mirrors all over the place,” McElroy said. “He would walk by each mirror and show off his biceps. I laughed and he said ‘don’t you laugh’ and showed me his fist.’’

McElroy, who turns 91 in July, was stunned by Ali’s first meal in the morning.

“He had a dozen eggs for breakfast,” McElroy said. “I mean, eating two eggs is pretty good, right?  He made his breakfast himself and he had some bacon, too. He said ‘the eggs are good for you – it gives me muscles’ and then he showed his biceps again.

“He was different. He was something else.’’

My moments with Muhammad

While my one encounter with Ali is not as cool as the McElroy stories, it shows what kind of a unique individual he was.

In July, 1999 while I was covering the Cubs, he made an appearance at Wrigley Field. After the game, he was meeting and greeting the players. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome 15 years prior and his arms were shaking.

I stood face to face with a guy who at one time was known all over the world and whose face was famous for being expressive in anger or joy. But this time, he had a blank look. His famous eyes were open but, as the old phrase goes, the lights were on but it looked like no one was home. I heard that despite his outward appearance, his mind was still sharp, so I said something like “Hi, Champ!”

The Champ kind of nodded at me and minutes later he nodded off in a chair.

His head was tilted and some spittle was running out of his mouth and down his cheek.

The man they called “The Greatest,” didn’t look so great and I felt horrible for seeing him in such a pathetic position.

Then he woke up, wiped his face, stood up and walked toward one of the Cubs players and out of nowhere pulled out a coin from behind his ear.

This guy who I was thinking should be in a nursing home and not a baseball clubhouse just pulled off a really cool magic trick and many of the Cubs players applauded.

To quote a soon-to-be 91-year-old Oak Lawn resident, Ali was something else.

 

 

Park Lawn celebrates opening of vegetable garden

  • Written by Joe Boyle

After years of discussion and planning, the new urban vegetable and pollinator gardens opened Friday morning on the grounds of Park Lawn in Oak Lawn.

Nancy Schmitz is the director of development at Park Lawn, which provides instruction and opportunities to promote independence, choice and access to community living for people with developmental and physical disabilities. She said the idea of a garden at the facility, 10833 S. Laporte Ave., was discussed in earnest last October. The idea of an urban garden would give participants a chance to grow plants and vegetables that could be sold at the Oak Lawn Farmer's Market.

Proceeds from the sale of plants and vegetables at the Farmer's Market, which is held on Wednesday mornings at the Village Green near 95th and Cook Avenue through mid-October, would go to assist with programs for Park Lawn.

Schmitz said the idea of the gardens was greatly advanced through the efforts of Maureen Reilly, president of the Park Lawn Board. Schmitz also applauded the efforts of Maureen's husband, Charlie, and board member Cheri Boublis.

“We have really made this space functional for planting,” said Schmitz, who also credited the efforts of Roy Erickson and his Outdoor Maintenance Company in Crestwood for creating the garden. “It's a dream that has become a reality.”

Also attending the ceremony for the opening of the gardens were Steve Manning, executive director of Park Lawn; Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury and Trustee William “Bud” Stalker, whose district Park Lawn is located.

Schmitz said that many volunteers have contributed to the efforts of the creation of the gardens and other programs at Park Lawn. Robert Lauf, who is from Tennessee and works with gardens, visits Park Lawn annually. He said it is a coincidence that he arrived for the opening of the Park Lawn gardens.

“We need to do more for places like Park Lawn who help so many,” said Lauf. “I've supported Park Lawn for over 40 years.”

“We needed to do something that is a great source for the community,” said Maureen Reilly. “And what is better than growing vegetables. The idea came to me at last year's Farmer's Market. People came up to me and said they did not know about Park Lawn. That's when I approached the University of Illinois Master Gardner's Program to help us out. They have been a great help.”

Schmitz said Erickson and his maintenance company deserve a lot of credit for the development of the garden. She said that during the winter months, four beds were constructed in his shop by his employees.

“One sunny day in April, Roy had his crew came to Park Lawn and started digging up the grass, laying and pounding the stone so the beds would stand stable and laid the brick pavers,” said Schmitz. “Next came the installation of the beds, then the plants. Roy's passion for gardening and true belief in our mission made this dream a reality.”

Schmitz also credited the efforts of Busy Bee Nursing in Crestwood, Fasel and Sons Nursery in Oak Lawn, and Maurice Moore Memorials in Chicago Ridge.

Manning said it is through the efforts of the volunteers that made this program happen.

“Park Lawn is a terrific organization,” said Manning. “What makes this so great is that it is a collective effort.”

Vegetables included in the garden are tomatoes, basil, lettuce, arugula, carrots, sweet peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and Brussels sprouts.

“This is a community effort,” said Bury. “I am so proud of Park Lawn. You are going to have an awesome garden.”

Manning said that the new urban garden will allow Park Lawn participants to contribute to society.

“This is just a stepping stone for us,” said Manning. “This allows participants to go out and help out on other projects in the community. The garden is just of part of that.”

Parents caring for ill son find some super supporters

  • Written by Sharon L. Filkins

Harrison Sindowski is a handsome 4-year-old boy, who has curly red hair and beautiful green eyes framed by long eyelashes. He lives with his parents, Kelly and Tom Sindowski, on a quiet street in a pleasant subdivision in Hickory Hills.

But this picture has a heartbreaking flaw. Harrison has severe epilepsy, diagnosed at 3 months and complicated later by an additional diagnosis of Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome (LGS), which includes multiple different types of seizures that are hard to control and resistant to medication.

“Only one in 100,000 kids is diagnosed with what Harrison has,” said Kelly. “We had never heard of it. With his diagnosis, the doctors told us that he likely will never walk, or talk, and he will need intensive care all of his life.”

He is also at a higher risk of Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP), which is responsible for about 10 percent of seizure-related deaths.

“This means that we don’t sleep soundly through the night. We have a night-vision view monitor on his bed, which sounds an alarm in our room if he is moving around. We take turns checking on him,” said Kelly.

“But Harrison is a little fighter and has proved them somewhat wrong. That’s why we call him Superman. At the age of 2 ½, he took his first step and we continue to work on his speech. He may never talk, but we are working on it,” she said. She added that presently he functions at the level of 18 months to 2 years.

Kelly said Harrison goes to Dorn Elementary School for its early childhood and pre-K program, where he receives occupational therapy. He also has speech and occupational therapy at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.

The Sindowskis work together as they minister to Harrison, whom they call their “special angel.” Stepping into their bright, decorated home, a visitor is greeted with smiles and a warm welcome. It is a home filled with an atmosphere of love.

While they adore each other, their sole focus is Harrison, their only child. They lavish an abundance of physical affection on Harrison, as well as the necessary 24-hour, life-sustaining attention he needs.

Harrison was born in April, 2012 and there was no hint of any problems.

“For three months, we had a normal life with him,” said Kelly. “But then we noticed he was making strange jerky movements with his arms. We took him to the doctor and after many tests, he was diagnosed with the epilepsy and our terrible journey began.”

Kelly said people just do not realize what all the ramifications of the condition involve.

“We certainly didn’t and learned by trial and error,” said Kelly. “He can never go outside without a helmet because of the danger of his falling when he has a seizure. Outside he is always in a wheelchair. He has no sense of boundaries, so even in the house, we have to watch that he doesn’t fall into a table or counter. If he were on a bed, he would just walk or roll off the edge. He can’t discern danger.”

When he was first diagnosed, Kelly said he would have as many as 40 seizures a day.

“He has been through at least 14 medications and nothing really helps, although the seizures have slowed to maybe as many as 15 per day.

Asked if they ever are able to take a break or get away, they replied that it is very difficult as Harrison cannot be left with anyone, although Kelly’s mom comes three days a week so she can go to her part-time job.

“My mom has built a bed for Harrison at her house and adapted her other rooms so he can be there. But it can’t be for very long, as he needs all his medications and he is not very mobile,” said Kelly.

Her husband added that it is difficult emotionally for them to be away from Harrison. “So we invent our own special times here at home,” said Tom. “We celebrate everything and make a big deal of all the small things.”

“We also take him to the city’s Halloween parties for kids and the Christmas parties. I make a big deal of Halloween and create costumes around his wheelchair,” said Kelly. “He seems to love it. Last year he was Superman in a little plane built around the chair and the year before he was a little leprechaun, sitting in a pot of gold.”

A recent bright moment for the family was the Epilepsy Foundation 5K Marathon at Montrose Harbor in Chicago. Five thousand people attended the event, but it was a very special visitor who thrilled the Sindowski family. They had the pleasure of meeting for the first time a young man from North Carolina named Michael Newsom, who has been running for Harrison in races across the nation for the past two years.

Newsom volunteers for an organization named Who I Run 4, which raises funds for the Epilepsy Foundation. Parents of children with epilepsy can sign up with the organization and are then matched up with a runner.

“We were matched with Michael in September 2014, but we had never met him in person. We got acquainted through Facebook and he stayed in touch with us, sending medals and ribbons he won as he ran for Harrison in various marathons. Harrison’s room is filled with all the awards,” said Kelly.

“This was his first trip to Chicago and we were thrilled to meet him. He stayed with us for five days and we just fell in love with him,” said Kelly. “He also fell in love with Harrison and actually ran in the race with him, pushing him in a jogger-stroller. He carried Harrison over the finish line at the end of the race. Michael now has a large extended family of aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters in this area and we invited him to come back soon.”

Kelly praised the city of Hickory Hills for their donation and support of the marathon.

“When I contacted them a few weeks ago. I was only asking if they could place a welcome sign to Michael on the city’s billboard in front of the City Hall, to draw attention to the marathon. I thought it would be cool for Michael to see. I wasn’t expecting their generous donation, but we are very grateful.”

For further information on Who I Run 4, contact www.whoirun4.com.

Oak Lawn eyes space for senior center

  • Written by Joe Boyle

Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury said that preliminary plans are moving forward to lease space for a new senior center in underutilized space at Park Lawn.

“They have additional space that they no longer need,” said Bury. “Everyone is pretty excited about this.”

The mayor said the idea of signing a long term lease with Park Lawn, 10833 S. Laporte, Oak Lawn, has been talked about for over two years. Park Lawn provides instruction and opportunities to promote independence, choice and access to community living for people with developmental and physical disabilities.

But it was not until recently that plans to renovate sections of the Park Lawn facility for seniors began to take shape. Less classroom space is being utilized for participants, many of whom are receiving vocational training and other locations and at businesses.

The Reporter went on a brief tour Friday of the presently underutilized section of the building, which is at the north end. A large room near a parking lot is available for senior programs such as crafts. A kitchen would be available on certain days for the proposed senior center. An activity room can be made available for exercise programs for seniors, according to Jon Perry, vice president of the Park Lawn Board of Directors.

While Bury cautions this is the preliminary stage of discussion, she pointed to Oak Lawn’s association with Park Lawn. With kitchen space, meals can be provided once a month. Work needs to be done on the structure, but Bury sees the potential.

“I know a lot of people have brought up they want a new senior center built,” said Bury. “But that can be quite expensive. But why do that when you already have this structure here. I think the seniors understand that. We want to do what’s right for them and the taxpayers.”

Bury sees the advantages of having the senior center at Park Lawn. The needs of Park Lawn participants and some seniors are similar. Those needs can be taken care of in a facility like this, according to Bury.

The proposed move to the Park Lawn location is being done to respond to many seniors who had grievances about the current site at 5220 W. 105th St., the old McGugan Junior High School location. Seniors complained about not having enough rooms for some of their programs. Aerobics instructors were concerned about a lack of space as well.

The move to the old McGugan site was necessitated because the old Oak Lawn Senior Center building at 5330 W. 95th St. was sold to Beverly Bank and Trust and was renovated into the Oak Lawn Trust and Savings Bank. The senior center at the old McGugan location opened in June, 2013.

“The seniors want to have a safe place,” said Bury. “Four years ago we looked into (Park Lawn). “

Bury said it was through the efforts of Trustee William “Bud” Stalker that discussions with Park Lawn “reenergized.”

While sufficient room appeared to be available in the parking lot, Stalker pointed out that the most mornings the lot is filled with buses for Park Lawn participants.

“This is definitely an issue,” said Stalker. “But it’s not insurmountable.”

Perry said other arrangements could probably be made for the buses on specific days.

Bury said more discussions will take place to make this a facility that seniors will want to come to and take part in various programs.

Sabre Roon closes after 67 years in Hickory Hills

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

 

The 67-year-old Sabre Room banquet hall, a landmark building located at 8900 W. 95th St. in Hickory Hills, held its last events on Saturday and Sunday, before shutting its doors for the last time.

The family-owned business was founded by Arnold and Marie Muzzarelli in 1949, on the 30-acre site of the luxury Dynell Spring Spa dating back to the 1920s. In recent years, it was known for holding wedding receptions, New Year’s Eve parties, quinceaneras and other social events in its various rooms.

But in its heyday, with space for up to 2,500 people, it was a popular concert venue for top stars such as Frank Sinatra in 1976, and Dean Martin in 1977. Liberace, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Rudy Vallee all appeared there over the years as well.

The Muzzarellis, who lived upstairs, had made the connections necessary to draw the top acts through their previous training at the Ambassadors East Hotel and Pump Room in downtown Chicago. It helped that the Sabre Room encompassed 100,000 square feet of space, and acres of parking.

“I’m sorry to see it go. But I suppose it had to happen eventually. I have a lot of great memories there,” said Ald. Tom McAvoy (3rd Ward), whose ward includes the property.

He said he didn’t see Sinatra and the other big names, but he was there for plenty of weddings and other occasions.

“I never got a chance to meet Arnold Muzzarelli (who died in 1992), but I had the pleasure of meeting his wife, Marie. She was there, working the phone until she was 90,” said McAvoy. When Marie Muzzarelli died in 2010, at 90, the business was passed on to their children, Arnold Jr., and daughters, Janice and Yvonne.

The general manager, Art Golden, the current treasurer of the Hills Chamber of Commerce, had started working there when he was 15, in the 1970s.

“I wish Art the best of luck. He was there so much, he was all the time,” said McAvoy of Golden, who could not be reached for comment this week.

Worth residents Ed and Maggie Palenik are also sad to see the Sabre Room close, having worked there themselves as bartenders and waitstaff over the years, and just helping out where they could. Their daughters worked there also in recent years.

“We knew the Muzzarellis well. They lived upstairs. It was always a very well-run business. A lot of history went on there, and a lot of events were still held there, but just on a smaller scale. Just like the Martinique and other places like it that also closed, everything from the taxes, and gas bills and electric bills just got to be too much. And there were illnesses in the family too.”

McAvoy said that a developer is interested in the property, but he could not go into any details because everything is still in the preliminary stages.

“What happens there is very important to me and my co-alderman, Brian Fonte,” said McAvoy, who also represents the 3rd Ward.

“With 30 acres, it might be one of the biggest developments in Hickory Hills since the 1960s,” he said.

“It is going to be a planned-use development, so it won’t be broken up into different parcels,” said McAvoy.

“But it is going to be a long process. The developer still has to get planning permission, of course, and present plans before the full City Council. It is going to take months. No meetings are scheduled yet, but we’ll expect big crowds when they are held,” he said.