By Ken Trainor
At 4.5 square miles, Oak Park is eminently walkable. Jean Sullivan has lived here since 1940, when her family moved from Our Lady of Sorrows Parish on the West Side, and before that, Michigan. When she was a kid, she palled around with Bob Newhart's sister, Mary Jo.
About 20 years ago, she decided to walk every block in Oak Park — the entire boundary and both sides of each street therein.
"I've always been a walker," she says. "I don't like swimming."
Walking every street is easier said than done. So she documented it, starting a folder in 1989. She drew the streets with arrows indicating her route. Section by section, she went up one side and down the other. When she got home, she marked it all off on a village map. This September, she completed the task, every street outlined in ink.
She doesn't really know why she started, but maybe it was therapeutic. Her son Jim died in a motorcycle accident in 1976. Her husband Gene died in 1988 and her other son, Mike, in 1989.
Jean, 83, has survived breast cancer (without radiation or drugs), a heart attack and a small stroke. Typical of her generation, she sounds stoic.
"Everybody has hardships. Everybody has heartaches," she says. "It was hell, but no should'ves. You can't change things. You have to face it and move on."
Walking helped. So did her faith.
"Jimmy's death brought me back to the church," she recalls. She still attends Mass daily at Ascension Church on East Avenue.
Sometimes she prays when she walks or talks to herself, but "mostly I just look at nature." She walks alone, occasionally with one of her six daughters. Five of six live close by. The other lives in Wisconsin. Most are walkers, too.
Jean has nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She graduated from OPRF High School (1945), as did all eight of her kids and three of her grandchildren (a fourth is still a student there). One grandchild still attends Ascension. She still hosts Thanksgiving, Christmas and St. Patrick's Day dinners at her place.
"I've been blessed," she says more than once on our walk up Cuyler to Adams to Oak Park Avenue to Jackson to Cuyler and back to the 800 block, her home since 1959. Before that, they lived at 1029 S. Highland, the house where her husband grew up. Gene Sullivan worked double shifts, first as a switchman for the railroad and then as a stationary engineer for Chicago State Hospital in Dunning to make ends meet. After the kids were older, Jean did food demonstrations at the Jewel on Madison Street. Later she worked part-time for a River Forest caterer.
She walks at a brisk clip. With fall color stretching well into mid-November, we shuffled through myriad yellow maple leaves, but Jean wishes there were more sugar maples. Growing up in Benton Harbor, Mich., she remembers rows of red-leafed trees. In response to her complaints, her husband took her to Morton Arboretum, and it has become one of her favorite sanctuaries.
"Look at that sky!" she says, stopping in her tracks. "God is that gorgeous. We are blessed."
She likes variety, which is another factor that led to the every-street project. She plays no favorites but acknowledges that the homes in middle and north Oak Park are "gorgeous."
It's a beautiful town to be sure.
"You don't see me leaving it," she replies.
The project hit a long hiatus. She stopped from 1994 until 2010.
"The dog was no good in the car," she explains. She also took a bad spill when the back railing gave way a few years back. She broke her scapula and a few ribs.
"That's just part of life. What are you going to do?"
The project had dimmed in memory altogether till this fall when she came across the folder. The last section she documented, oddly enough, was one of the closest — South Boulevard to Madison, Ridgeland to Cuyler. She'd likely walked it all before but never recorded it. She uses a pedometer now and her walks cover up to three miles, but she doesn't walk every day. Active at Ascension, at PADS and in her own backyard where she still does her own yardwork, she doesn't always find time.
She's got strong opinions. The archdiocese, she says, better not mess with Ascension's beloved, outspoken pastor, Rev. Larry McNally.
"I'm not for the hierarchy," she says. "I'm for the faith. He practices what he preaches. He's more Christ-like than the whole hierarchy put together."
Jean used to walk alleys but with privacy fences there's less to look at. She's also sampled the sidewalks of surrounding communities — River Forest, Forest Park and Berwyn — but doesn't plan to extend her record-keeping.
Oak Park is three miles long and 1.5 miles wide. According to Village Engineer Jim Budrick, there are 103 "center lane" miles inside Oak Park, meaning the distance you would travel driving every street in a car. Since Jean has walked both sides of every street, that puts her at 206 "sidewalk" miles.
Her advice to other walkers?
"Observe what's around you. Take in all the beauty. Notice the good side of the changing seasons. See different things. And I say hello to everyone I pass."
She loves the first crocuses and snowdrops in spring, but her favorite season?
"You're looking at it."
And why walk in the first place?
Jean Sullivan says, "Just for the fun of it."