Situation normal: Another year of offbeat news

• From falling terra cotta to spas of ill repute to volcano mulching to ducklings on Oak Park Avenue, 2004 provided plenty of unusual news items.

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By KEN TRAINOR

Oak Park has seldom been accused of being "normal." In fact, just last month, yet another writer in one of the Chicago dailies referred to us as "The People's Republic of Oak Park" as if he had invented the designation.

But DOOPERs (Dear Old Oak Parkers) take a perverse sense of pride in the village's eccentricity, and River Forest may not lag far behind now that they are officially a "blue" community, having voted for a Democrat for president for the first time in their soon-to-be 125-year history.

When you publish an offbeat weekly newspaper, serving offbeat communities, you're bound to find some off-the-beaten-path news items over the course of a year. Here are just some of the items we gleaned from a quick perusal of our pages in 2004:

Look out below

The year began with a chunk of terra cotta falling off the Atrium building (SW corner of Lake and Marion) on Jan. 1, leading to scaffolding and a mysterious shroud for the first half of the year, as rehab began (Jan. 14, p. 21).

The political year began with Howard Dean "meet-ups" via the Internet (Jan. 7, p. 4) as small groups of Oak Parkers met in homes to plan (in vain) George Bush's demise. The village's board of trustees, responding to numerous requests, passed a resolution dissing the USA PATRIOT Act because of its unconstitutional intrusiveness (Jan. 7, p. 6).

Lest readers think we only recently left the mainstream, we carried a historical feature on the old recreation centers (Jan. 21, p. 13), which included a mention of the "Junior Police Force," which enforced playground rules. Wonder how that would go over today.

Villager of the Year (2003) Bob "Center Stage" Milstein pulled a deft parliamentary procedure during a village board meeting that he wanted to postpone (Jan. 28, p. 1). When he recognized that, without his presence, the already short-handed board would be shy of a quorum ... he got up and left. By the end of the year, Milstein, who regularly spars with the village president, was planning to run for president.

At a subsequent study session, Trustee David Pope, who was out of town on business, attended via speakerphone. By the end of the year, Pope, who sometimes gets teased by Milstein, was also planning to run for president (Jan. 28, p. 8).

An infamous "spa of ill repute" at 244 Chicago Ave. was shut down by the village because of alleged prostitution activities. A previous spa incarnation had been shut down at the same location in 2001. Police said the illicit spas weren't otherwise related (Jan. 28, p. 14).

On Jan. 26 around 11 p.m., an Oak Park resident who was out changing a flat tire on the 1100 block of East Avenue, was struck and dragged two blocks into Berwyn by an intoxicated motorist. The unwitting skitcher survived (Feb. 4, p. 1).

Mixing salsa and softball

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, a debate raged over whether to grant a student debating society official club status (Feb. 4, p. 19). Meanwhile, members of the girls softball organization, The Windmills, in preparation for their goodwill tour of Cuba, took salsa lessons at Danza Viva (Feb. 4, p. 20).

A couple of bank robbers, who took off after hitting the TCF Bank in River Forest, left in too much of a hurry and cut off a motorist, who called in the license number to police. The pair were later arrested at their home (Feb. 11, p. 1).

We profiled Rose Pestell, who still bowls every week at the age of 90 with a group called the Suburbanitesâ€"and still manages a victory dance when she gets a strike. And she still gets strikes. After all, she's been bowling in this league for 50 years (Feb. 11, p. 4).

OPRF High School joined an "anti-sweatshop consortium," thanks to pressure from a group called Students Against Sweatshops (Feb. 11, p. 10). And The Avenue Business Association, after two decades of wondering when things would really get out of hand, decided to kill Oak Park's best street festival, May Madness, much to the chagrin of the village's kidsâ€"both young and old.

In March, as the sap (no, not the saps) began to rise, a group calling themselves "Sugar Maple Friends" started lobbying the village to plant more of the broad-leafed beauties that turn so brilliant in the fall, figuring it would attract more visitors and generally liven things up every autumn. By autumn, they succeeded in getting the Forestry Commission to remove sugar maples from the "undesirable" list (March 3, p. 23).

Citing liability concerns, the village banned the Oak Park Runners Club from using The Avenue parking garage, dubbed "Mt. Oak Park" by the members, for training purposes (March 24, p. 1).

It was just a joke

Yes, we're forced to admit, the new proposal for a "mile high" residential building at the corner of Harlem and Ontario, "pre-preferred" by the village trustees, with a skate park on the roof, space for the Historical Society in the storm cellar, featuring giant hinges that allowed the upper floors to split open so the seniors at Holley Court Terrace could watch the sunset every evening, was, as many suspected, an April Fool's Day joke (March 31, p. 1).

The River Forest Park District proposed something called "Futsal," a kind of mini-soccer field for the new and improved Keystone Park. Tennis players considered it a kick in the pants (April 7, p. 3).

Unity Temple Restoration Foundation announced they were looking into bringing geothermal energy to heat the landmark on Lake Street (April 7, p. 4). Various Oak Park organizations announced they were forming a "Progressive Alliance" (April 7, p. 7). Deputy Chief Robert Scianna took a stand against BB guns even though previous quotes in this paper on the subject had been used by the NRA for marketing purposes and generated hate mail from Florida (April 7, p. 19).

On April 14, we reported that Village Trustee Galen Gockel's 1997 Ford Escort had been stolen. Who would steal a '97 Escort, we wondered. Later we (and Gockel) found out that a neighbor had borrowed the vehicle. The Gockels had made the neighborly offer at some point in the past and simply forgot they had a spare key.

On April 23, an SUVâ€"but not the driverâ€"was shot three times, the victim of road rageâ€"unless it was an eco-critic (April 28, p. 1).

Oak Parkers agog

Matt Damon, George Clooney, and Clooney's pet pig, were all reportedly sighted in Oak Park. The only photographic evidence we have, however, is of Matt Damon, here to shoot a scene at the Frank Lloyd Wright Heurtley House on Forest Avenue for the film Ocean's 12, sequel to Ocean's 11. Alas, no Oak Park settings were visible in the film. Maybe they're being saved for Ocean's 13 (May 5, p. 1).

Village Forester Jim Semelka warned local arborists against the practice of "volcano mulching" around the base of their trees, a practice which had apparently reached epidemic proportions (May 5, p. 23).

In our May 12 issue, we profiled Neil Tobin, Oak Park's only known "necromancer," who combined magic and spirit-conjuring to entertaining effect on WGN's morning show. We also chronicled a pre-Mother's Day catastrophe when seven baby ducklings were found waddling frantically down Oak Park Avenue, apparently lost. The ducklings were saved, thanks to the staff at George's Restaurant. Unfortunately, the mother duck ended up under the tire of an Oak Park police car. In an example of admirable journalistic understatement, we reported, "The police say the duck was dead when they inadvertently rolled on top of it" (May 12, p. 18).

We also reported on Robert Satcher, an Oak Park resident who was named an astronaut by NASA (May 12, p. 8); a flip-flop protest at OPRF (May 19, p. 2); a boy raising bucks by selling Beanie Babies in order to support the troops in Iraq (May 19, p. 18); Brookfield Zoo primates munching on plants grown in the Oak Park Conservatory (May 26, p. 12); and a Day in Our Village survey which registered 119 Cub fans and only 55 fans with real taste (June 9, p. 20).

A repeat church burglar was nabbed when he wore an easily identifiable hat stolen during the previous break-in (June 16, p. 1). A badger was reportedly sighted at Priory Park in River Forest and allegedly living beneath the bleachers (June 16, p. 3).

Crowning achievement

Our congressman, Danny Davis, somehow got involved in helping to crown Rev. Sun Myung Moon the "messiah." Davis said he thought it was kind of like a fraternity activity (June 30, p. 2).

Festival Theatre managed to open their open-air run of Romeo and Juliet in Austin Gardens in spite of the fact that $1,000 worth of costumes were stolen, along with the stage manager's car, the day before (June 30, p. 10).

In August, Dan Fore, longtime thorn in the side of the YMCA, asked a jury to decide whether the Y could evict him. They said yes (Aug. 18, p. 1).

Butch Novak, meanwhile, chose to drive down with his daughter to visit his father and sister a couple of days before Hurricane Charley landed on Punta Gorda, Fla., where they lived. After riding out a Category 5 hurricane, they drove Papa Joe back up to Chicago for medical care, but Joe had a heart attack in central Illinois and died. After the funeral, Butch collected supplies and drove back down to help with the cleanup, but had to come home again when his nephew died. After that funeral, he planned to return to Florida, but was delayed by the arrival of Hurricane Frances. A third hurricane followed. Let's just say Butch and the Novak family had one really offbeat summer (Aug. 25, p. 1).

We found out how many trees there are in Austin Gardensâ€"352, all of them tagged (Sept. 1, p. 12). A forum on development of the old Mar Lac site focused at one point on the danger of falling flower pots (Sept. 1, p. 7). There was a whooping cough outbreak at OPRF (Sept. 8, p. 8), and one student became an instant legend when he decided to jump off the fieldhouse balcony. He nailed the landing but shattered his legs (Sept. 22, p. 4).

A good sport

A jilted suitor jumped on the running board of a van, which contained his former girlfriend and her current boyfriend, and started punching the latter. The driver took off with the assailant hanging on and continuing to pummel. Eventually the driver lost control of the vehicle, which crashed into the brick wall of an apartment building's courtyard. The driver refused to press charges or take medical treatment (Sept. 22, p. 10).

We could go on and on with stories like the missing time capsule at the River Forest Public Library (Sept. 29, p. 3); the Lincoln School administrators in Oak Park, who saved a teacher using a newly installed defibrillator (Sept. 29, p. 4); gays and lesbians vs. Calvary Church (Sept. 22, p. 18); the bank robber who left (with his note) when the teller told him they didn't have any money (Oct. 6, p. 20).

Forget about the dog limit. What about chickens in the backyard? Helen Standen has two, Daisy and Buttercup. But they didn't run afoul of the village ordinance, which allows two fowl per backyard (Oct. 13, p. 1).

Oak Park cops caught a paroled murderer ... twice ... when he briefly escaped custody (Dec. 1, p. 9). A coyote was spotted on the north side of Oak Park by a new member of the Animal Shelter Task Force (Dec. 8, p. 25). And a truck that got stuck in an alley was found to be transporting $1 million in stolen electronics.

Yes, it was a normal year in Oak Park and River Forestâ€"which is to say, offbeat.

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