By Ken Trainor
If I told you the community threw a surprise 44th birthday party at Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor on Madison Street in Forest Park for a ticket-taker from the Lake Theatre in Oak Park who lives in Maywood, you might scratch your head and reply, "Come again?"
If nothing else, it proves that, in the age of social media, you have to be careful what you say.
And Shawn Weakliss has something to say to pretty much every movie-goer when they hand their ticket to him. He calls the young women "Supermodel," their mothers "Supermom," and male companions "Bodyguard."
"He has a good word for everyone," said BJ Richards, who found herself waiting in the theater's lobby on Mother's Day while her daughter, Dandara, parked the car. During the ensuing small talk with Shawn, he mentioned his upcoming birthday (May 15). No, he wasn't planning anything special. In fact, he couldn't remember ever having a birthday party. People would "roast" him or "prank" him, but never an actual party.
Richards, who has run BJ's Kids daycare center, first in Oak Park, now in Forest Park, for 23 years — 40 years altogether in daycare — is the nurturing type. She decided he needed a party and put the word out on Facebook, not at all sure they could pull off a party this year, maybe next year, but the response, she said, was overwhelming.
"I expected 20 people," she said, "and would have been happy with 20. It was a school night and work night, dinner time and rainy. It was also short notice. Yet people came."
Over 100 packed Brown Cow's back room, surrounded by balloon clusters, Happy Birthday signs, and kids licking ice cream cones, the scene illuminated by glowing smartphones. A couple of false-alarm shhhhs circulated when it looked like the guest of honor might have arrived. Someone called out, "Do we have an ETA?" BJ called back, "I sure don't!"
"There he is!" whispers coursed, as Shawn made his way toward us, and then a resounding roar: "Surprise!"
Nodding his head and smirking, Shawn waded into the crowd as if he knew all along. Later I asked if he was surprised.
"Shocked!" he said, as if he were also shocked to feel shocked. But he worked the room like a member of the family.
Anthony Clark, unofficial emcee of the Tri-Village area (Forest Park, Oak Park, River Forest), took over. "We all love you, Shawn. You're special to us."
Clark handed him a $200 gift certificate to One Stop Comics. I don't know the going rate, but that sounds like a lot of comic books. An ice cream cake of many candles awaited him at the back of the room, which he snuffed in one extended blow, to great applause and a chorus of "Happy Birthday" and "He's a Jolly Good Fellow."
And jolly he was.
So was BJ who said, "I've been a nervous wreck all day." For her efforts, she received many thanks from Facebook friends. "I don't know a third of these people," she said.
"You put something out and the world comes," she marveled.
The art students of Haj Mohammed, owner of Magical Minds Studio in Oak Park, made a giant card for Shawn that read, "Thank you for always greeting everyone with a smile (It is contagious). We hope this day is as awesome as you are."
Connie Brown, proprietor, said she moved to Forest Park 18 years ago, about the time Shawn started at The Lake. "He's the only one who's taken our tickets," she said — which means she only goes to the movies on Friday and Sunday, the two nights Shawn works, hence his nickname: "Mr. Weekend."
Community engagement is nothing new for the Browns, who have already made a significant impact on Forest Park.
Appropriately, this party was taking place in a former movie theater, which opened on Madison Street in 1912. Brown and her husband opened their ice cream emporium in the early 2000s.
Doug Clayton, technically Shawn's boss, is also an admirer. "He's an icon," Clayton said, "a familiar face. They see him first and he's warm and welcoming. He always rides his bike to work — rain, sleet, snow, it doesn't matter. He's a good guy."
Shawn was suspicious when Clayton, now a manager at The Lake but originally hired the same week as Shawn 18 years ago, told him he wanted to take him to Brown Cow — on a Monday night.
"I figured he was going to prank me," Shawn said, "or a mercy date set-up."
This is a story about a community where a local movie-house ticket-taker can turn into a celebrity. It's about a local theater company that hires a kid from Maywood with lots of personality and doesn't try to stifle it. It's about a local movie-house that people from three communities bond with, inspiring enough good memories to bring them out on a rainy Monday night to honor someone they only interact with for a few seconds — but over and over again, spanning an entire childhood. And it's about living in a digital era where a do-gooder's impulse is magnified and summons over 100 people to give one good guy from Maywood a birthday he'll never forget.
Ultimately, it's about being, and staying, connected.
"Shawn told us he felt the love of the community," BJ said.
One boundary-less, big-hearted community.
Answer Book 2018
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