Whether it's "Oak Park Mike," "Big Mike," the "Mayor of South Oak Park," or his actual name, everyone in Oak Park seems to know Mike Clark.
"I was walking down Oak Park Avenue and I saw a friend of mine waving. I thought he was waving to me, but I then I saw Mike, and I realized my friend was actually waving to him," said Molly Sinnott, a recent OPRF High School graduate.
Mike enjoys celebrity status in Oak Park, based on a simple fact. "You see him everywhere," Sinnott marveled.
"You could go up and down Oak Park Avenue, and ask, 'Do you know a guy named Mike Clark?'-half the people would know him," said Mike's longtime friend, Jimmy King.
Clark, who is 53 years old, has always lived in Oak Park. According to Mike's sister, Kathy Valek, it is not entirely clear how he developed it, but he's had a mental disability since he was several months old.
Valek said it's hard to characterize the exact nature of his disability, but it limits his intellectual skill set. However, as anyone who has ever encountered him well knows, it doesn't in any way affect his social skills. As Valek puts it (and everyone who knows him would agree), "Socially, Mike is very adept."
Gerald Beroldi, Clark's brother-in-law, added, "Kathy and I have joked that when we go to Oak Park, we should wear shirts that say, 'I'm Mike Clark's brother-in-law' and 'I'm Mike Clark's sister,' so everyone will know us."
Just when Mike Clark became an Oak Park celebrity isn't clear either, but by the late 1980s, he had plenty of supporters willing to rush to his defense.
It was Clark's lifelong dream to be a garbage man for the village, a position he secured after finishing school at the age of 21 (Mike attended a school in Berwyn, designed for students with special needs, that no longer exists). When the Village of Oak Park tried to restructure their garbage-collecting process-a move that would have bumped Mike from his job-Oak Parkers came to his defense.
King estimated that thousands of people signed a petition to save Mike's job. The village was able to keep Clark employed, avoiding what could have been one of the most disastrous PR debacles in Oak Park history.
For the past 25 years Mike has been a regular at all sorts of local events. He's been a fixture at the Circle Avenue bowling leagues, softball games at the Ridgeland Commons, Ascension Church, and an avid supporter of OPRF hockey, girls lacrosse, and softball.
Don Witt, who has taken Mike to the bowling lanes for the past two and a half decades, said Mike is always eager to share his bowling scores, noting that he walks around with his most recent score sheet in his pocket just in case he runs into someone who might be interested.
"All the business owners in south Oak Park know him too," King said, "he eats at all the restaurants. He goes to Suburban Bank (now First Third Bank), the drug store, Pam's. Everyone knows he's coming, and would say, 'Here comes Mike.'"
Mike said his two favorite restaurants are George's and Winberie's, where he goes to for breakfast and lunch every day.
"Sometimes he'll come in twice a day," said Suzie Crombie. Crombie has worked at Winberie's for the past seven years and, inspired by stories of Mike, made him subject of a documentary film she did as a student at Columbia College . "If he doesn't come, we get worried about him. When he comes in though, he brightens all our days."
Crombie feels that in some ways Clark is the child of Oak Park, with everyone looking out for him. She recalls that when she was first working at Winberie's, Mike would always come in and order fried food off of the kid's menu. The staff, wanting to help him eat healthier, suggested that he starting eating salads and chicken, and he changed his eating habits.
Mike has lived at the Oak Park Arms since he moved in with his mother, who has since passed away, several years ago. He is able to live independently, but there are smaller things that he gets assistance with.
Jim Morris, a fellow resident of the Arms, said, "Sometimes he will come and ask for help, little things like putting a tie on, but never big things."
Mike rarely stays put at the Arms, though. During the day Mike has time to roam Oak Park, as he's been retired since he underwent shoulder surgery in 2004.
Valek said people are always taking him to all kinds of sporting events. King, who now has a home in Arizona, used to accompany Clark all the time. "I like going with Mike because he was always so into the game."
When he makes trips back to Oak Park, King said he always has to do three things: "Have a Chicago hot dog, have a Polish, and see Mike. He's got that infectious grin about him."
Mike almost always has a wide smile on his face. "I've never heard Mike complain, it doesn't seem to be part of his makeup," Witt said.
But he does have a temper, and when he's upset, you can hear him a block away. He has a shout that could break glass.
Crombie noted, though, there are only two times she has ever seen Mike without a smile-when his mother passed away and when he knew he was going to have to have shoulder surgery. Beroldi quickly pointed out that Mike and his surgeon became friends shortly after the surgery.
Mike Clark has become a beloved Oak Park institution, a fact he acknowledges but may not fully grasp. The positive impact he has had on Oak Park's citizenry is unquestionable.
"Oak Park is a unique community; Mike exemplifies just how people share what they have. They share activities and things with Mike as if he is part of their family," Witt said.
Beroldi agrees. "People like Mike because he affirms their humanity and the humanity of life."