By Ken Trainor
Glenn Toppen died recently at the age of 62 of congestive heart failure (we ran his obituary on Sept. 8]. A lifer, he attended Lincoln School here in Oak Park, graduating from OPRF High School in 1966.
After working as a Realtor in Oak Park until 1983, he moved into marketing with Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) of Chicago, a non-profit organization providing low-interest loans for low-income families. He also served on various boards focusing on homelessness and financial education for those in poverty. He volunteered regularly with PADS and Habitat for Humanity.
A good guy, in other words, the kind of guy Oak Park is blessed with in abundance. The guy across the street or down the block. The guy who shares his tools or his knowledge. The guy you get to know at block parties.
But in 2001, Glenn did something that stood out. Here's the story I wrote at the time, which ran on Jan. 16, 2002:
Block parties developed in Oak Park as part of the integration effort — a tool used to create close-knit neighborhoods as the neighbors became more diverse. A lot of people will tell you block parties saved Oak Park.
Last summer, one of them saved Cynthia Sanders' life.
Cynthia turned 22 on July 20, 2001. A week earlier, she received her best birthday present ever — a new lease on life — thanks to a donated kidney.
A year before, she was a student at DePaul University pursuing a degree in marketing when her life plans jumped the rails. Renal failure, the long-delayed ripple of a severe case of strep throat suffered as a child, forced her into a regular routine of dialysis, which effectively put her dreams on hold.
Her name was placed on a five-year waiting list for a kidney transplant, making her dependent on the kindness of some stranger who died. Not everyone on the list gets the organ they need, and when it comes to kidneys, the chances of a transplant succeeding are much greater if the kidney comes from a living donor.
Or so Cynthia's mom, Christel, was telling a couple of neighbors last May at the annual block party. That's one of the benefits of block parties. It allows residents to catch up with neighbors' lives.
One of the neighbors listening to Christel Sanders that day was Diane Toppen, who lives across the street. Later, she told her husband Glenn about Cynthia's predicament, and mentioned her blood type — O+.
"That's my blood type," Glenn said. He started thinking about donating one of his kidneys to the kid across the street. But blood type is only one of the factors that need to match. Remarkably, all the factors aligned and on July 13, the transfer took place.
So far so good, says Christel, who wants as many people as possible to know about Glenn Toppen's magnificent gift.
"He is a hero. He is an angel. He is everything," she says.
Glenn is also doing well, she reports. He started a new job this fall and she's seen him working on his house.
The transplant has certainly changed Cynthia's life. Appropriately, she has a part-time job at the Kidney Foundation.
Walter and Christel Sanders came to this country from Germany. They moved to Oak Park 27 years ago. Cynthia is their only child. If they had picked a town where people didn't have block parties, didn't get to know one another, the story might have turned out very differently.
"For us it's still unbelievable," says Christel. "I'd like to do something for him."
Well, she and the other neighbors on the 1100 block of Home did do something for Glenn Toppen. They threw another block party, in September, and made Glenn the guest of honor, awarding him a trophy, Christel says, "to thank him for his gracious gift."
"No one realizes how important a kidney is until it stops working," Christel says.
And no one realizes how important a heart is until it opens.
Not surprisingly, Glenn Toppen wanted his body donated to science.
There will be a service at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct 2 at First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St., celebrating one very good life.
Cynthia Sanders, who now has a master's in public administration and is special assistant to the head of UIC's Department of Pharmacology — and who still lives across the street — will do one of the readings.