Laura Maychruk – Fosters robust local political dialogue

Laura Maychruk, the founder and matriarch of the ever popular Buzz Café, 905 S. Lombard Ave., loves a good political argument, regardless of the  opinions – particularly when they regard local political issues. For Maychruk, the general welfare is fostered through open dialogue and information sharing.

Last August the Buzz, as it is known, celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Over that period the restaurant has morphed from a rather pie-in-the sky business idea to a green-oriented local restaurant and meeting place. In the process it’s also become a central venue for just the sort of political expression and debate Maychruk thrives on.

“I love heated debate, a good, fair clean debate,” said Maychruk. “There’s nothing like it.”

That’s partly a reflection of Maychruk’s basic values, and partly her journalism background. “I’m totally and utterly passionate about people being informed in a truly unbiased way,” she said.

Maychruk has hosted political debates and open houses for several years now. Last spring between March 5 and March 31, the Buzz saw the biggest series of political debates ever. Maychruk hosted and moderated eight debates for races including the River Forest and Oak Park village boards, and five other Oak Park governmental elections. In some instances, it was the only opportunity for voters to listen to competing candidates in the same setting.

In August, the Buzz generated controversy when it scheduled and then canceled a panel featuring a minister advocating “a cure” for homosexuality. Oak Park’s gay community objected strongly.

She also hosts Café Conversations, a series of interviews in non-election years. Past interviews have featured such notables as Sherlynn Reid, Ali ElSaffar, Tom Barwin, Rick Tanksley and Attila Weninger.

It’s never about money, but rather ideas.

“These events never generate any income,” she said. “People come here to listen, not eat.”

Her well established reputation led to her recently being asked by the River Forest Service Club to moderate a debate on the Feb. 2 River Forest Park District referendum at Lincoln School.

“I said absolutely,” Maychruk recalled. “I’m thrilled to do it. I was thinking about doing it myself.”

Do it, that is, on one condition. “As long as they commit to an unbiased forum,” she said.

-Bill Dwyer

Pat Shehorn – Led through change at West Sub

This past year has been more than eventful for Pat Shehorn, leader of one of Oak Park’s biggest and oldest institutions.

Shehorn was thrust into the position of chief executive officer at Oak Park’s West Suburban Medical Center last January. She’d been CEO of Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park before Resurrection Health Care, parent company of both hospitals, decided to combine the two top posts to save money. She took over for Jay Kreuzer, who had been CEO of West Sub since December 2000. A Hinsdale resident, Shehorn has worked for Resurrection since 1999.

After taking over in January, Shehorn helped lead the hospital through the final construction phase of its new $24 million emergency room, which opened last month. The new department had been under construction for 18 months, but opened on time and within its budget in December.

The biggest shocker of the year came in December, when Resurrection announced that it was selling both West Sub and Westlake to a for-profit company based in Nashville. Shehorn was on the phone calling community leaders and meeting with staff the day the sale was announced. It’s unclear what will happen to her position after the deal is finalized this year. A closing on the deal is expected by June.

West Sub also made headlines in 2009 as it has battled to defend its reputation against a labor union. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Council 31 has been fighting for several years, trying to organize employees at the hospital, buying negative TV ads and staging protests. Shehorn and West Sub have denied AFSCME’s claims and West Sub has bought its own ads to defend its reputation.

Shehorn is also a member of the West Cook YMCA’s board of directors, serving as vice chair. The Oak Park-based organization was in the spotlight last September, when it announced that it was killing plans to build a sprawling new facility in Forest Park because fundraising was lagging in a poor economy.

-Marty Stempniak

John Allen – Fostering change at OPRF

The contract talks between the Dist. 200 Board of Education and Supt. Attila Weninger revealed a rift on the school board, one that became personal as much as philosophical. That tension reached an apex once the board reopened talks with Weninger this fall, centering on a possible one-year extension.

First-term school board member John Allen led the effort to reopen talks, a move that some of his colleagues might call a revolt. Allen has been a vocal member of the board on certain issues, such as the achievement gap and the recruitment of more minorities to the faculty and administration. He was most vocal on retaining Weninger, along with members Jacque Conway and Ralph Lee. Allen engineered reopening talks, speaking to some board members about that possibility but not others, including Dietra Millard, who would later resign as board president over the matter.

Allen was unapologetic, however, saying he believed the superintendent did what the board asked him to do and shouldn’t be fired as a result. But Allen, a River Forest resident, made his voice known on other issues as well. Allen was elected in 2007, along with Lee and Sharon Patchak-Layman. Since joining the board, Allen pushed for the school to do a thorough internal evaluation of its operations. The school embarked on the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, an assessment program Allen used as state official. He’s inspector general with the Illinois Department of Health Care and Family Services. The school initially agreed to start the Baldrige process in fall of 2009 but has pushed it to this spring.

-Terry Dean

Attila Weninger – OPRF superintendent works his plan as split board moves ahead

Has there been a public figure in Oak Park or River Forest who has had a stranger year than Oak Park and River Forest High School superintendent Attila Weninger? First his contract extension talks hit a late summer wall and he was narrowly to be out by next June. Then a vote switched and it looked like he would get another year’s contract. Finally in December those talks broke off and Weninger is focusing on completing certain goals while a narrowly divided school board regroups to hire a new superintendent.

In the meanwhile, the school did get lights for its stadium and played the first night football game. And, more substantively Weninger moved ahead with the first of what will be, by the time of his departure, a raft of key hires at the school – new heads of personnel, information technology, special education and several academic departments.

Those hires will reflect Weninger’s determination to change the divisional structure at the school. The move is aimed at recasting division chairs as members of the administrative team versus what Weninger perceives as the current role of serving as advocates for their faculty members. The expected changes unnerved some faculty.

But contract extension negotiations are where tensions at the school played out. His leadership style was called into question by some faculty and parents, eventually in public meetings by the head of the Faculty Senate, the school’s teachers union. He’s been called autocratic, among other criticisms. But Weninger steadfastly maintained that he provided strong leadership that some in the school weren’t use to. Hired in 2007, his last day as Dist. 200 superintendent is June 30.

-Terry Dean

Mary Jo Schuler – Impact felt on multiple fronts

Take a look at some of the developments in the works around the village, and Oak Parker Mary Jo Schuler’s name pops up more than once.

Schuler has had her hands in multiple projects, most notably the planned four-story office building at the corner of Madison and Highland in Oak Park.

Schuler and a group of local investors had been working since 2007 trying to seal a deal with the village to buy two parking lots and convert them into a retail and office-space complex. The village closed the sale of the 27,000-square-foot piece of land for $1.15 million in September 2008. But the negotiations culminated in October, when the village board gave its approval for the project.

Schuler, along with River Forest architect Nevin Hedlund, was a calming voice in negotiating with neighbors on the project, making the case for it to the Oak Park Plan Commission and finalizing the deal with the village board.

The group of investors hopes to bring the cramped but popular park district gymnastics program across the street and into the new complex. They’ve also discussed putting a restaurant in the first-floor retail space.

Along with the office building, Schuler was a driving force behind the new Marion Street Cheese Market at North Boulevard and Marion Street. Schuler, Eric Larson and Michael Pivoney opened the sprawling cheese palace in July 2008 and saw it through its first full year in 2009.

Schuler was also a leader in the West Cook YMCA’s ambitious effort to build a new facility in neighboring Forest Park. The Y was looking to raise some $12 toward the $24.3 million project. Schuler served as co-chair of the fundraising campaign, and offered a sizeable donation toward it. However, the effort was killed in September, when the YMCA announced that it was backing out of the deal with the Village of Forest Park.

Schuler is also the co-founder of the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation, which was founded in 2006. The philanthropic organization gave $235,000 to the Park District of Oak Park in 2007 for renovations at Longfellow Park. The purpose of the foundation is to “inspire people to reach out and make a difference in the lives of others,” according to a January 2008 press release from the park district announcing the grant.

-Marty Stempniak

Georgina Mitchell – A new voice for Oak Park Arts District

Georgina Mitchell became president of the Oak Park Arts District Business Association in July.

A lover of animals, she’s affectionately known as Auntie G to the owners of the dogs and cats she cares for as part of her Oak Park business. Mitchell, a native of London, has owned her Animal Aunt Professional Pet-Sitting Service since 2003. She’s lived in Oak Park for 13 years and has been a presence in the Harrison Street corridor, managing two apartment buildings there. Among her goals as president are to improve relations among all the shop owners in the district. Mitchell also noted that there’s much more offered in the corridor than the various artist shops and galleries, a point she’d like visitors to the area to know as well. Mitchell, who owns two dogs and two parakeets, has lived in the United States since age 18. Because of her love of animals, a friend here encouraged her to start a business involving animals. A pet-sitting service came to mind. She also served in the U.S. Air Force before receiving an honorable discharge in 1981. A military friend who lived in Chicago suggested she move to Oak Park.

-Terry Dean

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