Peter Traczyk celebrates the D97 referendum victory at Trattoria 225 on Harrison Street in 2011. (File photo)

M

ary’s family is from Harper’s Ferry, Iowa. Very small place right on the Mississippi. We get back there every few years, and when we do, we take the cemetery tour. We look in on the Cassidys and the Spinners; together these immigrant families make up a good share of the population at rest among three old country cemeteries.

There’s Wexford, Gethsemane and Paint Rock. 

The first time we visited Paint Rock, we noticed the grave marker — tall, 5 to 7 feet, topped with a spire — set far away in the very corner of the property. There wasn’t another grave within several hundred feet, and so, of course, we walked back to find out who was buried in such isolation.

It was Thomas Artery. He died in the late 1800s and he died young, his early 20s.

When we got back to town, we asked Mel Weidner, Mary’s uncle — he ran the Mobil station in Harper’s — if he knew anything about Thomas Artery. And he did. 

A suicide. Couldn’t be buried on ground consecrated by the Catholics and so was buried in the farthest corner. His parents, as a stick in the eye to the congregation, built the biggest monument they could afford so their son’s grave would not be overlooked.

This week our community is looking at suicide with the death of Peter Traczyk. 

What a fine and remarkable man. His work on our elementary school board has changed lives and will keep improving the education our kids receive for years to come. The district could name the soon-to-be-constructed administration building for him since he pulled a deal to build it out of the fire. He helped bring calm to the destructive legal battle being fought between our two school districts and the village a few years back. He brought clear ideas and perseverance to the groundbreaking contract between the schools and teachers that was settled just days before he died.

On the afternoon of Jan. 30, when he came with colleague Bob Spatz to our offices to talk us through this landmark pact, he also explained his hope that the district’s multicultural center would relocate to the new Historical Society museum at Lombard and Lake, told us how he’d change the next round of teacher negotiations (fewer people at the table), told us why our editorial position on an open process for choosing the next superintendent was all wet, and said he wanted two hours of our new reporter’s time to tamp down all the misinformation we’d allegedly reported on why the new HQ building was a great deal.

On the day before he died in a Forest Preserve grove out on North Avenue, the campaign manager for his coming race for the high school board said they’d finalized ad copy for the campaign; then someone told me he played tennis, and a little after 2 in the afternoon, he posted a comment on OakPark.com suggesting that the name of the new Oak Park medical marijuana dispensary — District 36 — sounded too much like a school and ought to be changed.

And so, how to explain his death that next morning? I don’t know. I wouldn’t pretend to know. As I said in a column posted online, Sunday, nothing about the circumstances of his death alters in any way the respect we feel for Peter Traczyk, the care we feel for those many who loved him. When you read the dozens of affirming comments on OakPark.com, you understand that a community coming to that conclusion is a deeply important start. It does not matter. We do not judge. We only offer love and caring.

But as a man whose family has been touched and roiled by mental health issues, I would also say, let’s talk. Let’s talk so that we can be as open to a person’s pain, as willing to engage, as free of judgment while they are living, while they can still voice the confusion and loss, while in the very act of reaching out they can possibly begin to heal.

There is no shame in depression, in mental illness, in suicide. There is only loss. That’s the respect we pay Thomas Artery when we visit his grave in Harper’s Ferry. I know, though, that if there is a community anywhere that can embrace this conversation, it is Oak Park and River Forest. If there is a way to honor Peter Traczyk it is to be open to the conversation.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...

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