Henry David Thoreau said most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Could that have been true of Peter Traczyk, a husband, father, financial planner, prominent member of the Oak Park Elementary District 97 Board of Education and my friend? If so, I never would have guessed it.
I met Peter in mediation. Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 had sued the Village of Oak Park for violating an intergovernmental agreement. I was a new District 200 board member, appointed to the mediation team. District 97 was party to the agreement, and so was party to the lawsuit and the mediation. According to my board, District 97’s position was adverse to ours. I met Peter, however, and there was nothing adverse about him. He spoke as government officials should speak, like friends working to solve a problem for their community. He educated us about his District 97’s position, but expressed an open minded interest in finding a solution that would benefit all. Largely because of Peter’s demeanor, the parties reached a settlement that served everyone’s interests.
After that, Peter became a trusted friend of both mine and District 200. He worked on our Finance Advisory Committee to help us draw down an excessive fund balance, providing not only support but leadership in our discussions. He helped unite governing bodies to buy services from the Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education and he served on the District 200 Pool Site Selection Committee. Peter radiated a feeling of community and an egalitarian perspective born of a wide lens that loves everyone and takes all views into account. He spoke of seeking a seat on the District 200 Board and filed petitions. I saw Peter at the last regular meeting of our board. He stood in the back of the room with his trademark smile while we discussed issues critical to our youth. Like Richard Cory, immortalized by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Peter was “everything to make us wish that we were in his place.”
When I heard the news on Sunday that Peter was gone, I would not believe it. I still don’t. I keep waiting for someone to tell me there was a mistake. But as time passed, the news became an awful reality. I admire Peter, and do not judge him. We are all broken, all flawed and in need of comfort and reassurance that we are not alone or different. We all have our moment in the garden. We all lose contact with our purpose, like a space ship loses contact with Houston upon reentering the atmosphere. Despite all indications to the contrary, Peter was not the exception. His tragic loss reminds me of my fervent belief that problems are tunnels, not holes. There is light at the other end if I can only keep moving. I shall keep moving through my grief, but I will miss my friend. I pray for Peter and for strength for his family at this difficult time.
John Phelan is the president of the school board at District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School.