After 19 years leading public works for the village of Oak Park, John Wielebnicki has retired. Always congenial and knowledgeable, Wielebnicki took a hands-on approach to public works, leading by example and picking up slack during tight times.
“In his time with the village, he built an incredible leadership team and set high expectations for the level of service provided to residents,” said Interim Public Works Director Rob Sproule, who worked under Wielebnicki both as Oak Park’s forestry superintendent and, most recently, assistant public works director.
Wielebnicki’s final day on the job was June 24, but his contributions – and there are many – to the village will last for years to come. During his tenure, Wielebnicki oversaw several large-scale capital improvement projects, from the construction of the Public Works Center on South Boulevard in 2000 and the rebuilding of Lake Street, the latter of which coincided with COVID-19 shelter-in-place directives. He also oversaw the streetscaping of North Avenue, Chicago Avenue, Marion Street and Roosevelt Road.
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“John was an outstanding public servant and amazing leader,” said Sproule.
During his tenure, Wielebnicki saw that more than 35 billion gallons of clean and safe drinking water was delivered to the community and supervised the installation of over 16 miles of new water mains, 14 miles of new sewer mains and repaving of 300 alleys. The village resurfaced more than 60 miles of streets and laid down roughly 40,000 sidewalk squares under Wielebnicki’s leadership.
He does not consider any of those notable feats his biggest achievement. Those are “just part of the job” for Wielebnicki. What he is most proud of cannot be quantified in miles, gallons, metric tons or any other unit of measurement.
“My favorite project has been helping develop my staff as professionals,” he said. “That’s been the most rewarding.”
Wielebnicki knows that the success of a public works department is not only dependent on large infrastructure improvements. He never let slide such day-to-day responsibilities as coordinating leaf pick-ups and working with waste haulers. And he still found the time to readily and happily talk with residents and reporters alike.
Despite his department’s large list of duties, he was also known to offer a bit of cheeky advice now and then, like last September when West Nile virus claimed the lives of many birds in Oak Park. The Public Works Department is not responsible for the removal of animal carcasses found on private properties. Wielebnicki found something of a loophole and directed Wednesday Journal readers to safely nudge the deceased beast onto public ground.
“I’m not going to split hairs here. We try to help people,” he said at the time. “If you get it out to the street or the alley, we’ll pick it up.”
That hands-on approach defined Wielebnicki’s time as public works director. He did not just delegate but worked alongside his staff, even taking part in some of the department’s more unsavory tasks.
When Waste Management truck drivers went on strike in 2003, the year Wielebnicki became Oak Park’s public works director, public works managers emptied residents’ trash cans. Wielebnicki too.
“Yeah, I picked up garbage,” he recalled with a laugh.
The strike lasted about a week and half, but through the duration, he never asked the non-managerial public works staffers to help out with trash collection out of professional and personal regard.
“Because we respect our unions to observe other strikes, we didn’t make them go pick up trash,” he said.
Oak Park Sustainability Coordinator Marcella Bondie Keenan had the pleasure of working with Wielebnicki as a consultant on the Rain Ready Oak Park project before she joined village staff. She praised him for being so forward-thinking and communicative.
“He’s really an expert in this field and will definitely be very missed,” Bondie Keenan said.
Wielebnicki could fill a suitcase with his qualifications. He received a degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and is a state-registered professional engineer, as well as a LEED accredited professional with the Green Buildings Certification Institute. He also holds an Illinois Class-C Public Water Supply Operator License and served as past president of the Suburban Branch of the Chicago Metropolitan Chapter of the American Public Works Association.
Before he was hired as the head of Oak Park’s public works department, Wielebnicki had worked in several different public works roles in the Village of Elmhurst, rising to the rank of public works director there.
In Wielebnicki’s 19 years in Oak Park, there have been several changes in leadership. Village Manager Kevin Jackson is the fourth first-time village manager to be hired during Wielebnicki’s time as public works director.
“I don’t even remember how many village presidents, but a lot,” he said.
And many village trustees too. All, he said, have been supportive of the public works department and great colleagues.
Throughout his long career, Wielebnicki’s favorite memories were spent in Oak Park, fishing wedding rings out of storm drains and camping out in his office during snowstorms because conditions were too dangerous to drive in. He compared it to sleeping on an old ship.
In his retirement, he plans to spend a lot more time on actual ships. Well, boats. Wielebnicki just bought a second kayak. He looks forward to kayaking with his wife up in Wisconsin. Fishing is also on the agenda, as is riding his bicycle and spending time with his grandchildren.
“I have a long list of plans,” he said. “My kids told me I have way too many hobbies.”
The reins of the public works department have been handed over to Sproule, whom Wielebnicki has mentored and coached. Whether Sproule will get the position permanently is a decision for the village manager, but Wielebnicki is confident he is leaving the department in more than capable hands.
“It’s a great gig,” he said of being Oak Park’s public works director. “I’m going to miss the people.”