By Jean Lotus
Voices from Forest Park's past are now only a click away on the Forest Park Public Library website. Seven oral history recordings, made a dozen years ago, were part of a series commissioned by the Historical Society of Forest Park called, "Pioneers of the 20th Century."
The recordings, between 45 minutes and 1 hour long, record the reminiscences of seven Forest Parkers.
And who better to get Forest Park's old-timers talking than master raconteur and deejay Steve Cushing, who grew up in the village and hosted WBEZ's Blues Before Sunrise for decades? Now living in Manistee, Mich., writing books and still hosting his show weekly on Internet radio, Cushing remembered interviewing former mayor Lorraine Popelka.
"It was a lot of fun," Cushing said. "I believe they asked me if I would do the interviews and [newly elected] Tony Calderone recommended people to speak to."
Talking to Popelka was like chatting with an old friend, he said.
"Lorraine taught me how to swim," he said. "I lived at the pool, literally. Other kids played baseball, but for me it was the pool."
"I was a well-behaved little kid until I started hanging around with [Popelka's] son Donny. He taught me how to get into all sorts of trouble, which made life a lot more fun," Cushing recalled. "Skitching, smashing pumpkins, killing gophers in the cemetery … we were always afraid the late Lt. Fred Zimmerman was going to catch us and throw us in the hoosegow." Cushing got Popelka to muse about village deals made during her era, including the history of how the Community Center was built.
Longtime librarian and Historical Society vice president Cora Sallee, another interviewee, had "been at the library for just about ever," Cushing said. Sallee herself had embarked on an oral history project of Forest Parkers in 1977, according to the Forest Park Review. In her recording,Sallee describes the early funeral industry in Forest Park.
"People would die in the city, and be buried out in Forest Park," Cushing remembered. "The funeral procession would be an entire day ritual. They'd feed all the people attending the funerals at the Madison street restaurants."
The recordings had languished as CDs in the library reference archives until new Historical Society President Bob Cox asked the library if they could be made more widely available. Tech librarian Ben Haines quickly put them onto their own website page under the library's "Explore" tab.
Another interview was with "Miss Irma" Pigorsz, first-grade teacher to generations of villagers. "Miss Irma was my first grade teacher in 1957, and I interviewed her 50 years later. She was between 93 and 97 when I interviewed her at Altenheim," he said. "She passed away shortly after I spoke to her."
Miss Irma remembered growing up in the 1100 block of Marengo.
"When they built there, in 1912 or '13 theirs was the only house for blocks. The streets had been laid out, but most houses had not been built," he recalled.
Cushing also interviewed Dr. Frank Orland, historical society founder, and his wife, Dr. Phyllis Orland, a popular pediatrician. Frank spoke about the founding of the historical society, Cushing said, and less about his own work with the national campaign to provide fluoride in the drinking water of the U.S.
Phyllis spoke to Cushing about her experiences administering the polio vaccine in Chicago and Forest Park. For Cushing, the conversation had significance because he himself was kept in a ward at Oak Park hospital as a child with polio.
Forest Parker Andrew Erhardt reminisced about the building of the Eisenhower Expressway and Ed Rogers talked about the history of local railroads.
After WBEZ dropped music programming, Cushing continued to record his radio show from a home studio in an apartment on Burkhardt Court, he said. He recently moved to Michigan and still broadcasts his show via FTP server on WDCB at College of DuPage.
Cushing has just released his second book, Pioneers of the Blues Revival, published by University of Illinois Press. "It's about the white early collectors of blues records and supporters of blues music," he said. "People in the UK and Europe were collecting American blues and jazz records back to the 1930s. It'll be out in time for the Chicago Blues Fest this summer."
Find the recordings at www.fppl.org/explore/pioneers.