By John Rice
Phyllis Malahy Cormack didn't start out to be a pioneer but, in many ways, she became a female trailblazer. In the 1960s, she was a single-mom who worked two jobs. She later became a career woman, working in community relations for Metra. She was special in so many ways, not only raising five children by herself but becoming the "neighborhood mom" to many of their friends.
Kids flocked to Cormack's two-bedroom apartment in Oak Park.
"It was a crazy time," her daughter Cate Cormack recalled of the late-'60s, "And we were always bringing home friends." Kids who were uncomfortable talking with their own parents, could always confide in Cormack.
"She was a good listener and could see people's needs," Cormack continued. "Our home was broken and she knew that other families had problems. Her story was parallel to other people's lives in Oak Park and Forest Park that didn't go as planned."
It seemed Cormack's life-long plan was to prosper in Oak Park. She was born there on October 13, 1929, just 11 days before the Great Crash that started the Depression. "She was the original 'DOOPer' [Dear Old Oak Parker], Cormack recalled. "She loved OPRF and had a lot of extended family in Oak Park." After graduating high school in 1947, she attended Loyola University. In 1952, she married Robert Cormack and they moved to far-off Addison.
The marriage didn't work out, so Cormack moved back to her support system in Oak Park. One of her sources of support were the Al-Anon meetings, where she became life-long friends with many ex-wives of alcoholics.
Among these longtime friends was Gina Millette.
"Phyllis had a magnetic personality and made each of her friends feel like they were her best friend," Millette recalled. "But we always knew her family came first." Friends often gathered at her apartment, but Cormack wouldn't join them until her sons Mike and Matt were comfortably asleep.
Cormack was adamant that her children get a college education and strived very hard to help them.
"She was there for every one of the kids, whenever they needed her," Millette said, "and the love was returned in the wonderful care she received from all of them, especially in the last year and a half."
By that time, the dyed-in-the-wool DOOPer had moved to a condo in Forest Park. The town turned out to be a good fit for her. Her granddaughters, Rebecca and Melissa, lived there.
"She loved celebrating the holidays," Cormack recalled. "She loved music in the park, parades and festivals." She also doted on her other grandchildren, Morgan and Mitchell.
Cormack traveled to Ireland, England and the Grand Canyon. She went to Australia to help Cormack recover from a hip replacement.
"She was fiercely loyal to friends and her children," Cormack said. "She was like a lioness with her cubs." Working full time, Cormack saw that men were getting paid more than women and fought hard for equal pay. She transitioned from working jobs to starting a career when State Senator Phil Rock sponsored her for a position at the newly-created Metra transit system.
It was 1981 and Cormack was 48 years old when she started working in the Community Affairs Department. Her longtime colleague, Harry Thomas, recalled she was very resourceful and always prepared.
"Her humanity stood out and her Irish sense of humor was always there," Thomas recalled. "She was phenomenal at public relations and knew how to get villages to build parking lots for Metra stations."
That was Cormack's difficult task: persuading villages along the right-of-way to construct commuter lots. She initiated the "Kiss 'N' Ride" program and started programs to revitalize Metra stations.
"She was very savvy and very diplomatic," Cormack recalled. "She would dress very glamorously just to stand on train platforms to pass out schedules." Cormack worked at Metra for 17 years, retiring at the age of 70.
Cormack later endured some physical struggles, surviving lung cancer on three occasions. But nothing got her down.
Her parish priest recalled, "She always had a twinkle in her eye. She was a bit outspoken but you always knew where she stood."
After Cormack obtained her annulment and began receiving communion again, her relationship with the church healed.
"However," her son John added, "Phyllis never doubted the message of Jesus: love, charity, justice and above all forgiveness."
"She was warm, life-loving and very positive," her son King said. "Despite a lot of hard knocks, she never complained about anything." He recalled how "a bunch of hellions" used to hang out at their apartment and how they came in droves to her wake and funeral after Cormack died on Jan. 4, 2017 at the age of 87.
"It's hard to say goodbye to my dear friend," Millette wrote. "Thank you for being my friend, Phyllis. I will always remember the sparkle in your eyes, that beautiful smile and wonderful laughter."
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.