Sports Hall of Fame pays tribute to head of Forest Park bank

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By KATIE DREWS

Forest Park National Bank is no ordinary bank.

Maybe it's the strong focus on the community that sets it apart from the average Chase or Bank of America. Or perhaps it's the Super Bowl trophy that gleams atop a shelf in one of the ground-floor offices.

Jerry Vainisi, the bank's chairman and CEO, is the proud owner of the sterling silver football, having helped lead the Chicago Bears to winning its one and only championship title in franchise history in 1986. Vainisi was the team's general manager at the time.

Though Vainisi has since moved on to managing bank accounts rather than football stars, he was recently reminded of his past with the Bears. The 68-year-old native of Chicago's Rogers Park area was inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame on Sept. 15 with a ceremony at the Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero.

The award is meant to "pay tribute to the sports legends whose careers have thrilled, entertained and enriched our lives with unforgettable moments of greatness," according to the Hall of Fame website.

For Vainisi, the honor came as a surprise. He hasn't worked in the sports business for about 15 years. But he was pleased, nonetheless.

"Obviously, winning the Super Bowl was a dream come true," he said, recalling the highlight of his NFL career.

On top of winning the big game, Vainisi also said he was proud of the fact that George Halas, "in one of his last official acts," handpicked him to run the very team that Halas "had nurtured from its infancy." Halas appointed Vainisi on Aug. 24, 1983 as executive vice president and general manager, joining Bears coach Mike Ditka.

"Being given that assignment by Coach Halas, working with Mike Ditka and having that bond that we had, accomplishing all of that was clearly the highlight," Vainisi said.

On Mike Ditka

Vainisi and Ditka developed a pretty close relationship with one another. There was a "mutual understanding" between the two, in that many things were "really kind of unwritten."

"All we really wanted to do was what was best for the organization and win a Super Bowl," Vainisi said. "We never had any doubt about each other's motives. He's a piece of work. Literally, what you see is what you get. And that's what motivated people, too."

After 15 years with the Bears - the last four as general manager - Vainisi spent a few years with the Detroit Lions and then headed an organization that later became known as NFL Europe. He retired from football in 1995 and joined the Chicago law firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson practicing sports and entertainment law.

Throughout his time as an NFL executive, Vainisi had also been serving as a member on the board of Forest Park National Bank. After an opportunity arose in 1999, Vainisi bought out the other members and took full-ownership of the bank, which was originally established in 1943.

The transition from running a football organization to running a bank went well, he said. "Good solid business principles apply no matter what business you're in," Vainisi said.

According to Don Offermann, senior vice president at the bank, Vainisi wants to put together a strong team to make a "championship" bank.

"The skills that it took to build that (Bears) team down there are similar to the skills that it takes to run a really successful community bank," Offermann said. "He understands that if you are going to be a community bank, you have to have the right people."

Community banking

Vainisi said he has stood by the philosophy, "If it's good for the community, it's good for the bank."

According to Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development, Vainisi has had a tremendous impact on the business development and revitalization of Madison Street, as well as other areas in town.

The bank - which houses the Chamber of Commerce office and a free community meeting room for any group in need - has played a large role in securing finances for many of the local businesses. What's more, Vainisi has run a couple of corporations that set out to buy local property in poor condition, renovate the building, and then wait on it until the appropriate tenants were found. In this way, he has been involved in bringing Brown Cow, Two Fish and Flavour Cooking School, among many others, to Forest Park.

"For anyone in business, you are trying to make money and you don't want your properties to be empty, but they were different," Kokenes said. "They would go the extra mile because their goal was to create something really great in the community."

Offermann, who was part of this venture with Vainisi, recalls how the building now occupied by Molly Malone's used to be a meat packing house before Vainisi fixed it up.

"It was a little scary inside with meat hooks and meat saws and freezers," he said. "It was a deteriorating property on Madison Street that had a lot of potential."

Offermann also noted that Vainisi's outreach didn't end at Madison.

"I can just go up and down the streets naming his influences of various types," Offermann said. "To have him giving his energy to Forest Park, we are fortunate to have that. ...He makes things happen."

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