“The wise man is the one who knows when to quit.”
That is what former Forest Park Mayor and current Proviso Township Trustee Lorraine Popelka said about her impending retirement from public office after the upcoming April elections.
“I’ve been doing it all my adult life, for a good 50 years, I just felt that I’d kind of had it. I wanted to relax and enjoy my grandkids,” Popelka said.
Popelka,73, began working with the Forest Park Park District nearly 50 years ago and has continued to be involved there.
In addition, she was a commissioner in Forest Park for eight years and served as the first and only female mayor in Forest Park for 12 years; she was also a member of several committees prior to running for public office.
Popelka is currently serving on the Proviso Township Board, finishing a four-year term.
She first ran for office in 1979 as a self-described “outsider looking in.”
At the time, she had been involved
in helping other officials get elected into office and enjoyed the campaign process, when curent Forest Park Commissioner Tim Gillian’s father approached her about running.
“My youngest was 16 and I thought, he’s on his own and I don’t have to worry about babysitters and I decided to do it,” she said.
She served on the traffic and safety committee and on the youth committee in Forest Park; after eight years as commissioner, she felt she finally had the qualifications to run for a higher office, setting her sights on the mayor’s office.
“I felt it was time to move up. I felt I was qualified with the eight years experience,” she recalls. “There were a lot of good people in village hall who were willing to help. It is entirely different than it is today. We didn’t have the administrators. It was more of a hands-on job and I was never employed outside the home so my husband didn’t mind me doing it.”
“I have known Lorraine for a long time,” Tim Gillian said. “She really brought an awful lot to the Village of Forest Park. We did not always get along ” we fought like cats and dogs on several occasions ” but I always knew and I always believed, whether I agreed with Lorraine or not, that she always believed she was doing the best thing for Forest Park.”
It was as mayor that Popelka gave a
break to the man who would some day
become her political
opponent; appointing Anthony Calderone to the Police and Fire Commission.
“It is something I have always given her credit for because it was the beginning of my political career,” Calderone, the current mayor, said.
“Lorraine Popelka devoted a large period of her time to public service. The village of Forest Park is truly grateful for that,” he said. “There is no question the passion in her life is to serve the public. She has done a more than satisfactory job at that.”
After losing to Calderone in the 1999 election, Popelka took a break from politics and then ran for the Proviso Township position in 2001.
“I just felt that I could do some good by being on that board and being involved in
the township,” she said. After nearly five decades in politics and a varied career, that includes all the peaks and valleys that often come with political life, she feels proud of her legacy of service.
Along the way she made many sacrifices. “Anything I did, I did wholeheartedly,” she said. “There was a lot of things you had to be a part of in order to make the village run smoothly. That meant giving up time with your family. That was the hardest part about it.”
She leaves politics to spend time with her 11 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren, with one more great-grandchild on the way.
Of her role as the first female mayor and role-model for women in politics, she said simply that politics is a good fit for women.
“I have always had that philosophy,” she said. “When you raise kids you get a different perspective on life. You have more patience. You can be a little more consoling. Women outshine men in that respect, and that is not to say that many men aren’t good.”
As for the future of the village and politics in general, this outspoken politician still has a lot to say.
“There is good and bad in all occupations,” she said. “Some people do it for the status. Other people do it for the good of whatever board they are on. I’d look to see more younger people get involved because it is time for younger people to get involved.”
She also said she doesn’t agree with all the changes that have happened in village hall since she left.
“I ran an administration differently than it is being done today,” she said. “The mayor should be hands on and be available to the public. Although, there has been some good things so that is a plus.”
“Forest Park was a better place for all those years because Lorraine Popelka got involved,” Gillian said. “She always, in my opinion, tried to do the right thing, that is all I as a resident and elected leader can ask for.”