Lorraine Popelka has lived her entire life in a two block span of Circle Avenue. She was born and raised on the 500 block of Circle, lived for a time on the 400 block, and for the last 48 years has lived in her home at 611 Circle Ave.
She never ventured far from Forest Park, once joking that she got lost when she crossed Harlem Avenue. So it was fitting that the village council, as its last official act Monday night prior to the swearing in of new members, voted unanimously to name the two block stretch of Circle Avenue between Jackson Boulevard and Lehmer Street in her honor.
Popelka, 75 years old and gravely ill with cancer, accepted the honorary street sign for Popelka Lane from Mayor Anthony Calderone before a packed council chamber that gave her a prolonged standing ovation.
“Thank you very much,” Popelka said from her wheelchair as she was surrounded by nearly 30 family members. “I can’t express my thoughts and appreciation for the honor that you bestowed upon me. It’s such an honor. I barely know what to say. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Popelka served as mayor of Forest Park for 12 years from 1987 to 1999 when she was defeated by Calderone. Prior to being elected mayor she served as a village commissioner for eight years.
The 1999 race was fiercely contested and divided the town, but on Monday night those battles were pushed aside.
“I’m glad we had the opportunity to do this because you truly devoted your life to Forest Park,” Calderone said before bending to kiss his longtime political rival.
Outgoing commissioner Tim Gillian was in the thick of many of those disputes, but his eyes grew wet as he recounted how he and Popelka have finally been able to put the hard feelings behind them.
“There is no doubt that over the years me and Lorraine, and Tony and Lorraine, fought like cats and dogs,” Gillian said, who served with Popelka both on the village council and on the Proviso Township board. “But I know Lorraine wanted the best for the community. I have never doubted that.”
Popelka was honored not only for her 12 years as mayor and eight years as a village commissioner, but also for a lifetime of community service.
Popelka was especially dedicated to the Park District. In 1951 she began as a Red Cross volunteer swim instructor at the park. She did that for 15 years until she was hired in 1966 by the Park District to run a swimming program, which she did for the next 22 years.
She taught thousands of Forest Park youngsters, including outgoing commissioner Terry Steinbach, how to swim.
She was the consummate volunteer, according to former Park District executive director Dave Novak, who retired in January. Every single year since the no-gloves softball tournament began in 1969 she volunteered many hours in the hot sun. She was usually in charge of selling tickets for the food. She also volunteered every year at the Fourth of July festival and the Bob Haeger all school picnic. No job was too big or too small for her.
“I’d say if you look up the word Forest Park community service volunteer there would be a picture of Lorraine Popelka next to it in the dictionary,” Novak said. “When you delegated something to Lorraine you didn’t have to worry about it. It was going to get done and it was going to get done right.”