Lorraine Popelka, the first and only female mayor of Forest Park, was surrounded by members of her family when she died early Sunday morning at her home after a months-long battle with cancer. She was 75 years old.
Popelka was first elected to the corner office in 1987 and served three terms before she was defeated in 1999 by current Mayor Anthony Calderone. Prior to holding the high office, Popelka was a member of the village council for eight years.
“She wasn’t afraid to stand up to the men who were in charge of everything,” daughter Diana Lloyd, who managed her mother’s campaigns, said. “She was a role model for women.”
After her defeat in the mayor’s race in 1999, Popelka was elected to the Proviso Township Board of Supervisors. But as impressive as her political career was, Popelka truly made her mark as community volunteer.
“She became the mother of the village,” Lloyd said. “She chose a life that mattered. In the big picture it’s not the wins and losses that matter.”
Popelka was born Lorraine Primuth on Halloween 1931 to German immigrants. Her father was a house painter but was colorblind. His daughter helped him pick out colors and in her adult life she picked out the colors for her children’s homes.
Popelka lived her entire life in a two block area. She was born and raised on the 500 block of Circle Avenue, then lived for a time in the 400 block. For the last 48 years she lived at 611 Circle Ave. A section of the neighborhood street was recently dedicated in her honor as Popelka Lane.
She did not often venture beyond Forest Park and was known for getting lost when she did.
After her first marriage, Popelka had four children and was working as a waitress at the Del Mar restaurant in Berwyn. There she had a customer named Marty Popelka who pestered her for a date until she finally accepted. They married in 1958. He adopted her four children and they had a son together, Scott, who is now a Forest Park firefighter.
Marty Popelka, who was instrumental in founding the No Gloves National softball tournament, died 16 years ago. Popelka will be buried on Thursday, June 28. It would have been her 49th wedding anniversary.
As a volunteer with the Park District, Popelka taught thousands of Forest Park youngsters to swim. She began in 1951 teaching swim lessons as a volunteer Red Cross instructor. After 15 years in that role she was hired by the Park District to run its Learn to Swim program, which she did for another 22 years.
She was once asked to try to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, but declined the opportunity because she did want to leave her family, her daughter said.
She was also an avid softball player and founded the first women’s softball league in Forest Park. Her eldest daughter was a teenager and wanted to play softball so Popelka marched into the office of the Park District’s executive director and demanded that women be given the same opportunity to play as the men. An eight-team league was formed and Popelka coached and played on her daughter’s team.
Two years ago she came to the park to watch one of her daughter’s games. The team was one player short when a player was late, so Popelka, at age 73, stepped right in. She played catcher and even managed to get a hit in her only at bat until the tardy player showed up to replace her.
“She was a mom,” Lloyd said. “She was there for every one of us. If we wanted to play a sport she made sure the park district offered it.”
She was also a tireless volunteer. She volunteered at every No Gloves tournament since its beginning in 1969. She usually sold tickets for refreshments and was out at the park on tournament days from the early morning to midnight, no matter how hot it was.
“She will be tremendously missed,” park commissioner Cathleen McDermott said.
She also volunteered every year at the Fourth of July celebration at the park and at the Bob Haeger all school picnic.
“She loved the park and I loved her,” former Park District executive director Dave Novak said.
Although Popelka gave Calderone his start in local politics by appointing him to the board of Fire and Police Commissioners, the two soon became political opponents. The race in 1999 was bitter and divided the town. But last month that was all put aside when the village council named the two-block stretch of Circle Avenue between Jackson and Lehmer Street as Popelka Lane.
“Even though I ran against Lorraine Popelka, I certainly had a lot of respect and love for her,” Calderone said. “I enjoyed my relationship that I had with her.”
Popelka is survived by five children, 11 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. Visitation will take place today from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Zimmerman-Harnett funeral home. The funeral will be at 9 a.m. at St. Bernardine, followed by interment at Queen of Heaven Cemetery.