When Scott Popelka was growing up, a sure sign that the dinner hour had arrived was the smoke billowing from his mother’s kitchen on Circle Avenue. Lorraine Popelka, the only woman in Forest Park to hold the mayor’s office, was indeed something of a “superwoman,” her son Scott said. She volunteered for everything under the sun, she raised five children and she triumphed in a political arena dominated by men.

But at home, to her children, she was simply mom. And mom never really mastered the kitchen.

“Mom was not the best cook,” Scott Popelka said with a laugh.

Her youngest child was the first to eulogize Popelka during a funeral Mass Thursday morning at St. Bernardine’s Church. Born and raised in Forest Park, Popelka died on June 24 after losing her fight with cancer. She was buried next to her husband Martin on what would have been their 49th wedding anniversary. She was 75 years old.

With a smile on his face and a voice that never wavered, Scott Popelka told stories to the more than 100 people attending his mother’s service that demonstrated what a well-rounded, caring and sometimes flawed person she was. Popelka was great with a wrench, according to her son, but less so with a spatula. She was a technophobe to the extreme and listened to a Johnny Cash cassette in her car for months on end because she didn’t know how to eject the tape. In teaching thousands of children to swim over the course of nearly four decades as an instructor at the Park District, Popelka could always find a way to get the children into the sometimes frigid water. She was good with people, her son said, and will be remembered for her warmth and her courage.

As the last hymn of the morning’s ceremony echoed through the church, Scott Popelka leaned on his wife and wept openly as they walked behind his mother’s casket. The white cloth that had covered her coffin during the service was exchanged for an American flag.

For 12 years Popelka held the village’s highest public office after serving consecutive terms as a village commissioner. She is credited with starting the first women’s softball league in Forest Park and participating in every national softball tournament held at the Park District since the gloveless playoffs arrived in 1969. Friends of the lifelong resident point to her five children–Dan, Don, Diana, Debbie and Scott-as a credit to Popelka’s character.

“I want to thank you mom, for choosing a life that mattered,” daughter Diana Lloyd said.

One day prior to Thursday’s funeral, members of Popelka’s family received condolences from scores of well-wishers during a visitation service that lasted eight hours. Community leaders past and present, neighbors, longtime friends and forgotten faces turned out to pay their respects.

One of those mourning alongside family members was Fire Chief Steve Glinke, who was a pall bearer at Popelka’s husband’s funeral more than a decade ago. With grim resolve, Glinke shouldered the burden once again of helping his longtime friend bury another family member. Glinke has worked side by side with Scott Popelka at the fire department for almost 22 years and considers him one of his closest friends. The two started their careers in Forest Park on the same day.

“My relationship with Lorraine was far more personal,” Glinke said. “Our relationship was never about boss and subordinate, it was about family. She was family.”

Remembering Lorraine Popelka

Lorraine Popelka’s legacy of service

I’m certain many Forest Park residents were sad to learn of the passing of Mayor Lorraine Popelka. But fortunately we are reminded daily of her years of public service, particularly those she spent as our mayor.

Stand in the intersection of Roosevelt and Desplaines and look around. To the northwest you’ll see Gleason Chevrolet. She was rightfully proud when she lured that closely held business away from its longtime home in Oak Park. The move brought thousands of sales tax dollars into Forest Park allowing the village to maintain its excellent service to residents without huge property tax hikes. Or do a 180 degree turn and you’ll see two other massive retail operations, Wal-Mart and the Forest Park Mall. Each of these operations continues to generate more sales tax for Forest Park than all of Madison Street.

Of course Madison Street was Mayor Popelka’s diamond in the rough. For those who are new to Forest Park, this street wasn’t always the vibrant destination that it is today. Mayor Popelka had the foresight to know that this little gem could one day be a tremendous asset to Forest Park.

Of course we all know Rome wasn’t built in a day and in the case of Madison Street we are talking in terms of decades. Mayor Popelka knew that revitalizing this street would take a significant public investment, one far greater than the taxpayers of Forest Park could afford on their own. So she tirelessly lobbied our state senators and representatives for years until they finally agreed to give Forest Park the necessary money to embark upon a reconstruction project that would change Madison Street forever.

Mayor Popelka didn’t always get the credit she deserved for all she did for Forest Park, many women never do. But that wasn’t why she did these things. She put these key assets in place so that every Forest Park resident could benefit from them. That is the mark of a true public servant when you can look back at their years of service and see how their accomplishments continue giving to the people today. Public servants like that don’t come along every day and I for one am thankful that she came along when she did.

Mary Kay Minaghan
Forest Park

She’ll be missed

One classy lady and a rare politician. Forest Park always came first.

Floyd H. Green
Chula Vista, Calif.

True public servant

I’m so grateful to have known Lorraine Popelka, and I’m grateful to the village of Forest Park for honoring her for her public service, and for publishing this great story about her.

She will be missed by the many, many people who knew her and loved her.

Janet Oliver
Gilbert, Ariz.

There to help

You were next door at Field Stevenson when the ambulance came for our mother. And moments later you were standing by our side, offering your help. We will never forget that, and everything else you did for the town and its people. God bless.

Dianne and Donna Eggers
Forest Park

Kindness remembered

My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Mrs. Popelka.

I will never forget when her husband Marty died. My mom came home sobbing from work. When my father passed, Mrs. Popelka was the first person to walk through the door; and I will never forget that she was the one who taught me to swim.

My mother always loved her and her family, and they are probably doing some catching up upstairs. God speed.

Candy Doss Kowarsch
Willow Springs, Ill.