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.”