We’re in between two highly successful events that have helped put Forest Park on the map – the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and SummerFest. So here’s a trivia question that’s really not so trivial. Who brought SummerFest in 1991 to the new successful level it’s at today and then a year later staged the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in our village?

I’ll give you some hints: He’s always on the move, is constantly wheeling and dealing on his cellphone, has gotten mixed reviews in the press and, up until recently, was never without Hazel, his sidekick Weimaraner.

His name is Robert Marani, and I want to give him some props. I think he both needs and deserves some recognition. He needs the recognition, because not everyone likes his style and he’s made some mistakes that have cost some folks a fair amount of money. But in this column, I want to focus on why he deserves some praise.

When Robert and Hazel came to this town in 1990, Forest Park was seriously depressed. If you would have sat in on a chamber of commerce meeting, you’d swear everyone was on downers. Forest Park was known as the town that had Peaslee’s Hardware and a whole lot of bars. It felt like an old people’s town, partly because it was. A lot of good, decent people lived here and ran the government, but they were definitely old-school.

So, when Marani opened the Playhouse, a club featuring live rock music, many residents said, “That will never fly in Forest Park.” Later when he opened Tutto Tapas, an upscale restaurant, the old-timers said, “That will never be successful in Forest Park.” When he built townhouses on Desplaines Avenue that were listed for around $600,000, a lot of people laughed and said that they’d never sell in our town.

As it turned out, the old-timers were looking backward at what was, while Marani was looking forward to what could be. He saw potential in a location with rents cheaper than in Oak Park, less government regulation, two el lines and access to the Eisenhower Expressway. It was the beginning of a decade of change for Forest Park.

He was able to imagine what could be and, on that basis, he took some big risks. Some were successful, and some failed. Many people benefited, while some were hurt. But the net result was the Forest Park that everyone in Chicagoland is talking about.

Now Marani wasn’t the only agent of change. There were politicians and bankers and disgruntled Oak Park business people and the leadership of Main Street Redevelopment, not to mention the members of the chamber, who also were looking to the future. But Marani was a pioneer.

In a crazy kind of way, Robert Marani and Bill Winston are soulmates. They both came to a town that was stuck in a rut. It was a comfortable, neighborly rut. But still a rut. Church leaders sometimes deal with their frustration at congregations that resist change by alluding to Good Friday and saying that the seven last words of the church are “we never did it that way before.”

Bill Winston did church like this town had never seen it done before. Robert Marani did the same as an entrepreneur.

I’m not asking you to like his style or approve of everything he’s done. But I, for one, want to give him well-deserved credit for marching to a drummer who was playing the music of the future. All he got at times was criticism for taking huge risks. He had the courage to charge ahead when almost everyone else was playing it safe in the trenches.

If you see Robert Marani during SummerFest, stop him, if you can, and say, “Thanks.”

Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.