No one was more surprised than Joe Byrnes, when he learned he would be the 2012 Recipient of the Ed O’Shea Service to Youth Award. The Kiwanis Club of Forest Park is honoring Byrnes at their Award Ceremony Dinner, on Oct. 23, at Francesca Fiore. Outgoing President Jerry Lordan said they were recognizing Byrnes for his many years of community-wide volunteerism.

“Everywhere you go, Joe is the unofficial grill master,” Lordan said. “He’s at every event that helps youth: the All School Picnic, St. Bernardine’s, the No Gloves Tournament. He also served on the park board. We want to affirm adults like Joe who are working with youth programs. Joe inspires others to do it.”

Byrnes said that when he received the call from Lordan, “I told him there’s a lot of people who volunteer in town. My wife could win this award.” Nevertheless, four people nominated Byrnes to take his place alongside other behind-the-scene helpers like Andy Collis and Denny Moran.

Byrnes first moved to Forest Park in 1961. After graduating from De Paul Academy in 1969, he received his draft notice. Rather than waiting to be called up, Byrnes joined the Air Force. “I’ve been volunteering ever since.” He served two years in Vietnam, which he would rather not talk about.

When he got out of the service, Byrnes joined the VFW and ended up serving as commander of the Forest Park post. He attended the police academy and joined the Forest Park Police Department in 1974. After retiring from the force in 1999, Byrnes went into security and environmental services for hospitals.

Throughout these years, he volunteered to help the less fortunate. “For four years we did fundraisers for autistic kids and adults in the late ’70s. One was a basketball game between the police department and college players at Grant-White. We had the “Unknown Policeman” playing for us with a bag over his head. One of the college kids recognized him as [Proviso East and De Paul University standout] Joe Ponsetto.”

Byrnes also volunteered at St. Bernardine’s Game Day fundraiser for years. Once he was asked to solicit all the bars in town to place ads and donate barrels of beer. “I asked the guy, ‘Do you know how many bars we have in Forest Park? I won’t have a liver.” Byrnes managed to bring in 20 ads and two barrels. He said successes like these “make you feel good about yourself.”

Byrnes felt even better about his tenure as a park district commissioner from 2001-2007. “I was fortunate to work with dynamic people. We passed a referendum, upgraded the soccer field, remodeled the pool and got the lights out of the outfield. We made the administration building ADA accessible.”

They also organized fun activities. “Mike Espinosa came up with the ‘Downhill Derby,'” Byrnes recalled. “We bought kits a father and son could put together. If there was no dad, a volunteer stepped up. We had sponsors pay for kits for kids who couldn’t afford them.” The contraptions they assembled were raced down the Circle Avenue bridge.

“Kiwanis has come a long way in the last 6-7 years.” His dream is that, one day, local organizations like Kiwanis will help the youth of Forest Park find vocational training.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.