Forest Park historical society president Augie Aleksy and Allium Press publisher Emily Victorson were telling me about how easily the forthcoming book, The Des Plaines River Anthology, came together.
Augie, the president of our historical society, hatched the idea while participating in Forest Park’s centennial celebrations six years ago. Why not tell the fascinating stories of some of the 680,000 people buried in Forest Park’s cemeteries following the free verse format of Edgar Lee Masters’ classic the Spoon River Anthology?
It was a great concept which was a natural fit for the historical society in a place where dead people outnumber the living by something like 40-to-1.
The owner of Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore, which focuses on history and mystery, had created a whole network of authors who had expertise and/or interest in the stories connected with the names on the tombstones in our cemeteries. Jay Bonansinga, for example, is the author of The Sinking of the Eastland and therefore well qualified to write the piece on a young engaged couple who perished in the tragedy. While doing the research for his Heartland Serial Killers Richard Lindberg was very familiar with the story/legend of Belle Gunness whose headless corpse is at rest in our town.
The problem for Augie was that he had no money to pay any of the authors or editors, but he decided to try his luck and ask anyway. To his amazement, most of the people he asked enthusiastically agreed to take on the project.
In addition, Amy Binns-Calvey, a playwright and director, is adapting the book into a play for which Kathryn Atwood is composing music. The stage version will premiere at the Park on Oct. 26, the same day as the casket races.
Victorson, who is editing the project, said that Augie was the right person to do the asking. She explained that because he has held book signings in his store and held book discussions, he has created a community of writers.
“Augie is integral to creating that community,” she said. “He’s the nexus between the Forest Park Historical Society and the author community. He has a lot of relational capital.”
True to his self-effacing nature, Augie shifted the focus from himself to the writers, editors, musicians and playwrights who are donating their time to the project.
“I think I made it happen in terms of persistence,” he said but added, “I was at the right place talking to the right people at the right time to do the right programs.”
He then reflected on the transformation of Madison St. which began about fifteen years ago when the economy was in better shape.
“There is a certain time in an economic cycle when you can do anything and it will be a success,” he declared and said that the merchants’ group M2 was a voluntary cooperative of merchants which “took advantage of the situation,” during the boom years of 2005-6. Around 30 Madison Street merchants collaborated to purchase M2 radio ads and a display ad in Chicago Magazine, the total marketing effort cost $50,000, but put Madison Street on the map.
Augie said leaders like Cece Hardacker and Tonya Hart at Two Fish and Heidi Vance and Jayne Ertel from Team Blonde had the charisma, persistence and vision to get the business people energized and to promote the street. They were the right people at the right time in the right place.
But then the economy went south and those right people were no longer at the right place at the right time. “They came up against the economy,” he said.
The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who died in the Yarnell Hill fire, they were the right people at the right place. Unexpectedly, the wind changed and all their escape routes were cut off. The right people at the right place but at just the wrong moment in time.
When Augie shifted attention from himself to the other “team members,” he wasn’t expressing false modesty. He’s been around the block enough times to know that what he does matters. He’s responsible for taking initiative and putting “sweat equity” into pursuing his dreams. But he’ll be the first to say that there are a lot of forces in operation which are out of his control.
Abraham Lincoln has been quoted as saying, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light I have.”
Thanks, Augie—and lots of others in this town—for helping all of us live up to the light we have.