New leaders are emerging in Forest Park and seven of them gathered at Shanahan’s on Jan. 7 to discuss the village’s strengths and weaknesses and share their vision for the future. Present were Park Commissioner Matt Walsh, Village commissioners Dan Novak, Rachell Entler and Tom Mannix. Former commissioner and current candidate for state representative Chris Harris, Kiwanis President Steven Knysch and Kiwanis mover and shaker Bill Gerst.

With the exception of Harris and Mannix, all of them grew up in Forest Park. Entler identified the village’s diversity as its greatest strength. It hits home for her when she attends events in the suburbs where she has the darkest complexion. 

“I coach kids from the suburbs who never see black people,” she said, counting herself fortunate to have attended St. Bernardine’s with its variety of ethnicities. 

Gerst and the others echoed Entler about Forest Park’s rich cultural mix. Novak believes the village lives up to its motto of “Small Town Charm, Big City Access.” He sees the village as a place where people get to know their neighbors and get involved in the community. There was a stronger sense of this, he said, when he was growing up.

“It really does take a village to raise you,” he noted. Though Novak would have been considered a “free range” kid by today’s standards, he was still “supervised.” He claimed that with his father Dave serving as executive director of the park district, he couldn’t get away with anything. Still, he appreciated the attention he received from neighborhood parents. 

“I want to give back to the community,” he remarked, “so that kids today have the same experience.”

Knysch was in a similar situation as a kid because his mother, Linda, worked as a police dispatcher. 

“Everyone knew me because of my mom,” he recalled. “If I had gotten arrested, I would have had to face my mom.” 

It was the same story for Entler, whose father, Tim Rehor, was fire chief. The children of prominent parents faced tighter scrutiny and a higher standard. 

Although they described a close-knit community growing up, this melting pot emptied as their friends approached high school age. 

“During middle school, it seems everyone moved away,” Gerst lamented. 

Six out of the seven attended private high school. 

“It was a normal progression,” Entler recalled. “That’s what parents did.” 

Unlike some families, Entler and her siblings would have attended private school regardless of where they lived. She continues the family tradition to this day, sending her son and daughter to St. Vincent’s in River Forest.

Attending private high school was a closer call for Knysch. 

“When it came time for high school,” he rememberd, “there was serious thought of moving. It was either move or go to St. Joe’s. I didn’t go there for religious reasons.” However, he continued on to a private college. “I went to Concordia because that’s where my dad worked.”

Walsh was attending St. Ignatius College Prep when he first tried for political office in Forest Park. 

“I ran for commissioner when I was 17,” he said. “I was still in high school, but I read the Review every week and I felt like I could become a big part of the community.” 

Walsh wasn’t discouraged by his defeat. He was elected park commissioner three years later at the age of 20. He continues to prepare himself for community leadership by earning a degree in urban planning and pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree.

Mannix grew up in Evergreen Park where the quality of the public schools wasn’t an issue for his family. He did not experience an exodus of families due to a dysfunctional high school. In Forest Park, though, it was heartbreaking. 

“Families love Forest Park so much, they want to stay despite the high school,” Entler said. “Hopefully, 10 years from now, we’ll have a high school that is a viable option.” 

Residents like the village so much that many are living in their childhood homes, including Gerst and Entler. 

Novak recalled that when the values of Forest Park homes were on the rise, “We got an influx of new people. They were attracted by the cool urban atmosphere and we welcomed them.” If the Proviso schools can be improved, he added, real estate prices would rise above previous highs. 

Apart from the high school, Gerst saw Madison Street as the village’s greatest challenge. Back in the day, the strip was known simply as a place to get a drink. When he told people he was from Forest Park, they would say, “Oh, Madison Street.” The village rose to the challenge by investing in their main street, transforming the streetscape and attracting businesses. 

“Bringing investment to Madison Street was key,” Gerst said. To continue bringing more business to the strip, he and others expressed support for allowing video gaming in Forest Park.

Mannix is currently involved in the restoration and development of Roosevelt Road. “We’re getting state money and TIF money to rebuild Roosevelt,” he noted. “We’re going to re-do the streetscape. There’s also a chance some military property will open up.” The project is on schedule to be completed by 2017. 

Entler is excited about The Park constructing an indoor recreational facility on the Roos site but, unfortunately, that project is being stalled by the budget impasse in Springfield. An indoor facility has long been a need in Forest Park. A lack of recreational options resulted in kids hanging out on corners. 

Novak believes kids are not exploring the village the way they used to. “The world has changed,” he said. “Kids are more restricted.” They are also less likely to play outside. 

“We have video game kids,” Entler added. “They don’t know how to initiate pick-up games.” All seven grew up playing pick-up games year-round, so they found this a sad development. Entler is encouraged, though, whenever she occasionally sees groups playing at The Park, rather than gazing at their phones. 

Besides playing parent-free sports, Knysch greatly benefited from programs organized by the local Kiwanis Club. “Kiwanis was a big part of my childhood,” he recalled. “They got me into scouting.” He is happy to see that scouting has revived in the village. 

“The people who run the Boy Scouts are doing a tremendous job,” he said.

Harris was also fired up about Kiwanis and what it can do for the kids of the community. 

“Bill is a great recruiter,” he said of Gerst. “He got me into Kiwanis. Volunteerism is the backbone of the community.” 

Mannix is part of this movement, helping to revive Rotary. The two volunteer organizations cooperate, being careful not to schedule events that would conflict.

The spirit of teamwork is also strong among governmental agencies in Forest Park, they said. 

“We have tremendous cooperation between governmental bodies,” Entler noted, “because we’re small.” The village, parks and schools are mutually supportive. For example, the park district can utilize school gyms until the Roos project is completed. 

“We have an inter-governmental agreement,” Novak said and there are countless examples in Forest Park of civic organizations helping each other out. “Citizens love the services that are provided. We’re small enough to provide excellent services. Everything’s expensive, but we have to keep taxes down and find new sources of revenue. Change is tough but it can be contagious.”

Forest Park’s small population can also be an obstacle to growth. 

“We don’t have the population other towns have to support retail because of the cemeteries,” Mannix observed. 

All of the leaders complained that Forest Park is landlocked and sorely lacking in green space. Overall, they believe the village is using its limited resources productively. 

Knysch sees it firsthand working at the Community Center. 

“People ask me what the Community Center does and I ask, ‘How much time do you have?'” 

As for help from the private sector, Mannix announced that Rotary is hosting a Fat Tuesday party at Healy’s, on Feb. 9 to benefit the Community Center. They’ll be raising funds specifically for the food pantry.

Gerst mentioned that Kiwanis is sponsoring a pig roast at Chalk on Feb. 20 to raise money for their programs. 

“We need more involvement,” he noted. “We need to get people engaged and caring about the community.”

There was a feeling of gratitude in the room among the leaders who grew up in Forest Park. Many are following their parents’ example of community service. 

“We can make a difference,” Novak said. “It all comes down to family. Forest Park has been very good to me. I want to give back.” 

Knysch is not only involved with Kiwanis and the Community Center; he also volunteers at a homeless shelter in Du Page County. 

In fact, many of the assembled leaders wear more than one hat. The meeting adjourned when the leaders of Little League marched into Shanahan’s. It was time for Novak to switch hats. 

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.

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