When it comes to the remarkable life of former Forest Parker, Blanche Kos Lukes, the collage says it all. It shows her future husband, Jerry Lukes, lifting her, as they performed their dance at Sokol Tabor, on March 12, 1955. There’s the wedding picture taken on August 23, 1958 and their Golden Anniversary photograph taken 50 years later. Lukes is also shown next to the poster for the American Sokol Slet held at Soldier Field on June 21, 1953. These were huge exhibitions at Soldier Field, featuring thousands of athletes exercising in unison.
The collage was part of the 1998 program celebrating 150 years of Sokol. Lukes may have grown up at 1530 Marengo, but her life centered around Sokol Tabor at 1602 Clarence in Berwyn. There she did her gymnastics training, which led to becoming first alternate for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team. She did not travel to Melbourne, Australia with the team but Sokol led to many other travels and adventures.
Lukes was born Blanche Kos, in 1937. Her father, Joseph, sold cookies from a distributor to local mom-and-pop stores. “We grew up on the broken ones,” Lukes recalled. “We” would include her mother Blanche and her younger brother Ronald.
She enjoyed her childhood in Forest Park. “There was no fence around Jewish Waldheim Cemetery, so we played there.” She also recalled a huge open space, where her father and other Forest Parkers raised Victory Gardens (now the industrial park).
Her family lived modestly in a bungalow before her father finished the second floor. From her window, Lukes had a clear view of the Amertorp plant that produced munitions for the war. “When the men went to war, the women went to work in the factories,” Lukes said. “Women started to become ‘people.’ Before that, husbands called the shots.”
Lukes attended Field Stevenson, where they had a “unified group” of 70 students. This unity was lost among the 1,000 students at Proviso High School. “I have no warm memories of Proviso,” Lukes said. It didn’t help that she had to walk three miles to school, sometimes in sub-zero weather. Lukes walked to save bus fare. She does have warm memories, though, of using the money she saved to buy a Lime Rickey at a drugstore on Madison, on her walk home.
Because her mother didn’t drive, Lukes walked, or rode her bike to Sokol Tabor. She began going there when she was 5 or 6. It cost $6 a year. Her mother started the kindergarten program at Sokol while Lukes busied herself with the apparatus. The facility offered all kinds of gymnastic equipment: rings; pommel horse; balance beam; high, low and parallel bars. Lukes also practiced floor exercise. “Tumbling was easier for shorter athletes.” Lukes is relatively tall at 5-7.
She described how the Sokol movement started in Czechoslovakia. It promoted healthy minds and bodies.
“It’s similar to what the YMCA and fitness clubs became,” she observed. Her father traveled to Prague in 1932, as the American Sokol representative. After World War II, “The Russians did not allow Sokols,” Lukes recalled. “Sokol was in exile.”
When communist rule ended, Sokol was revived. Lukes traveled to Prague not long after the Berlin Wall came down. She attended the first Sokol Exhibition after 50 years of communism.
“It was in a big gymnasium,” she recalled. “There were toddlers and different age groups. There was a large group of young girls from the Russian gymnastics program.” After the exhibition, they marched down the streets of Prague.
When Lukes returned four years later, “There was a huge parade. It was a sight to behold.” It reminded her of the big parades in Berwyn. “We used to march down Cermak Road with a band.” At Sokol Tabor, boys and girls attended separate classes, until their teenage years. Lukes met her future husband at Sokol, when they became dance partners. They were doing a special number called “The Lunge.”
Lukes developed her dancing prowess at a downtown dance studio. She also started modeling in her late teens. “I entered beauty pageants and finished second runner-up in the Miss Photo Flash contest.” Her photos dominated the 1957 issues of the Forest Park Review, especially when was named “Armed Services Queen” and went on a good will tour of Europe. She was also voted “Miss Proviso, 1957.”
She went on a dance tour of Europe with George Fluka and his band. Fluka led a Bob Hope-style traveling variety show. Lukes can’t believe her mother allowed her to go abroad, but the show was “very wholesome.”
When Lukes wasn’t on tour, or entering contests like Miss America, she worked as a model for automakers and the telephone company. She would dance and perform at conventions held in the exhibition halls at Navy Pier. “That was work,” she declared.
She continued her modeling career after she married Jerry Lukes. They’ve now been married 59 years and, “We’re still talking to each other.” They raised three sons, Jeffrey, Andy and Teddy, and have six grandchildren.
In July 1970, Jerry was lured to a job in Phoenix. “It was 117 degrees on moving day,” she recalled. Lukes became a Realtor in 1984 and is still working in real estate. “People need someone they can trust,” Lukes said, “though I’ve cut back tremendously.”
Through it all, Sokol has been the center of her life.
“Incredible people touched our lives,” she said. The athletes didn’t have coaches and nutritionists, but they had men like Ed Linhart, who worked full-time and ran the gym program for boys and girls at Sokol Tabor. “They were good, solid, hardworking people.”
The kind of people who are still helping out at Sokol Tabor. The population may have shifted from Czech to Hispanic but the facility remains a vibrant place. “The Hispanics see the vision and have wonderful programs,” said Lukes, who still receives their newsletter.
Today, she can look back on a life that started out in a small village outside Chicago and blossomed into a career that took her all over the world. And it’s all because she embraced a program that gave her the healthy mind and body to succeed. It’s been said that nature gives us the face we have at 20, but as we age, life gives us the face we deserve. As can be seen on the collage, the former Blanche Kos still looks great.