We lost two longtime neighbors this month. Their deaths weren’t caused by the coronavirus but social-distancing prevented us from giving them a proper sendoff. One of these neighbors, Richard “Dick” Gray Sr. was previously profiled in these pages. The other was Ruth Hopp, who died on March 14 at the age of 80.

If it wasn’t for Ruth, we would never have moved to Forest Park. We were ready to rent elsewhere when she alerted us to a vacant house on Thomas. After we outgrew that bungalow, Ruth found a five-bedroom for us on Beloit. We belonged to the same church, so I called Ruth “God’s Realtor.”

We lived two doors from Ruth and Norm Hopp for 32 years! It was ideal because they didn’t have a backyard fence. This created a mini-park for our kids, which we dubbed “Rice Stadium.” We played baseball, football and soccer there year-round.

Our kids also had an extra set of doting grandparents. Ruth made an adorable recording of our kids singing Sunday school songs. She played piano for church services and accompanied choirs at retirement homes. With no formal training, she played by ear. Ruth recently played hymns at two of our family funerals.

She loved playing the old hymns. Growing up in a religious family in Englewood, she attended a Christian high school but didn’t care for it and transferred to a secretarial school. She enjoyed a career in clerical work and was employed at the Edward Don Company, 26th & Harlem, for 36 years.

Norm and Ruth have lived in their house for 48 years. They loved village life and often walked to The Park for softball games and fireworks. We had countless backyard conferences and enjoyed a standing invitation to Hopp family parties. We helped them celebrate their 50th anniversary.

I played basketball and baseball with their sons, Ricky and Billy. I felt like I was 14 again. My wife was a good sport about it, even when we had young children. If I saw Norm firing up his grill, he always made room for my meal.

Ruth was very sweet but could be tough when necessary. Norm was a school custodian and cut lawns on the side. At the age of 89, he still mows lawns for five Forest Parkers who are unable to keep up with their yardwork. Norm faithfully cut his next-door neighbor’s lawn, until at last a fence was put up between them.

We watched Ruth’s funeral remotely and, of course, it wasn’t the same. We also missed the wake and funeral of Dick Gray. Ruth may have been “God’s Realtor” but Dick Gray was the real deal. Ruth drew us to Forest Park and Dick Gray advised us to stay.

I wasn’t aware of his long career on our fire department, until I read about it in the Review. His son, Rich, recounted the spectacular fires his dad had fought and said he suffered lung damage from firefighting.

Dick Gray endured breathing problems, until nine years ago, when he had a successful lung transplant. I considered him a medical miracle. He remained our neighbor until he sold the house on Beloit to Rich. Dick moved to Dunlop and remained in town the rest of his life.

Rich was blown away by the respect the fire department showed his dad after his passing and is planning to host a public celebration of his life when social-distancing is no longer necessary.

I think Ruth deserves a similar celebration. I’ll do the cooking, if Norm lets me use his grill.

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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