Lieutenant Tom “T.J.” Janopoulos has deep roots in Forest Park, which makes his retirement from the fire department bittersweet. He was born and raised in town and has lived here for most of his 54 years. He joined the department on October 15, 1990 and his last day on duty will be October 14, 2020. Janopoulos is leaving the job he has loved, after 30 years of dedicated service. From a physical, emotional and professional standpoint, he’s ready.
Janopoulos is also planning to move out of his beloved hometown. Janopoulos grew up on Burkhardt Court. His dad, Pete, worked for the state highway department. His mother, Diane, worked at the McDonald’s at Des Plaines and Madison until her retirement. Janopoulos enjoyed an idyllic childhood exploring Forest Park.
“Everybody knew everybody,” he recalled, “We could stay out late until my dad called us home.” Janopoulos and his friends spent their days playing sports and hanging out at the pool. They would redeem empty pop bottles at Ryerson’s Drug Store and use the proceeds to buy rubber balls for fast-pitching. “It was like the movie ‘Sandlot,'” he said.
Janopoulos excelled at baseball. The right-handed pitcher participated in the Pitch, Hit & Run Competition and finished in the top 10 two years in a row. “I made it all the way to Sox Park my first year. I made it to Wrigley Field my second year.” Janopoulos and his friends spent summers playing Little League baseball at the Park.
During the school year, Janopoulos followed the usual academic path, from Garfield to Grant-White to Middle School. When it came to high school, his parents enrolled him at Fenwick. This was not a good fit. After freshman year, he transferred to Proviso East, where he starred on the track team. He ran anchor for the school’s top ranked mile relay team.
After graduating from Proviso, Janopoulos had little desire to go to college. He instead enlisted in the Marine Corps. After completing basic training in California, Janopoulos became a mechanic fixing the brand new F 18 fighter. His official title was Egress Environmental Cryogenics Technician (EECT). He was focused on the cockpit, where he serviced ejection seats, canopies and cooling systems. Janopoulos served four years in the Marines but his most interesting stint was the six months he spent overseas.
He was assigned to a base near Seoul, Korea. “I was truly like Forrest Gump,” he said, witnessing world events while in uniform. He survived typhoons in the Philippines, was there for the death of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito and saw the torch bearer for the Seoul Olympics.
After discharge, Janopoulos learned that being an EECT was hardly a marketable skill. When he applied for a job with an airline, he was told his background qualified him to be a baggage handler. Janopoulos had no desire to carry bags, so he became a mechanic at Action Transmission in Forest Park. He also worked at Calcagno’s food store on Des Plaines Avenue. Finally, he turned to his father for career advice. Pete was a government employee who believed that working for municipalities was the way to go. “I didn’t know what a fire hydrant was,” Janopoulos said, “But I wanted to be a fireman.”
Janopoulos took the fire department exam in Berwyn and Cicero and failed both. Then he took the Forest Park test and passed easily. Before being accepted by the fire department, Janopoulos had to complete his official interview. It was conducted by Review publisher Bob Haeger and Michael Mohr. They mostly chatted about the Iraq War and were pleased they were hiring a “hometown kid.”
Janopoulos did not attend the fire academy and learned firefighting through on-the-job training. The key instruction was, “Follow him!” He came on the department at the same time as his boyhood friend “Bobby” McDermott. He also worked with Rich Boyce and Mario Tricoci. Chuck Whelpley was the chief. This was a by-gone era in the department’s history.
“We had a lot of fires back then,” said Janopoulos, “And a number of fatalities. We were still using the fire pole. I loved working with the old guys.” He recalled traveling to New York, a month after 9-11, to attend three FDNY funerals with Tricoci.
There was no room in the department for Janopoulos to advance so he served seven years as an “acting officer” to replace a retiree. Finally, when Lieutenant Scott Popelka retired, Janopoulos was promoted to his current rank.
In the meantime, Janopoulos met his wife, Becky, at the dog park on Circle Avenue. “It was a match made in heaven,” Janopoulos said and the couple has been married for 13 years. Early on, they discovered a mutual love for travel and exploring the outdoors. “I knew she was the one right away,” Janopoulos recalled fondly. Becky worked as a colorist at Mario Tricoci’s downtown salon.
Becky, though, developed asthma from inhaling the chemicals and was forced to retire from the profession. She retreated to the home the couple owns in Lake Carroll, in northwestern Illinois. Becky made a huge career shift by becoming a volunteer for the Northern Illinois Prairie Association.
Her job was to plant native species in state parks to revive Illinois’ once-thriving prairies. Becky loved the work so much, she started her own company, Native Prairie Solutions. She serves clients by removing invasive species and planting native grasses and flowers. She also raises honeybees and Monarch butterflies on their five-acre parcel. Janopoulos has watched Monarchs emerge from chrysalis in their kitchen.
Besides enjoying nature, Janopoulos is an enthusiastic motorcyclist. He owns an Indian and a Harley and goes riding with his old buddies. He also loved being with his buddies on the fire department and admits he still “has the mentality of the old guys.” The job had its downside, though. “Every address has a memory I can relate to. That’s not something I want to see anymore.”
“This job scars you,” he said, “I saw the worst things ever and I still carry the memories.”
Janopoulos is not just leaving the department, he plans to sell his house in Forest Park and “cut the umbilical cord” with his hometown. “Every street reminds me of something that’s no longer here. I have good memories but I don’t want to remember because it’s not the same.” His recollections include holiday parades, and picnics at the Altenheim. Many of his Greek and Italian relatives still live in town and the lamb roasts they hosted on Monroe are legendary.
Janopoulos has another reason to retire. His father died at 54 and Janopoulos is determined to enjoy life to its fullest. “I’m going out on a high note,” he said. There will be no retirement celebration for Janopoulos due to the pandemic. But no one will miss T.J. more than the men and women who served with him and the villagers he protected for 30 years.