Don Offermann, a revered and steady hand in River Forest, Forest Park and Oak Park whose commitment to service reverberated through the worlds of education, banking, running and economic development, died Dec. 26 after a brief illness. He was 84 years old.
Offermann’s two professional careers — the first 41 as an educator and the next 22 as a banker — ran parallel to decades spent grounded in his community, including the founding of a now 53-year-old running club and his crucial role in a quiet but vital redevelopment effort that revived downtown Forest Park’s flagging business district in the early 2000s.
“He was someone who was admired and respected by a wide range of people,” Art Jones, one of Offermann’s former co-workers and development partners, said. “He was a caring individual, he was admired by many and I feel grateful, frankly, that I did have an opportunity to work with him.”
Jones, an educator turned banker like Offermann, said he was the one who recruited Offermann to Forest Park Bank just days after his retirement from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1999, doing so by dropping a business card in front of Offermann at a restaurant and telling him, “Call me, I’ll plan your future.”
Offermann did just that and went on to work at the bank for more than two decades, eventually holding the title of vice president. Jones said he and Offermann’s similar, if unorthodox, backgrounds, combined with the small, local bank’s commitment to its hometown, made for an easy transition from one career to another.
“People like Don and I looked at banking not as bankers but as a responsibility to be of service to others,” Jones said. “From education to the bank, we were both very conscious about who our customers were and what they expected.”
That mentality manifested as Windmill Enterprises in the early 2000s, an effort helmed by Jones, Offermann and a handful of others who saw Forest Park’s once thriving Madison Street in decline and decided to “walk our talk.”
“We came to the conclusion that we were asking others to invest in Forest Park’s business district but we (as individuals) haven’t,” Jones said. “We did all of that work outside of the bank and determined that if we wanted others to come, we had to invest as well.”
The men created Windmill and began to buy up key but underutilized properties in the business district, vet potential new owners, do some minor renovations and hand over the keys, all with the primary aim of helping Forest Park become a better place to live, work and do business.
“What’s best for the community and how we can serve others,” Jones said of the Windmill ethos. “The fact that our [bank] ownership was so tied to the community also really made a difference.”
Offermann himself explained the project’s mission in an interview with the Forest Park Review in 2012.
“We bought up a number of underdeveloped properties,” he said. “We cleaned them up, fixed them up and got the right tenants.”
Before his forays into banking and business, Offermann was an esteemed coach and educator who began his career at Chicago’s Luther High School in the late 1950s after graduating from Concordia University in River Forest. He would go on to earn masters and doctoral degrees from Loyola University in Chicago.
Offermann arrived at Oak Park and River Forest High School as an English teacher in 1964, then replaced the legendary Roy Gummerson as head coach of the school’s track program in 1968. Offermann would later become chair of the school’s English department and go on to hold the joint roles of superintendent and principal before his retirement. The jobs were separated after Offermann left.
One of his earliest pupils at OPRF was a precocious runner named Rich Brooks who would enjoy an acclaimed track career at the University of Illinois in the 1970s. It was Brooks and Offermann who unofficially began what was then the OW running group in 1968, when Brooks was a freshman in high school, as what started as a way for the two to run to-and-from the school and nearby Concordia University to train.
The group derived its name from the spot where they would meet, outside Offermann’s house at the corner of Oak Avenue and William Street in River Forest. They became, jokingly at first, the OWies a few years later.
After his career at Illinois, Brooks returned to the area where he and Offermann nurtured a lifelong friendship anchored by athletics, both in running and as doubles tennis partners. The pair, and later the growing roster of OWies, would meet in the early mornings for their thrice-weekly runs and Brooks said Offermann, even into his 80s, had the best attendance record of the group.
“It’s a discipline and Don has always been a disciplined guy,” Brooks said. “The other thing that this running group had is conversation and camaraderie of purpose … once a runner, always a runner.”
“I’m going to really miss him,” Brooks added. “They’re not that much older but [Offermann and his wife, Verna] became a second set of parents. We’d confide in them about stuff. We had a very special relationship and [my wife and I] are profoundly sad.”
Paul Oppenheim is a member of the OWies and said that as he and Offermann aged, they ended up drifting toward the back of the running pack where they developed a close bond. Oppenheim said he and Offermann joked that “the caliber of the conversation in back was better than the riff-raff up front.”
“He was an inspiration to all of us,” Oppenheim said. “A highly ethical, moral guy with a good sense of humor who didn’t pat himself on the back. He wanted to know about you but he didn’t want to talk about himself.”
Offermann is survived by his wife Verna, their four children, Dan, Nancy, David and Monika, and 10 grandchildren.