By Maria Maxham
When Forest Park residents talk about what they like best about this town, they often say, "The community." They're talking about the people who live here. About the bonds that form when neighbors become friends, when friends become family, when people go out of their way to take care of each other.
When Forest Park resident Mark Rogovin, 73, died on Sept. 30, 2019, Forest Park lost a neighbor, a friend and an essential heart in town for the past 33 years. He was an influential and talented artist, muralist and justice activist, but it was what he did in and for Forest Park that will linger longest in memory.
"People talk about how it takes a village," said Mark's wife, Michelle Melin-Rogovin. "Mark was part of that village."
A bittersweet example of that village coming full circle is represented in one of the children Mark took care of after school who grew up to become a physical therapist — who then in turn helped and treated Mark when he was weak and needed to strengthen his muscles.
Mark and Michelle regularly opened their home to neighborhood kids. Mark taught them about gardening and birds, and if a neighbor couldn't arrange or pay for child care, the Rogovins were there to help.
"We wanted kids to have a place to come," said Michelle. "Mark and I would walk kids to school on their first days."
In the Rogovin's living room is a wooden box built by Mark and filled with toys and books for the children who visited.
When a neighbor was dying, Mark helped care for her, providing hospice and friendship. He loved his neighbors, and when there was a chance to help, he was there.
"He taught me what it means to be a good neighbor," said Michelle. "He was there for the everyday things, not just when people needed something. He wanted to be there for people before they needed something. He was the first to greet a new person on the block. 'Let's go to breakfast,' he'd say."
Michelle has so many stories to tell about how Mark reaching out to help others, but one of her favorites is about a play structure on their block made from heavy material fastened with railroad ties. When new neighbors moved into the house with the structure, they planned to get rid of it. But Mark knew of a family down the block with small kids who would use it.
It was heavy. And really big. Couldn't be taken apart. No matter. Mark gathered a group of 10 men and a flatbed truck and moved it into another yard, where kids played on it for years. When those kids got too big for it, he moved it again.
Mark was seriously involved in the revitalization of the Historical Society of Forest Park; it was a passion. He wanted the society to not just be a collection of artifacts and items; he wanted it to be a living, breathing repository of people's lives.
And he loved the histories of people in town. "Tell me the story of your house," he'd ask residents. "Tell me why you came here. I want to know about you."
"He was a connector of people and stories," said Michelle.
His desire to know people drove his involvement. "He was a fixture on Madison Street," said Michelle. When Bua Hana opened, the couple regularly ate there, and Mark even bought one of the original T-shirts offered by the restaurant. The staff used to joke that he was practically an employee.
At Petra Falafel, the employees knew Mark's order, and when Michelle would call ahead of time to remind them of Mark's food allergies, the employees replied, firmly, "We know his order."
"That's an example of the love he inspired in people," said Michelle. "He reached out to people, and they in turn took care of him."
Mark was a regular at Ed's Way, especially the deli counter where he often got egg salad. Later, when he had trouble walking, the store allowed Mark to bring grocery carts home with him because he needed the support.
He had such an impact on the community that people perhaps not traditionally thought of as friends — the dry cleaner, the house cleaner, the UPS delivery person — all cried when they learned of Mark's death.
"He formed bonds with everyone," said Michelle. "He liked to stop and talk, not hurry on his way. He was never too busy for people."
Forest Park resident Claudia Medina said that when Mark volunteered to work on the District 209 high school campaign, he taught her so much, not just about local history.
"He taught me about humanity," said Medina. "He was an amazing person."
Resident Lin Beribak echoed Medina's sentiments. "I had the honor of meeting him through a group of self-employed and at-home workers. He was always kind, never at all boastful about himself. At one point, I Googled him and was so impressed by what I discovered about what he has done, been involved in; that was only the tip of his iceberg. He was just a regular guy, easily overlooked in passing on the street, but possibly the most interesting, gentle and accomplished person I have ever met."
Mark suffered from frontotemporal dementia, and toward the end of his life when the symptoms were affecting him greatly, friends offered support. But not everyone was helpful.
Michelle recounted an experience when Mark was home alone and someone they knew came into the house and stole things. Later, when she asked about it, that person denied taking anything and blamed it on Mark's dementia.
That incident opened her eyes to the experiences and needs of senior citizens in the community.
"In Mark's memory, I want to help by raising awareness and working on formal processes that can help and protect seniors in Forest Park. There are things we can do as a community to educate and keep senior citizens safe."
When she reached out to the village, support was always there. But it wasn't always easy to find. She'd like to streamline information and procedures for other people like herself — caregivers trying to find ways to protect their loved ones.
Michelle also wants to do something, in Mark's memory, for the kids in the neighborhood, something that honors the gardening he loved to share, or the sense of family he created taking them out for pizza.
"I think he'd like to know that he's still part of the lives of the kids in the village," she said.
"Mark has given me Forest Park," said Michelle. "He's given me a home in the very best sense of the word." She has wondered if leaving Forest Park is a possibility. But when she thinks about it, she always comes back to the same answer. "He was known as Uncle Mark. I'm Aunt Michele. I can't move away from that."
Mark's memorial service will be held at the Park District of Forest Park in the Grand Room on the third floor on Saturday, Nov. 16 from 2 to 4 p.m. Neighbors and friends from the area are all welcome. In a private ceremony, Mark's ashes will be placed across from the Haymarket Monument, next to a bench he helped design.