When Chicago Heights Patch editor Christopher Paicely asked if I could take some photos of important places in Chicago Heights, I was more than happy to. As I was documenting various sites, my mind went back to more than 20 years ago, to my own memories of the Heights.
Prairie State College was my introduction to Chicago Heights. I had always loved photography, so now I was going to study the craft I wanted to do the rest of my life. Not only was I captivated by the photography classes at Prairie State, a whole city and its people captured me as well.
A few years after going to Prairie State College, I took my career to the next level: the Star newspaper in Chicago Heights! I showed my portfolio to photo editor and Heights resident Phil Faso and was freelancing from that point on. Phil taught me that the people were the most important, that every person has a story. I have found that to be true even to this day.
I would like to share a few stories about some incredible people from Chicago Heights that won't find their way into the history books but have made a positive impact on the city few people will ever know.
The Star, located on 16th Street, was your typical town newspaper. Back in the early '90s, there were no buzzers to gain access. If you had a press release or a recipe to share, you just came into the office. While typewriters clicked, you never know who would walk in that door at any moment. One such character was Armondo. He usually wore a suit and hat and carried his maracas. He would surprise the managing editor, Les Sons, a few times and just show up and play his maracas. It put a smile on all our faces. Such a unique man, who walked around Chicago Heights sharing his music.
One weekend, a reporter names Shonda and I went to look and see if we could find homeless people in the coldest of cold Februaries. Lt. David Basile of the Chicago Heights Police Department said he would help us out. Since I lived on Hungry Hill, I asked if we could check out some places in the area that were empty.
A fresh coat of snow had just fallen the night before. We were walking near an abandoned factory along 22nd Street when I noticed fresh footprints leading to a storage trailer. Lt. Basile opened the trailer, and we found a 20-something young homeless man. We offered to help, I took photos and Shonda wrote the story.
A week later the story came out. The young man's mother saw the story and called. We arranged a reunion. The young man returned home.
With Lt. Basile, stuff like that always seemed to happen. He's got a rough edge, but I swear he is a guardian angel. Many years later, while I was doing another photo documentary, we were driving on the east side of the Heights. The Catholic church, St. Joseph's, was going to be torn down. On the steps of this abandoned church we saw an older woman crying. Lt. Basile stopped to see what was wrong. She told the story of how she had done a painting of the Blessed Virgin. She told the story of how the painting healed her of cancer. She wanted to see if that painting was still hanging in the old church. Well, Lt. Basile always found a way to get answers. We got into that abandoned church, empty, paint peeling, no pews, but 50 feet up, near the ceiling, was the painting. Lt. Basile made a few calls, climbed a 50-foot ladder and rescued the painting before the wrecking ball destroyed it. The painting is now at San Rocco Oratory.
The people on the Hill are incredible. I have watched Tommy Planera make homemade vino in his basement. My young friend Nidia taught me how to make traditional Mexican food. When you go into a home on the Hill you are always welcomed and offered food. You don't disrespect, you eat it. History runs deep on the Hill. In the 1890s, half of Chicago Heights Italians lived on Hungry Hill.
Possibly Chicago Heights most famous resident, Jerry Colangelo, lived on the Hill. Colangelo wound up owning the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, but his childhood home along 22nd Street still stands to this day. Three houses away is the long-standing restaurant, 3 Star. Rumors had it, back in the '80s, the feds put bugs in the salt shakers to capture a Chicago Heights mob boss.
San Rocco Catholic Church was built in 1906, but it didn't last into this century. The church, rooted in tradition, was one of three Catholic churches that closed in Chicago Heights. The only original fixture is the stations of the cross located in a field north of 22nd Street. I remember pleading with Cardinal Bernadin to keep Mt. Carmel School and San Rocco Church from the wrath of the wrecking ball. Three months later the buildings were a pile of rubble.
It's the people that make Chicago Heights great. There are so many more stories of people who have changed this city for the better. Like the late Barbara Paul, who invested her time into saving the history of the Heights. Then there is the late Bertha Scott, who had an idea to bring Gospelfest to the city. Tim and Debborah Lightfield, who brought the arts closer to kids who wouldn't have opportunities. Pat "Big Lew" Lewandowski, who has invested his years into teaching boxing to at-risk kids. Andy Suppes from the Chicago Heights Streets Department, for years would dress up as Santa and ride around on a firetruck waving to all the kids on Christmas Eve.
The list continues today, with people who still love Chicago Heights and want to make an investment.
Thank you, Chicago Heights, for the memories you have given me.