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updated: 4/18/2012 9:31 AM

West Chicago mourns death of Mayor Mike Kwasman

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  • West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman

      West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman

  • West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman, seated with Eva Saha of ABC 7's "190 North," worked hard to improve his city's image after becoming mayor in December 2006.

      West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman, seated with Eva Saha of ABC 7's "190 North," worked hard to improve his city's image after becoming mayor in December 2006.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman worked to improve the city's business climate.

      West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman worked to improve the city's business climate.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman and his wife, Crystal, at their wedding dinner.

      West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman and his wife, Crystal, at their wedding dinner.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman and his wife, Crystal.

      West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman and his wife, Crystal.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • Then-West Chicago mayoral candidate Mike Kwasman, center, was all smiles after winning election in 2007. He was joined by Steve Kwasman, left, and Alderman Ruben Pineda.

      Then-West Chicago mayoral candidate Mike Kwasman, center, was all smiles after winning election in 2007. He was joined by Steve Kwasman, left, and Alderman Ruben Pineda.

  • The flag outside West Chicago City Hall was lowered to half mast Tuesday afternoon after the death of Mayor Mike Kwasman.

       The flag outside West Chicago City Hall was lowered to half mast Tuesday afternoon after the death of Mayor Mike Kwasman.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • The flag outside West Chicago City Hall was lowered to half mast Tuesday afternoon after the death of Mayor Mike Kwasman.

       The flag outside West Chicago City Hall was lowered to half mast Tuesday afternoon after the death of Mayor Mike Kwasman.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 
 

West Chicago residents and local leaders are remembering Mayor Mike Kwasman as a dedicated leader who fought to improve their city and its image.

Kwasman, 65, suffered a heart attack Saturday while eating with friends at Pal Joey's restaurant, officials said. He was with his wife, Crystal, and other family members when he died Tuesday at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.

He was appointed acting mayor in December 2006 after serving as an alderman. He won election in April 2007 and again in 2009. He previously served on the city's plan commission and on the West Chicago Fire Protection District board.

"This is a tremendous loss to the citizens of West Chicago and to all who knew Mayor Kwasman," Alderman and Deputy Mayor Ruben Pineda said. "He was not only a great leader, but also a great friend."

City Administrator Michael Guttman said the city will continue to pursue Kwasman's vision for West Chicago, but not before taking time to mourn his loss.

"His record of public service and his countless contributions as mayor of the city he loved will serve as a legacy to future generations," Guttman said.

DuPage County Board member Jim Zay said he considered Kwasman a "very close personal friend" for the past 15 years. He said they talked on the phone Friday about an issue they had planned to work on. Soon after, Zay was in the hospital visiting Kwasman.

"He was always there next to me," Zay said. "He was a friend and mentor."

Zay said Kwasman was proud of the inroads the city made in reducing the crime rate through the hiring of police officers and of building fire stations through his work on the fire district board.

"He loved the city. As long as I knew him he never asked for anything for himself, but for West Chicago," Zay said. "He was really a great leader. He brought people together."

Zay noted Kwasman's stand against locating a second garbage transfer station in town, and his leadership in efforts to annex properties adjacent to Diamond's Gentleman's Club that prevented it from relocating during the expansion of North Avenue.

"We've seen change for the better. West Chicago had a negative name around it," Zay said. "He was getting rid of the stigma it had for years."

State Rep. Mike Fortner, Kwasman's predecessor, worked with Kwasman to get legislation passed in 2007 that removed West Chicago as a member of the DuPage Water Commission when the city built its own water treatment plant. As a result, the additional tax burden was removed, Fortner said. The city council appointed Kwasman, then an alderman, as acting mayor when Fortner was elected to the state House in 2006.

Fortner also said Kwasman took the lead in developing the North Avenue/Route 59 interchange area and helping bring a major car dealer to the area.

"He brought West Chicago's development up to the level that it deserved to be to really get us on a sound footing," Fortner said.

Former West Chicago Mayor Eugene Rennels said he and Kwasman "go way back."

"I'm pretty sure I was the first person Mike met when he moved into town 23 years ago," he said. "I had just left the mayor's office, but I happened to meet him as he was closing on his house."

They kept in touch. As Kwasman became more focused on his political career, their bond strengthened.

"We always knew where each other stood. I would say I was like a big brother or mentor figure to him," said Rennels, mayor from 1977 to 1989. "Without interfering, I would keep in touch. We would talk about the fantastic vision he had for the city. Mike was a businessman and when he came along, he was exactly what the village needed."

Rennels said Kwasman would focus on a goal and work until it was achieved. He's most proud of Kwasman for helping establish the DuPage Veterans Foundation, a group raising funds for Honor Flight Chicago; his plans to develop a community civic district; and his decision to use city funds to redevelop Main Street.

"He had a full plate," Rennels said. "This is a disaster for the city, along with (his wife) Crystal and his family. The city will miss him. We'll all miss him."

Funeral arrangements for Kwasman are pending.

His death brings to mind other suburban leaders who have died while serving their communities. They include Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens, who died in 2007; Hanover Park Village President Irv Bock, in 2006; Round Lake Park Village President Ila Bauer, in 2006; Tower Lakes Village President Leonard Kuskowski, in 2006; Waukegan Mayor Dan Drew, in 2002, Algonquin Village President Ted Spella, in 2002; Hoffman Estates Village President Michael O'Malley, in 2000; and Des Plaines Mayor Paul Jung, in 1999.

Other West Chicago leaders praised Kwasman for his energy and leadership.

David Janaes, president of the West Chicago Fire Protection District board, said Kwasman brought his knowledge of finance to the board as a self-employed sales representative for men's clothes. During Kwasman's four years on the board, he helped procure land for new fire stations.

"The fire district and city always had a good relationship. But it became even better when he became alderman and then mayor," Janaes said. "He truly loved West Chicago and did things that were best for the citizens.

Gary Major, executive director of parks and recreation for the West Chicago Park District, said that in the past five years, Kwasman helped provide the district the opportunity to turn a vacant city-owned building into a fitness center, and donated money to allow underprivileged children to participate in the wintertime Polar Express event.

"Michael provided an energy and vision for the city of West Chicago," Major said. "I think his perspective was always that all the governing agencies are here for the community and how can we work together to pool our collective resources to make a better West Chicago."

Melody Coleman, administrative librarian for the West Chicago Public Library District, said Kwasman helped with the library's first strategic plan.

"He has been a wonderful supporter to me and the library in terms of library programs," Coleman said. "He has been a visionary for the city, so we tap into that energy as we are setting our programs."

Kwasman's death leaves a hole in the community because of his efforts to understand and collaborate with all types of people, said Dave Sabathne, president and CEO of the Western DuPage Chamber of Commerce, which includes West Chicago, Warrenville and Winfield.

"He will be missed so much around here, both from his vocation as a friendship-builder to his business knowledge and ability to blend politics with good sense," Sabathne said.

Carol Stream Village President Frank Saverino said Kwasman "fought hard" for his city, and worked closely with him and other mayors on countywide issues. Saverino noted that he and Kwasman both served on their respective community's fire protection district boards and city councils and were elected mayor at the same time.

"We were kind of attached as stepbrothers," Saverino said. "He's that type of guy you either loved or hated. But I don't know anything else but love for him."

John Smith, a longtime friend of Kwasman and one of four co-founders with Kwasman of the political action committee "4 The People," recalls how the group in the mid-1990s pushed for the passage of a property tax hike that would raise money for the city to hire 10 new police officers.

"Everyone was saying, 'That's more than a million dollars a year. It will never pass,'" Smith recalled. "But we went out there with the facts. We talked about the gang situation, and Mike would tell people his philosophy, that I agreed with, which is public safety is the foundation for quality of life."

Often nattily attired, Smith said, the West Chicago mayor was known as much for his personality and charm as he was for his civic work. Barrel-chested and gruff-voiced, he looked far more intimidating than those who knew him say he actually was. His wide grin that frequently peaked out from beneath his throwback handlebar mustache were his calling cards.

"That was his trademark," Smith said. "If he ever shaved that mustache off, I might have walked by and not recognized him. A lot of people can't grow a great mustache, but he could."

Kwasman, unbeknown to Smith, once found out that the West Chicago Fire District was going to honor Smith with a plaque for years of service on the district's board of director.

"I didn't tell him about it, but there he was," Smith remembered. "Here's the thing, my buddy Mike, my friend, showed up just to see me receive this plaque and shake my hand. I'm going to miss him a lot. I'm going to miss his advice, his energy, his humor, his vision and most of all his friendship."

• Daily Herald staff writers Jake Griffin, Justin Kmitch and Marie Wilson contributed to this report.

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